By:
January 21, 2021

“Democracy has prevailed.”

With those words, Joseph R. Biden Jr. began his term Wednesday as the 46th president of the United States.

He said, “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge.”

The speech — and really, the entire day — included many themes, including attacking a global pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans. But the overriding message was a call for unity in the midst of what Biden called an “uncivil war.”

“My fellow Americans,” Biden said, “we have to be different than this. America has to be better than this, and I believe America is so much better than this.”

When his 20-minute speech was over, it was widely praised by the media.

Fox News’ Chris Wallace said, “I thought it was a great speech. I’ve been listening to these inaugural addresses since 1961, John F. Kennedy, ‘Ask not.’ I thought this was the best inaugural address I ever heard.”

Fox News contributor Karl Rove said, “This was a great speech for the moment. It was authentically Joe Biden. It was, you know, common-man touch.”

And CNN’s Abby Phillip said, “It was not a partisan speech. It was an invitation, not just to reach across the aisle, but to get back on track. It was an invitation to decency, to civility.”

A peaceful, unified future is what Biden preached. In fact, Wallace called it “part sermon, part pep talk.”

And, perhaps, the message was unlike what we’re used to from the previous president.

“To watch Joe Biden today, it was such a stark reminder of how as a country we do seek out whatever we think we were missing, whatever it is we thought we were missing in the previous president,” NBC News’ Chuck Todd said. “He is the better angel president. Joe Biden is eternally optimistic, he’s not cynical. … He still thinks the better angels exist.”

One couldn’t help but be reminded that exactly two weeks earlier, on the exact site where Biden asked for unity, a mob stirred up by Donald Trump stormed and broke into the Capitol, threatening our very democracy and the long-held tradition of a peaceful transition.

“Two weeks after that very same site was desecrated by a domestic terrorist mob trying to stop democracy in its tracks, the United States and, in fact, the world was treated to a beautiful demonstration of the steadfastness of that democracy,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper.

And one also couldn’t help but compare Wednesday to the previous four years.

“The new president is talking about the last four years as a period where there were attacks on democracy, attacks on truth, attacks on humanity, looking at sort of a four-year aberration from the general course of American history,” NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “I thought the speech was modest, austere, grave, cleansing, calming and inspirational. And, that’s what you want today. In contrast to Donald Trump four years ago, who was talking about American carnage with groups pitted against group, Joe Biden was talking today about a country that needs to be united and also needs to mourn more than 400,000 Americans who have died of a terrible virus, more than died in the military in World War II.”

In the end, as Fox News contributor Donna Brazile said, Biden’s speech was “a call for unity. This is not a call simply for the moment. It is a call for the ages.”

Not everyone liked it

Of course, not everyone liked Biden’s speech. Predictably, Fox News’ Sean Hannity criticized it. Even though many of his Fox News colleagues praised Biden’s words, Hannity made fun of them.

On his radio show, Hannity said, “I’m going to be very blunt, honest and objective here. It sounded like a student council president acceptance speech. Zero substance. No soaring rhetoric whatsoever. It’s like he half mumbles. I can’t even explain it. He looks tired. I can just see him about now saying, ‘I need a nap.’”

Then he took a shot at the press, saying, “The good news for the media, their four-year vacation started today.”

(Hat tip to Mediaite’s Joe DePaolo for reporting on Hannity’s radio comments.)

Biden calls out the media

While Biden’s speech touched on numerous topics — unity, democracy, COVID-19, to name a few — those of us who observe the media couldn’t help but hear Biden’s subtle and not-so-subtle remarks about the media. Specifically, Biden called out the media who helped perpetuate the lies of Donald Trump over the past four years.

In his speech, Biden said:

“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”

That line about “lies told for power and for profit” surely was directed not only at Trump, but at the media companies that have enabled Trump during his presidency.

Biden continued, “Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling wondering can I keep my health care? Can I pay my mortgage? Thinking about their families. About what comes next. I promise you, I get it.

