The White House press corps’ abysmal failure to ask important questions about pressing issues during President Biden’s first news conference on Thursday was the clearest demonstration yet of the contrast between what the political media cares about and what is real.
There were no questions about any element of the Covid crisis – not the vaccine, the prognosis, the economy, nothing! – although it’s by far the most important issue on any normal person’s mind right now. There were no questions about the substance of Biden’s ambitious plans related to infrastructure and climate change, immigration and voting rights.
Instead, the questions reflected the insider, horse-racy obsessions of the political press corps. There were repeated questions about the filibuster, and about the 2024 election(!).
There were several contentious questions about the situation at the border, which the right-wing is intent on turning into a cause for hysteria — with the mainstream media’s collaboration. The first border question, from PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, contained such a false and loaded assumption – direct from far-right talking points – that Biden actually fact-checked it.
That’s right, after four years of the media desperately needing to fact-check the president (and often failing), now the president has to fact-check the media.
Alcindor told Biden that “the perception of you, that got you elected as a moral, decent man, is the reason why a lot of immigrants are coming to this country and trusting you with unaccompanied minors.”
Biden corrected her, explaining that it was largely a continuation of normal trends. “Does anybody suggest that there was a 31 percent increase under Trump because he was a nice guy, and he was doing good things at the border? That’s not the reason they’re coming.”
And NBC’s Kristin Welker suggested that Biden’s decision to roll back Trump executive orders “too quickly” worsened the situation at the border — leading Biden to correct her, as well.
“All the policies that were underway were not helping at all, did not slow up the amount of immigration,” he said. “And rolling back the policies of separating children from their mothers? I make no apology for that. Rolling back the policies of ‘Remaining in Mexico,’ sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat? I make no apologies for that. I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law, as well as on human dignity. And so I make no apologies for that.”
After four years of the media desperately needing to reality-check the president (and often failing), now the president was the one talking about things that mattered and marveling at not one but two reporters asking about the 2024 election. “Look, I don’t know where you guys come from,” he told CNN’s Kaitlin Collins.
Reporters certainly should have known that Biden was not ready to make any major pronouncement about the filibuster, but they kept asking, over and over again – including this totally wasted question (was it supposed to be a gotcha?) from Washington Post reporters Seung Min Kim: “Do you believe it should take 60 votes to end a filibuster on legislation or 51?”
What sounded at first like an important question about voting rights turned into a pathetic example of false equivalence, when CBS’s Nancy Cordes raised the issue of how “Republican legislatures across the country are working to pass bills that would restrict voting” — but ended up asking if Biden was “worried that if you don’t manage to pass voting rights legislation, that your party is going to lose seats and possibly lose control of the House and the Senate in 2022?”
Biden essentially corrected her, too. “What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is. It’s sick. It’s sick.”
If reporters were trying to show they could be tough against a Democrat, their attempt backfired terribly. Far from knocking Biden off message, the vapidity of the questions actually strengthened Biden’s central theme: That regardless of what others are up to, he’s just trying to get stuff done.
“I got elected to solve problems,” he said. “And the most urgent problem facing the American people I stated from the outset was COVID-19 and the economic dislocation for millions and millions of Americans. And so that’s why I put all my focus in the beginning — there were a lot of problems, but all my focus on dealing with those particular problems. And the other problems we’re talking about from immigration to guns and the other things you mentioned are long-term problems. They’ve been around a long time, and what we’re going to be able to do, God willing, is now begin one at a time to focus on those as well. And whether it’s immigration or guns or a number of other problems that face the country.”
White House reporters should be tough on the president – on every president. But that doesn’t mean asking questions based on their own obsessions or right-wing talking points. It means coming at the president with tough questions on behalf of the American public. It means pushing him to govern better, more humanely, and more transparently.
The questions about the border were a particularly missed opportunity because to the extent that it’s worth asking about, the focus should have been on whether his polices are humane and effective in the long run. Reporters pressed him about the overcrowded conditions for the unaccompanied minors being allowed to remain in the U.S. after they’ve crossed the border – but ABC’s Cecilia Vega, for instance, seemed outraged that by letting young people in Biden is “encouraging” more to come.
Biden should have been asked why he continues to use the draconian Trump-era policy known as Title 42 to turn back everyone but unaccompanied children and keep the border closed. “They should all be going back. The only people we are not going to let sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande with no help are children,” Biden said.
But how does that comport with his acknowledgment that the migrants headed to the U.S. “didn’t want to leave, but they had no choice” – that they are coming here “because of earthquakes, floods. It’s because of lack of food. It’s because of gang violence. It’s because of a whole range of things.”
Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole recently explained how Biden’s decision to uphold key Trump rules seems to be about political optics rather than humanitarian cost. Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, tweeted his deep dismay over Biden’s remarks. Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent wondered: Why didn’t anyone ask why Biden “hasn’t yet honored his promise to raise the cap on refugees”?
