Will Biden Play Nice With the Press? It's Unlikely
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Biden’s team will likely play out of the Obama playbook.
By Andrew Hirschfeld
Donald Trump’s open hostility toward the media will be one of the hallmarks of his presidency. His resentment of the press — using terms like “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” even as one of his supporters mailed explosives to news agencies — will be cemented in history.
It’s understandable that the potential for Trump’s departure to offer a breath of fresh air has become an ongoing talking point for cable news stations and social media echo chambers. But historical precedent suggests it is very unlikely.
The problems the press will face will no longer include open hostility but rather lack of access. The precedent was set by the Obama administration which, as David Sanger, the New York Times national security correspondent said, was the “most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
While in office Barack Obama prosecuted more leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all of his predecessors combined. This was an obvious intimidation tactic against the future Edward Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings of the world.
Under Obama, the Department of Justice subpoenaed journalists from the Associated Press as well as a reporter from Fox News. “These actions had really chilling effects in terms of government officials being willing to talk to reporters,” says Alan Miller, CEO of the News Literacy project.
While it’s too early to know exactly how the Biden administration will act toward the press, the campaign and their surrogates throughout the campaign suggested they will play out of the Obama playbook, secretive but less hostile. His campaign, after all, ran as the most transparent in American history but proved to be the opposite. “They all come from the Obama world, so it’s probably going to be more of a style of how President Obama’s administration handled the press versus Trump’s,” says Julia Manchester, politics reporter for the Hill.
Throughout the campaign, the president-elect gave every indication that access was going to be part of his strategy. Yet Biden has dodged questions and sent surrogates to the networks rather than appearing himself, and he’s occasionally changed his schedule without notifying the press corps in a timely manner. The challenge facing the Biden administration includes not only moving past the oppressive record of the Obama administration but also away from Trump’s open hostility toward the press.
This is not to say the approaches are the same. “What Trump did was different. He undercut the very idea of what we do. That’s been dangerous, and dangerous to an important institution of our society,” says Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times. But will the media give Biden a pass? No, says Baker. “That does not mean we are not going to have an adversarial relationship with the next administration. That’s what we do. That’s part of the system. That’s the role we play in the system. We should play that role,” he adds.
Trump was fairly accessible with gaggles in the White House driveway or en route to his helicopter, Marine One. “You can say a lot about Trump and his toxicity toward the press, but he did take questions with great frequency, and that is a tradition I would like them to continue. Presidents should make themselves available to the reporters,” Baker says.
There’s also a reckoning to be had in the name of press freedoms internationally. Trump’s approach was much more dangerous than Obama’s and what’s likely to come from Biden. Trump evoked anger, emboldening and endorsing the approach of other populist leaders around the globe like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and China’s Xi Jinping.
“The president’s message for autocrats and other governments to do the same had very worrisome consequences,” says Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The new administration needs to rebuild U.S. leadership globally in terms of press freedom, but that all includes supporting press freedom domestically, to set an example for the world.”
While we are clearly moving toward a less hostile White House–media rapport, we are still far from anything that resembles an America that is a beacon for the freedom of the press. We must wait to see whether Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogan includes press freedoms or whether we should expect more of the same.
To actually bring unity to a divided nation, Biden must hold daily briefings. He also must acknowledge the fundamental need for unfettered access to the press — granting interviews to outlets big and small.
- Andrew Hirschfeld, OZY Author Contact Andrew Hirschfeld