“But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you or worship the way you do or don’t get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”

There was nothing hidden in that message.

“I think particularly for all of us as journalists,” CBS News’ Margaret Brennan said, “it was resonant to hear the president say, ‘This is about defending the truth and defeating the lies.’ Reminding us about responsibility in that.”

And Wallace said that passage was something “the media must note.” He added, “Whether it’s us on the air, on cable or broadcast, whether it’s us on social media, on our Twitter accounts, understanding that we have to deal from facts, from the truth.”

The TV coverage

(Courtesy: ABC News)

Here are thoughts about the TV coverage of Wednesday’s inauguration:

  • All the networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — did admirable work. Sometimes the hosts and commentators got a little too chatty during portions of the official inauguration. They either passed along unnecessary information or cracked a joke that wasn’t as funny as they thought. Sometimes it’s OK to say nothing and let the pictures tell the story.
  • CBS’s “One Nation: Indivisible” had an excellent profile of Vice President Kamala Harris.
  • Good work by NBC during the “NBC Evening News” to feature Richard Engel from London to give the international perspective to Joe Biden becoming president.
  • “PBS NewsHour” had insightful coverage, particularly Yamiche Alcindor’s analysis from the White House, contributor James Fallows from The Atlantic talking about Biden’s speech, as well as insightful commentary from Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate to the House of Representatives representing the District of Columbia, about security in Washington. And, as always, it was led by the steady hand of anchor Judy Woodruff.
  • C-SPAN was a gem to have on Wednesday. While the other networks skipped big chunks of the virtual — and very entertaining — inaugural parade, C-SPAN showed it in its entirety. And without commentary. The news networks, instead, chose to go back to panel discussions and commentary. There would have been plenty of time for that at another time. Why not show the parade?

Now what for conservative media?

So what happens to places such as Breitbart, Newsmax, OAN Network, conservative radio and, to a large extent, Fox News now that Donald Trump is no longer president?

There has been a noticeable change in coverage from conservative media over the past several days, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy points out. He writes, “For the past four years, right-wing media has been in an uncomfortable position, defending the indefensible to serve up content for its audience. On Wednesday, that began to change. Now that Biden is in office, right-wing media is returning to an adversarial state. This is where the modern conservative media was largely born and where it is most comfortable. These outlets and personalities suddenly care about the breaking of ‘norms;’ about civility in politics; about misuse of government resources; and pretty much everything they ignored and covered up for during the span of Trump’s presidency.”

No ordinary Joe

When you think back to the Iowa caucuses, it’s hard to believe Joe Biden is now the president. Everyone is shocked. Well, everyone except for Biden, apparently.

During NBC’s coverage on Wednesday, “Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie said, “I talked to him backstage at a rally that barely anybody was there and no one thought he would be the nominee, let alone the president. And actually, off camera, he said to me, ‘Just watch, I’m going to win this thing. I’m going to win this thing,’ meaning the presidency. So, there was something, a resoluteness that frankly back then sounded like happy talk. But he certainly seemed to believe it, truly believed it in his soul, that this is exactly where he would end up.”

Chuck Todd on Trump: ‘It’s almost as if Washington can’t wait for him to leave’

NBC News’ Chuck Todd during an appearance on Wednesday’s “Today” show. (Courtesy: NBC News)

Donald Trump has left Washington. Perhaps for good.

The 45th president of the United States left Wednesday for Florida, snubbing his nose at tradition by not bothering to stick around for the inauguration of Joe Biden.

In the eyes of many, Trump leaves in shame, and as a pariah. It was almost visible as he left Washington.

On Wednesday’s “Today” show, “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd said, “If you think about what Trump did to himself, in some ways, humiliating himself the last couple months with this desperate attempt to prove the election he didn’t win. I am flabbergasted at how few people are at the White House right now, seeing him off, how nobody is interested. He really is leaving office kind of a pariah in his own party. It’s almost as if Washington can’t wait for him to leave.”