Reporters had a rare chance to push Biden on his moral ambiguities and get him to reveal more about what’s really going on inside his White House. There’s so much we don’t understand still. But they blew it. As I’ve argued a million times before, they should all be replaced with people who care about governing, not politics – by people who care about what’s real.
The ACLU was awfully quiet when Trump was abusing the office of the President but now has unlimited rage for Biden who inherited multiple disasters with no transition assistance. 62 days in office and he’s considered a failure by their metrics.
Where were these journalists and concerned organizations the past 5 years?
Froomkin is blowing it on immigration. Does he realize that the US already has nearly four times the population that would be environmentally sustainable?
Is he aware that the United States is the worst place on the planet to put more people, because we have the greatest per capita greenhouse emissions and resource use of the major industrialized nations?
Does he understand that an oversupply of any resource–including cheap labor–reduces the value of that resource, which is why mass immigration has resulted in sinking wages for American workers, and that the easiest way to boost workers’ wages is to stop admitting millions of competitors for those jobs every year?
Does he understand that the GOP took the Senate in ’14 and the White House in ’16 because a lot of Americans were feed up with TOO MUCH immigration? (In those Senate races, the new GOP senators all campaigned on amnesty as bad labor policy for American workers. In ’15, Bernie Sanders described open borders as a “Koch brothers proposal”)
I wish WH Press Corp learns something here. I watched the conferences and indeed the questions were very poor; not helpful for Americans much. Neither Americans are thinking about 2024 elections nor about who will be contesting those!
To me this is the key point: “It means coming at the president with tough questions on behalf of the American public.” The problem is that the media thinks the American public’s concerns equal Republican’s concerns because they are the real Americans. Those reporters have no clue what people really want to hear about. I. for one, think his statement about us being in struggle of democracy vs autocracy should have gotten a lot more attention. Ditto for his talking about us being in the middle of a new industrial revolution and needing to invest in the things that will help us succeed in this new era.
As for Biden turning people away at the border I would bet you that the pandemic is a bigger concern than political optics. Biden’s first goal is clearly getting the spread of COVID under control.
Did they ask about the 6th?
Thank you Dan.
Completely agree with your thoughts. The WH press corp turned in an absolutely embarrassing performance, showing how living in the ‘DC bubble’ has warped any sense of their role in a democracy. The truth seems almost irrelevant to the vast majority of this group of overrated reporters. They clearly prefer simply to provoke a response for a sound-bite that leads to a cable spot. Not a single question asked led neither to informing the public of important news, nor placing into context current developments. For example, why wasn’t the fact highlighted that had the Trump administration cooperated with the Biden transition team’s request to open more refugee facilities, the current problem would be far less problematic. The question wasn’t asked that factually pointed to the inability of any modern president to overhaul immigration due to climate change, corruption, and gang violence in Central America or whether Republicans had any plan to address immigration in a holistic manner. It’s as if the problem originated on Day 1 of Biden’s term. Incredibly irresponsible and lazy journalism.
Numerous news media including The Guardian have published “fact checks” of the claims President Biden made at his press conference. Some of those “calls” and “corrections” tend to be awfully contrived.
It is high time the news media augment this with “fact checks” of journalists, and the assumptions built into their questions!
Kudos to Dan Froomkin for this article!
I agree with the assessment of the author. In my opinion, the Fourth Estate has been weakened by social, cultural political, and technological trends to such an extent that it is unable to fulfill its oversight role.
Corrupted by a celebrity-centric ecosystem promoted by a myriad of influencers and faced with falling revenues, the Big Six media conglomerates are reduced to teasing petty uncertainties out of high-value targets that can be burnished into bold-faced headlines. Relevant facts are lost in the scrum of journos.
As a result, he Press as we once knew it has dissolved into a fond memory. The oversight they provided has been replaced by petty relativity as steadfast as a windsock on Mount Washington. Wise men are advised to hold on to their hats.
In the well-planned machinery of American Democracy, the Fourth Estate’s credibility is leaking into irrelevance.
President Biden loves shifting blame, fatalism, and limited engagement. What a great President. So accountable. So optimistic and encouraging. So engaging. Welcome to hell.
OTOH, Biden restricting press access to the border, Biden sending unaccompanied minors to uninspected child detention centers on similar things IS a real issue, and I speak from outside the duopoly, Froomkin.
Froomkin, here’s the details of what the Biden Administration has done wrong with holding unaccompanied minors: https://www.propublica.org/article/no-good-choices-hhs-is-cutting-safety-corners-to-move-migrant-kids-out-of-overcrowded-facilities#1057762
So, let’s not cut him blank checks on this issue, OK?