President Joe Biden held a press conference from the White House on Wednesday.
It wasn’t quite blue-moon rare, but it was rare.
According to The Washington Post, it was just his second on U.S. soil and his sixth overall — not counting the times reporters shouted questions at various events. You have to go back to Ronald Reagan to find someone, at this point in his presidency, who has met this rarely with the press.
On Wednesday, Biden took tough questions — about COVID-19, the economy, Russia, voting rights, the infrastructure bill, political divides and a first year in office marked by falling approval numbers. All those topics were brought up in the very first question that ended with him being asked if he overpromised what he could do in his first year.
To which Biden said, half-jokingly, “Why are you such an optimist?”
And off we were.
There was plenty of news and some cleanup to be done over Biden’s comments about Russia, as well as the 2022 midterms, saying the results might not be legitimate without reforms — an unexpected comment that some commentators frowned upon.
You can make up your own mind about Biden’s answers, and his messaging and the substance of all he had to say on Wednesday. But what cannot be denied is how Wednesday’s press conference was, for the most part, civil. And, mostly, respectful.
And, well, normal.
That’s the best word to describe it: normal.
For just about the entire two hours — CNN’s Jake Tapper called it a “marathon press conference” — the exchanges were pressing, but not too combative. They were serious, but not too ornery. At times, Biden even seemed to be enjoying himself, staying longer than expected and telling the media he would stay as long as they wanted.
However, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin saw it differently, praising Biden, but adding, “The press corps, by contrast, revealed once more that they put more emphasis on sounding tough, asking unanswerable questions and creating conflict than they do on exploring some of the gravest problems our country has ever faced. Our democracy deserves better.”
The whole afternoon looked, sounded and felt more like a normal presidential press conference — pre-2016. In other words, it didn’t turn into a circus like we so often saw whenever Donald Trump was pressed with questions he didn’t like.
Two questions that could have turned the press conference into a circus came from not-unexpected sources. First, Fox News’ Peter Doocy waited more than an hour to get called upon and, instead of asking a legitimate question, thought the best use of his moment was to ask, “Why are you trying so hard in your first year to pull the country so far to the left?”
Then James Rosen, a reporter from conservative network Newsmax, essentially asked Biden if he was senile.
Biden basically dismissed both questions, rejecting the premises of each. They were bad questions that got the answers they deserved.
Those were, by far, the two questions that could have sent the press conference flying over the guardrails. And they did not because Biden didn’t allow it. Biden did get animated over a few other questions — not unusual in any presidential press conference. But it was nothing like we saw with Trump.
How refreshing to watch reporters asking questions, even a few bad ones, and the president answering them without a barrage of wisecracks or storming off.
Now if Biden would just do more of these things.
More Biden coverage
To catch you up on the actual news in the Biden presser, check out:
- The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake with “4 takeaways from President Biden’s news conference.”
- CNN’s coverage of the highlights.
Masking the problem
Earlier this week, NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has diabetes, did not feel safe at work while sitting so close to people who were unmasked. So, Totenberg reported, Chief Justice John Roberts asked the other justices to wear a mask. And they all did, except Justice Neil Gorsuch. Sotomayor and Gorsuch typically sit next to one another.
Totenberg wrote, “His continued refusal since then has also meant that Sotomayor has not attended the justices’ weekly conference in person, joining instead by telephone.”
On Wednesday, in a rare move, the Supreme Court released a statement from Sotomayor and Gorsuch. It said, “Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends.”
But the media quickly picked up on the wording of the statement and Totenberg’s story. Totenberg’s story never said Sotomayor made the request, but that Roberts did the asking.
A few hours after the first statement, Roberts put out a statement that said, “I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench.”
NRP put out a statement standing behind Totenberg’s story. But, on Wednesday, Gorsuch still wasn’t wearing a mask and Sotomayor was still working remotely.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, “The easy way to nip this all in the bud would have been for Sotomayor to address why she has chosen to appear remotely, and for Gorsuch to address his decision not to wear a mask, even as every other justice has worn one. Even if there was no explicit request from Roberts, as he says — NPR’s report is unspecific on what form it took — you’d think Gorsuch would notice his status as the one unmasked justice, and one who no less sits next to Sotomayor, who was once the only masked justice.”
Here is some solid investigative journalism from John Archibald of AL.com about some eye-raising police practices in the town of Brookside, Alabama.
Here’s the key paragraph: “Months of research and dozens of interviews by AL.com found that Brookside’s finances are rocket-fueled by tickets and aggressive policing. In a two-year period between 2018 and 2020 Brookside revenues from fines and forfeitures soared more than 640 percent and now make up half the city’s total income. And the police chief has called for more.”
