NATIONAL NEWS

It’s an election year, and Biden’s team is signaling a more aggressive posture toward the press

Feb 20, 2024, 9:18 PM

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South L...

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. Occupants of the White House have grumbled over news coverage practically since the place was built. Now it's Biden's turn: With a re-election campaign underway, there are signs that those behind the president are starting to more aggressively and publicly challenge how he is portrayed. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Occupants of the White House have grumbled over news coverage practically since the place was built. Now it’s Joe Biden’s turn: With a reelection campaign underway, there are signs that those behind the president are starting to more aggressively and publicly challenge how he is portrayed.

Within the past two weeks, an administration aide sent an unusual letter to the White House Correspondents’ Association complaining about coverage of a special counsel’s report on Biden’s handling of classified documents. In addition, the president’s campaign objected to its perception that negative stories about Biden’s age got more attention than remarks by Donald Trump about the NATO alliance.

It’s not quite “enemy of the people” territory. But it is noticeable.

“It is a strategy,” said Frank Sesno, a professor at George Washington University and former CNN Washington bureau chief. “It does several things at once. It makes the press a foil, which is a popular pattern for politicians of all stripes.”

It can also distract voters from bad news. And while some newsrooms quickly dismiss the criticism, ge says, others may pause and think twice about what they write.

THE WHITE HOUSE OBJECTS TO THE FRAMING OF STORIES

The letter from Ian Sams, spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, suggested that reporters improperly framed stories about the Feb. 8 release of Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report. Sams pointed to stories by CBS News, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press and others emphasizing that Hur had found evidence that Biden willfully retained and disclosed classified material. Sam wrote that much of that so-called evidence didn’t hold up and was negated by Hur’s decision not to press charges.

He said it was critical to address it when “significant errors” like misstating the findings and conclusions of a federal investigation of a president occur.

It was Sams’ second foray into press criticism in a few months; last fall he urged journalists to give more scrutiny to House Republicans and the reasons behind their impeachment inquiry of Biden.

“Everybody makes mistakes, and nobody’s perfect,” Sams told the AP. “But a healthy back and forth over what’s the full story helps make both the press and the government sharper in how the country and world get the news they need to hear.”

Kelly O’Donnell, president of the correspondents’ association and an NBC News correspondent, suggested Sams’ concerns were misdirected and should be addressed to individual news organizations.

“It is inappropriate for the White House to utilize internal pool distribution channels, primarily for logistics and the rapid sharing of need-to-know information, to disseminate generalized critiques of news coverage,” O’Donnell said.

In a separate statement, Biden campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo criticized media outlets for time spent discussing the 81-year-old president’s age and mental capacity, an issue that was raised anew when Biden addressed the Hur report with reporters. Americans deserve a press corps that covers Trump “with the seriousness and ferocity this moment requires,” said Ducklo, who resigned from the White House in 2021 for threatening a reporter.

To be fair, Trump’s comments at a rally Friday night likely came past the deadlines of some sections where Biden stories appeared that weekend. And his remarks have hardly been ignored by media outlets.

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, noted in an interview with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that Biden’s team had been “extremely upset” about its coverage lately. “We’re not anyone’s opposition,” he said, “and we’re not anyone’s lapdog.”

HOW MUCH IS THE PRESIDENT AVAILABLE?

The criticism comes amid the backdrop of unhappiness among some journalists about how much Biden is made available for questions — an issue that surfaced again when Biden turned down an opportunity to appear before tens of millions of Americans in an interview during the Super Bowl pregame show.

The 33 news conferences Biden has given during the first three years of his presidency is lower than any other American president in that time span since Ronald Reagan, said Martha Kumar, a Towson University professor emeritus and expert on presidents and the press. Similarly, the 86 interviews Biden has given is lower than any president since she began studying records with Reagan. By comparison, Barack Obama gave 422 interviews during his first three years.

Instead, Biden prefers more informal appearances where reporters ask a few questions, with comparatively little opportunity for follow-up, she said: The 535 such sessions that Biden conducted was second only to Trump’s 572.

One example followed Biden’s remarks Friday after the death of Russian dissident Aleksey Navalny. Another was Biden’s early evening availability following the release of Hur’s report, a chaotic scene where reporters tried to outshout one another. The president’s performance, and remarks about his forgetfulness that were made in Hur’s report, led to more questions about the impact of age on his ability.

“It did not serve him well,” Kumar said. Some on Biden’s team, meanwhile, believe the president showed a combativeness in the face of criticism that Americans will appreciate.

Sesno said he can understand the Biden team’s worry that the president’s fitness for the job becomes a story they lose control of, much like former President Gerald Ford’s stumbles led to the perception that he was a bumbler. Nikki Usher, a media professor at the University of San Diego, said she was surprised that Biden’s team hadn’t become more aggressive earlier.

“He needs to jump out in front of the narrative,” Usher said.

The Biden pushback seems mild in comparison to Trump’s epic badmouthing of news organizations like CNN and The New York Times. Republican voters, in general, are much more apt to respond to efforts that make journalists the villain. Democrats, meanwhile, tend to have a greater appreciation for the press’ role in a democracy, Usher says, so the Biden team has to be more careful with attacks.

Particularly with the age issue, there’s only so much that the president’s team can say, Sesno said: “People will make up their minds based on what they see and hear from Joe Biden.”

___

David Bauder covers media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder

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It’s an election year, and Biden’s team is signaling a more aggressive posture toward the press