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Biden's first press conference tests the media's treatment of post-Trump president

President Joe Biden walks off after a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden walks off after a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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President Joe Biden's much-hyped first press conference left many with a bad taste, not necessarily from what the president said but from the way so many White House reporters failed to ask questions on the most pressing issues facing the American public.

The event was limited to 30 reporters. Only ten asked questions during the roughly hourlong event. After brief opening comments setting a new goal of administering 200 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days and reopening schools, Biden took questions.

Most Americans are exhausted with electoral politics, yet Biden was asked twice whether he would run again in 2024. Several reporters asked beltway insider questions about eliminating a Senate parliamentary maneuver, the filibuster. Many more questions were directed at Biden's handling of migrants at the southern border, a significant issue but not most Americans' top priority.

"The most notable part of President Biden's first press conference was what wasn't asked," wrote media critic Steve Krakauer. Namely, there was not a single question about the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Yorker columnist Susan Glasser described the lack of pandemic questions as "an epic and utterly avoidable press fail."

Reporters asked about other important topics like gun violence, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and voting rights but avoided any pointed questions about the economy, Biden's recently passed $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill or his pending multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan.

The president got "mostly cotton-candy questions from a mostly marshmallow media," wrote Joe Concha, a media and politics columnist for The Hill.

"The questions for the president were meek and vague, failing to extract any specific information about policies or solutions to the myriad problems faced by the administration," Concha continued.

Polls suggest most of the questions asked of Biden did not rise to the top five issues that are the biggest concern for voters. According to a Gallup Poll, Americans cared most about the economy, national security, COVID-19, health care and education.

Given the importance the White House reporters had placed on Biden's first news conference, the result was largely seen as disappointing.

After reporters aggressively pushed the administration for access, media critics argued that members of the White House press corps fell down on the job. "Reporters hype—then waste—Biden’s first press conference," read a headline from the Columbia Journalism Review.

Frustration had been mounting for weeks. Editorial boards and members of the White House Correspondents' Association were growing restless, with reporters frequently asking the White House press secretary when a solo press briefing would happen.

Biden ultimately waited 64 days before giving his first press conference, longer than any modern president. The last 15 presidents took questions within their first 33 days in office.

The lack of open hostility between reporters and the president was notably missing from Biden's Thursday press conference. Much of Washington and the rest of the country grew accustomed to former President Donald Trump's contentious relationship with many members of the press, who he notoriously deemed "enemies of the people." Biden's performance was muted by comparison.

"As should have been expected, it was perfectly ordinary. Boring, even. Which is probably exactly the way Biden wanted it," wrote Tom Jones at the Poynter Institute for journalism and media studies. It lacked the fireworks and drama. "You know, like the kind we used to have before Donald Trump’s combative and chaotic ones."

Not everyone welcomed the so-called return to normal. Jeff Cohen, a media critic and founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has been skeptical of the Washington press corps' "soft coverage" of presidents of both parties for more than three decades.

"I've always feared they would go soft on Biden," Cohen said. "There was so much animosity between the D.C. press corps and Trump that I feared they would go back to business as usual."

It might be more familiar for the press to focus on intraparty fighting, personality conflicts and "gotcha" questions, he noted, but that return to normal tends to favor those issues over tough policy coverage. It is also often detached from what the public cares about most.

The briefing was not entirely without drama. Biden faced several probing questions about his administration's lack of transparency at the southern border. For weeks, reporters have been blocked from visiting Customs and Border Protection facilities where thousands of unaccompanied migrant children are being detained and hundreds arrive daily.

Asked if he would commit to allowing reporters in to see the overcrowded facilities, Biden demurred, saying not until the situation was under control. "I will commit when my plan very shortly is underway to let you have access to not just them, but to other facilities as well," Biden said. On Monday, the White House would not provide a specific date when the media can access the CBP processing centers.

Washington Post political reporter Aaron Blake noted, "[J]ust because your policies haven’t been fully implemented isn’t a great reason for the media and the people to not see what’s happening. You can blame the prior administration — as Biden and his team have — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something we should be able to see and evaluate for ourselves."

It was an early fumble for a president that pledged transparency and promised to always "tell it to you straight."

The handling of the border opened the door for Biden's detractors to revisit a popular trope that he was intentionally avoiding the media. During the election campaign, Republicans accused Biden of "hiding in his basement." That fueled speculation about Biden's age and cognitive functions, which were again called into question by his critics in rare moments Thursday when the 78-year-old president stumbled over his words and lost his train of thought mid-sentence.

Even if Biden is less pugilistic with the press, it doesn't mean he will have an easier time than his predecessor.

Over the last four years, much of the press got used to the reality show atmosphere around Trump — the entertainment, the drama and conflict on a daily basis, explained Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri.

"So many interactions with the president would produce another outlandish statement or another bombastic interaction back and forth. That created great headlines, dramatic moments to replay. And now that's gone," McKinney said.

Some reporters may try to recreate that dynamic, which was so effective in getting clicks and keeping an audience's attention, he continued, "But that's not Joe Biden."

In many ways, Trump welcomed the attacks with outlandish, demonstrably false claims. His off-the-cuff communication style made him more accessible at times, but also put him at odds with members of his administration and left his communications team several steps behind. Biden is more scripted and on-message, as was noted in reports about his press conference "cheat sheets" with face shots of reporters he was going to call on and factoids about his infrastructure agenda.

Even if the media is glad to have a less hostile relationship than what they had with Trump, they won't be any gentler with Biden, said William S. Bike, a media consultant and author of "Winning Political Campaigns: A Comprehensive Guide to Electoral Success."

"Giving the president Hell sells," Bike said. "With the 24-hour news cycle, the media cannot afford to be gentle on Biden."

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That media environment thrives on controversy, he added. "The moment there is Biden blood in the water — when he makes a gaffe, when a Biden policy goes awry, when there is the inevitable foreign policy crisis — the media sharks will go after it."

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