There’s more. Archibald wrote, “The town of 1,253 just north of Birmingham reported just 55 serious crimes to the state in the entire eight year period between 2011 and 2018 — none of them homicide or rape. But in 2018 it began building a police empire, hiring more and more officers to blanket its six miles of roads and mile-and-a-half jurisdiction on Interstate 22. By 2020 Brookside made more misdemeanor arrests than it has residents. It went from towing 50 vehicles in 2018 to 789 in 2020 — each carrying fines. That’s a 1,478% increase, with 1.7 tows for every household in town.”
The town is now facing at least five lawsuits. There are also claims that the police department is giving tickets outside their jurisdiction.
This is just the opening few paragraphs from a very detailed story that looks into some specific examples of what is going on in Brookside.
Archibald also wrote a related article: “Pastor, sister say rogue Alabama police force sought revenge.” This, too, includes some stunning allegations against the Brookside department.
Read it all. It’s well done. It should also be noted that the story was published with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.
Don’t miss the Jan. 31 deadline to enter this year’s Collier Prize for State Government Accountability. The $25,000 annual prize honors the year’s best investigative and political reporting of state government. The award is available to any news organization on any platform. Click here to enter.
Windy City news
Here’s an interesting marriage. The nonprofit Chicago Public Media is acquiring the for-profit Chicago Sun-Times newspaper.
The Sun-Times’ David Roeder wrote, “Under the deal, the Sun-Times would become an independent operation of WBEZ’s owner, Chicago Public Media, and convert from for-profit to nonprofit status. Both groups said they share a mission of investing in local journalism. While the news operations would remain separate, the combination will allow content to be shared on different platforms and gain a larger audience, the principal executives said.”
WBEZ’s Dave McKinney wrote, “The acquisition would create a new journalistic powerhouse, pairing the city’s award-winning, top-rated morning news station with the gritty tabloid made famous by its corruption-busting investigations, Roger Ebert’s movie reviews and Irv Kupcinet’s gossip column, and crisp sportswriting.”
Matt Moog, CEO of Chicago Public Media, told McKinney, “This is an important step to grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago.”
I asked my colleague, Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst, for his thoughts. This is what he told me:
“This latest announcement remains vague about how the news operations will be put together but adds some detail. The transaction is described as ‘non-cash’; I take that to mean the purchase price was zero but Chicago Public Media will need to cover any continuing operating losses once the deal closes. However, even if the Sun-Times did not have any value as a continuing business, its subscriber and advertiser lists are worth something. Under new nonprofit ownership, the Sun-Times will be positioned (with changed tax status) to receive foundation and private donor support. Plus Chicago Public Media brings expertise in cultivating memberships and grants. On the other hand, nonprofits cannot endorse candidates. Races for governor, mayor and Cook County attorney are all high-voltage affairs, so that is a sacrifice.”
Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo wrote about who might be the next executive editor of The New York Times. Then again, the current editor, Dean Baquet, hasn’t announced he is leaving yet. Pompeo is hearing rumbles of an April timeline for Baquet, 65, to step down. But nothing is set in stone.
Pompeo writes, “(Baquet’s) heir apparent is widely considered to be managing editor Joe Kahn, although Cliff Levy, another one of the Times’ most high-ranking editors, is technically still in the running, as are any number of dark horse candidates.”
Stephen A.’s scary battle
From the sounds of it, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith had a real scare in his recent battle against COVID-19. The loquacious commentator (and I mean that in a good way) returned to his show “First Take” this week after a lengthy absence, including a hospital stay. He said he tested positive in mid-December.
On his show this week, Smith said, “I had a 103-degree fever every night. Woke up with chills and a pool of sweat. Headaches were massive. Coughing profusely. And it got to a point where right before New Year’s Eve, I was in the hospital into New Year’s Day. That’s how I brought in the New Year.”
Smith is vaccinated. He said, “They told me, had I not been vaccinated, I wouldn’t be here. That’s how bad it was. I had pneumonia in both lungs. My liver was bad. It had ravaged me to the point where even now I have to monitor my volume — get to the gym every day, walk before you run. Work your way back because I’m still not 100% with my lungs, but I’m COVID negative and all of that stuff, and I’m on the road to recovery.”
The New York Times Opinion section has debuted a new newsletter for Times subscribers anchored by author Sheila Heti. The Times writes that Heti “shares an intimate self-portrait that started as a diary and evolved into an experimental work of autofiction.”
