The new marshmallow media in the Biden era
Choreographed. Hospitable. Risk-averse. If you’re looking for words to describe the average Joe Biden press conference, there’s your top three.
Exhibit A was on display Monday afternoon during a rare press conference with the president-elect that included questions that can’t even be called softball, but more like T-ball when putting a beach ball on the tee.
The most disturbing part was what has become a theme at Biden pressers, which is to have a staffer choose which reporters ask questions, as opposed to Biden randomly calling on them instead.
Think about that for a moment: The next leader of the free world needs a staffer to call on a predetermined list of reporters who the campaign apparently feels won’t press their guy too hard.
Any press conference Biden has held since capturing the Democratic nomination has consisted mostly of questions about President Trump and very few questions about Biden’s own worldview, record, policy stances or perspective on important issues such as trade, foreign affairs, gun control, immigration, education, or taxation as it relates to repealing the Trump tax cuts.
Of the 12 questions Biden received Monday, there were zero follow-ups. Zero interruptions during answers. Zero questions about any of the issues above, which rank as among the top concerns on voters’ minds, along with the coronavirus.
Instead, we got exchanges like this:
Reporter 1, Question 1: “Good to see you … You spoke about the need to access the outgoing administration’s COVID vaccine distribution plans. What do you see as the biggest threat to your transition right now, given President Trump’s unprecedented attempt to obstruct and delay a smooth transfer of power?”
Reporter 2, Question 1: “Thank you, Mr. President-elect. You just spoke of some of the dangers of the president’s continued stonewalling of this transition. But it doesn’t appear that the president is going to come around anytime soon and admit defeat. So, what are you going to do? What options do you have to try and ensure that you are ready to go on Day One?”
Reporter 2, Question 2: “What is your message to Republicans who are backing up the president’s refusal to concede? You clearly need to work with them going forward.”
Reporter 3, Question 1: “Thank you very much, Mr. President-elect. I want to kind of piggyback off of that. I want to get your thoughts on the president’s tweet over the weekend, where he first seemed to acknowledge that you won, then he said he won’t concede, then he said, ‘I won.’ How did you interpret that? And at the end of the day, do you want him to concede?”
You get the idea: Trump will be the center of the media universe for the foreseeable future, even after the inauguration. For Biden, it’s the easiest question to receive: “Trump said this; Trump tweeted that. How do you respond?”
It should be noted that Kamala Harris, the most invisible vice-presidential candidate in modern history, has yet to hold a press conference or press gaggle in any capacity since being chosen as Biden’s running mate months ago. She did make a statement before Monday’s press conference and was on stage with her boss during the presser. But not one reporter bothered to ask her even one question.
Compare the media’s kid-gloves questioning of Biden to their interrogation of then-President-elect Donald Trump at his first press conference during his transition. (Note: Two days before the press conference, the heads of intelligence agencies at the time released a report stating that Russia had interfered with the 2016 election, leading many reporters in the room to make that the singular focus of the press conference.) From that first Trump presser:
Reporter 1, Question 1: “First of all, did the heads of the intelligence agencies provide you with the two-page summary of these unsubstantiated allegations? And secondly to that, on the broader picture, do you accept their opinion that Vladimir Putin ordered the hack of the DNC and the attempted hack of the RNC? And if you do, how will that color your attempts to build a relationship with a leader who has been accused of committing an act of espionage against the United States?”
Reporter 2, Question 1: “How do you plan to disentangle yourself from your business? But first, I have to follow up on some of these Russian remarks. Based on your comments here today, do you believe the hacking was justified? Does Russia have any leverage over you, financial or otherwise? And if not, will you release your tax returns to prove it?”
Reporter 3, Question 1: “Thank you, Mr. President-elect. On that intelligence report, the second part of their conclusion was that Vladimir Putin ordered it because he aspired to help you in the election. Do you accept that part of the finding? And will you undo what President Obama did to punish the Russians for this or will you keep it in place?”
Reporter 4, Question 1: “Would a reasonable observer say that you are potentially vulnerable to blackmail by Russia or by its intelligence agencies?”
Overall, reporters at that press conference broached Russia or Putin 13 times, with the implication being that Trump could not have possibly won on his own without major help from an outside entity to impact the result under the “guilty until proven innocent” line of questioning.
The next four years were basically a continuation of this combative relationship, with both sides getting their daily pounds of flesh while the public was left on the sidelines watching soapbox journalism at daily press briefings instead of being, you know, informed about the news.
If you think anything will change after Jan. 20, think again. We saw it throughout the campaign. We see it now in the transition. And we’ll see it in a Biden administration — a carefully choreographed, risk-averse and packaged president who will provide a fraction of the access that Trump has.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.
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