By John Conlon
With the recent passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, an expected $3 trillion infrastructure bill and two mass shootings in a week, the press is eager to interrogate the president. Is it in Biden’s best interest to entertain them?
According to a March 17 Politico poll, Biden holds a 62% approval rating among registered voters. At over two months into his presidency, it is difficult to argue Biden strictly owes this to a honeymoon period—Trump held an approval rate of just 39% at the same point in his presidency. Biden has achieved this while largely avoiding press conferences. For all the journalistic complaints about lack of transparency, Biden’s media strategy serves him well.
Biden is notoriously prone to political gaffes; supercuts of Biden stumbling through his words in public appearances were shared widely on social media in the recent election cycle. He even admitted to being a “gaffe machine” during his 2018 book tour.
While it frustrates us as journalists, reducing Biden’s media exposure prevents these mistakes. The return of daily press briefings with press secretary Jen Psaki allows Biden to establish his narrative in a more controlled setting. The press corps may complain that they cannot probe Biden himself for answers, but the distance Psaki provides as an intermediary is part of the design. She can (and has) declined to answer questions for lack of insight, promising to consult with the president and return with an informed response.
This arrangement keeps Biden from being cornered. It also stops journalists from holding him directly accountable. Keeping Biden out of the spotlight deprives the public of valuable back and forth between president and press. For journalists to best serve the public, they need the ability to press Biden.
Press briefings provide another avenue to control the narrative: the Biden administration has drawn criticism for asking reporters to submit their questions for Psaki in advance. White House journalists worry that this amounts to a screening process through which the administration can avoid inconvenient questions. “…the press can’t really do its job in the briefing room if the White House is picking and choosing the questions they want,” a correspondent told The Daily Beast.
The administration calls it a formalization of a process that already took place informally. Regardless, the optics are bad. American trust in the media continues to decline. Even if the White House does not abuse this power, the process suggests a degree of coordination between journalists and the White House. The appearance of collusion between the press and the White House erodes trust in the institution of journalism. Journalists need to scrutinize the administration; that job is impossible if they are not allowed to ask certain questions at all.
While the Biden media strategy has been successful for the president, it fails the American people. With so much still on Biden’s agenda, the press needs direct access to the president outside of controlled settings. Daily press briefings will not fill that void.
John Conlon is a student in a Media and Democracy class at St. Bonaventure University.