In that first part, Heti writes, “A little more than 10 years ago, I began looking back at the diaries I had kept over the previous decade. I wondered if I’d changed. So I loaded all 500,000 words of my journals into Excel to order the sentences alphabetically. Perhaps this would help me identify patterns and repetitions. How many times had I written, ‘I hate him,’ for example? With the sentences untethered from narrative, I started to see the self in a new way: as something quite solid, anchored by shockingly few characteristic preoccupations. As I returned to the project over the years, it grew into something more novelistic. I blurred the characters and cut thousands of sentences, to introduce some rhythm and beauty. When The Times asked me for a work of fiction that could be serialized, I thought of these diaries: The self’s report on itself is surely a great fiction, and what is a more fundamental mode of serialization than the alphabet? After some editing, here is the result.”
More CNN+ news
CNN+, the streaming news service expected to crank up this spring, keeps making additions to their programming. The latest? CNN veteran Wolf Blitzer will host a program called “The Newscast.”
CNN+ says, on the show, Blitzer will “give it to you straight, hitting the headlines you need to know on this traditional evening news show with a sleek, modern twist. The old-school nostalgic approach featuring original reporting from around the world, investigations, and consumer focused stories that matter help put the latest headlines in perspective.”
Meet the Midterms
NBC News and MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, moderator of “Meet the Press” and “MTP Daily,” launched “Meet the Midterms” on Wednesday ahead of November’s midterms. Todd was in Atlanta and met with Lieutenant Gov. Geoff Duncan (R-Ga.).
“Meet the Midterms” will focus on reporting from key battleground states across the country including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Georgia seemed like the smart place to launch the series. Todd said, “It is both a battleground and ground zero for all the important political stories this year. They sort of converge right here in Atlanta. This has a Senate race that can decide control of the Senate in 2022. We have a democratic vote here that includes the two most important parts of the Biden coalition: African American voters and the growing American suburbs. It also is home to the most closely watched governor’s race this year featuring a rising star in the Democratic party Stacey Abrams and a republican primary that will test the power of the former president and his lies about the 2020 election. And Georgia right now is at the center of the national political battle over voting rights.”
I spoke with NBC News president Noah Oppenheim last week and we discussed NBC News’ midterm plans. Oppenheim said NBC News has brought in a “murderers’ row of world-class political journalists.” That includes Carrie Budoff Brown, who left Politico to oversee the “Meet the Press” franchise and is expected to lead NBC News’ midterm coverage.
“We’re going to focus on on-the-ground reporting,” Oppenheim said. “We’ve identified some key states that we believe are emblematic of the issues at hand. They are states where there are very competitive senatorial and/or gubernatorial races happening. There are states that are going to play a big role in the 2024 presidential election. And there are states where the issues around voting rights, voting acts are very much being actively fought. So we’re going to try and tell the story through the lens of what’s happening on the ground in those places.”
If you missed my conversation with Oppenheim, which ran in my Wednesday newsletter, you can see it here.
NBC leaving announcers at home
Big scoop from USA Today’s Christine Brennan: “NBC won’t send sports announcing teams to 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing due to COVID-19.”
Greg Hughes, senior vice president of communications for NBC Sports, told Brennan, “We’ll still have a large presence on the ground in Beijing and our coverage of everything will be first rate as usual, but our plans are evolving by the day as they are for most media companies covering the Olympics.”
Brennan wrote that NBC Sports Olympic host Mike Tirico will be in China for the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 4 and the first few days of the Games, but will return to Los Angeles to host NBC’s Super Bowl on Feb. 13.
- Vogue’s Nicole Phelps with “André Leon Talley, the Pioneering Vogue Editor, Has Died at 73.” And, Vogue’s Liam Hess with “André Leon Talley: A Life in Pictures.”
- Here’s the story behind the dramatic video of the ending of a hostage situation at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.
- And speaking of photojournalism, check out this video from the photo staff of The Star Tribune.
- “60 Minutes,” which was scheduled to air a piece about the negative impact of hedge funds buying local newspapers, will not air this Sunday. That’s because the NFL playoff schedule has been set and CBS will air a big showdown between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. That game is scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. Eastern kickoff.
- The New York Times’ Katherine Rosman with “Kathy Griffin Is Trying to Get Back on the D-List.”
- For ProPublica (and co-published with The Texas Tribune), Maryam Jameel with “Kidney Failure, Emergency Rooms and Medical Debt. The Unseen Costs of Food Poisoning.”
- A good Q&A from Deadline’s Dominic Patten: “‘Succession’s Brian Cox Goes Full Beast Mode On Donald Trump, Talks Jeremy Strong, Johnny Depp, & ‘Adaptation’ Absence In New Memoir.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at email@example.com.
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