He added, “Trump literally blew himself up, and now we’re watching him, and there’s no doubt in my mind, he can’t stand how all of this looks right now. He knows he is leaving a pariah, and nobody wants to be seen with him. And, that is not something that sits well with Donald Trump.”

Trump fatigue

Todd added later in the day what it was like to no longer have Trump in the White House.

“I feel like I’ve been on a neverending coaster ride and I’m desperate to get off,” Todd said. “And it finally stopped and it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s stability. Maybe I got my feet on the ground for a minute.’ And we’re not going to continue to spin upside down and all over the place.”

Todd, however, said he hopes this feeling of stability is not just a one-day event.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper said, “To not have President Trump, the name Trump, in our heads 24 hours a day is going to be a big adjustment, and something I think a lot of people in this country welcome.”

Speaking of Trump

Here’s what NBC News’ Peter Alexander noted as Trump departed the White House: “This president, the first in 152 years not to participate in that peaceful transfer of power at the Capitol, the inauguration procession. Instead, the peaceful transfer of power this day, of course, is being guaranteed, secured by 25,000 National Guard troops who have secured just a massive perimeter around Washington.”

Like Christmas morning

Fox News’ Chris Wallace on what Wednesday meant to him:

“I love Inauguration Day. To me, it’s Christmas morning for the American democracy. And, you know, whether you liked and voted for the president who’s now going to be taking the oath of office at noon or not, it’s a day when everything seems possible, when the country reenergizes, it begins a new era. I felt that way in 2009 for Barack Obama, felt that way for Donald Trump in 2017. Whether you’re a Trump voter or a Biden voter, Joe Biden’s success is the country’s success. We should root for him hard.”

Fox News contributor Juan Williams talked about what the day meant for Black Americans:

“It’s emotional. You know, it’s breaking ground. I think back in my mind, as someone who’s done some work on Black history, you think back to women who participated in the civil rights movement, people like Ella Baker coming forward to some names that you might remember from the Congress, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan. And you think about there was recently a ceremony where the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from Statuary Hall in the Capitol. It’s going to be replaced by a statue of a Black woman by the name of Barbara Johns, who was so key in the Brown v. Board of Education case as a young child in Farmville, Virginia. So now to have Kamala Harris there, as a Black son, I just think for my mom.”

First media fist bump

“Today” show’s Al Roker, left, gets a fist bump from President Biden. (Courtesy: NBC News)

Joe Biden stopped on his inauguration parade route to give the “Today” show’s Al Roker a fist bump, telling him, “You guys keep doing this.”

Here’s the video.

After, Roker said, “Well, I got a fist bump. There you go. … It’s a pretty nice feeling. And look, this is a man who waited 50 years, who was first elected in 1970 to a county official job and now here he is the leader of the free world. And that is what America is all about. And it is pretty exciting.”

Checking Biden

Poynter’s PolitiFact now turns its hard eye to Joe Biden. Check out the “Biden Promise Tracker,” which will monitor the 100 most important campaign promises. As PolitiFact notes, “Biden said his top priorities were fighting the coronavirus, improving the economy, responding to calls for racial justice and combating climate change.”

Gore’s thoughts

Here’s what former Vice President Al Gore told NBC News just before Joe Biden was sworn in:

“It means our republic lives. The center has held. Democracy will return in full spirit. … When Joe Biden walks into the Oval Office, science will walk in with him. A reverence for truth will walk in with him. A commitment to seeking bipartisan solutions to our country’s problems will walk in with him. Empathy will walk in with him. I’m overcome with the hopefulness that this ceremony brings to us.”

Powerful poem

Poet Amanda Gorman. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

Joe Biden’s inauguration address was stirring, appropriate and presidential, but 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman might have won the day with her poem “The Hill We Climb.” In case you missed it, here it is.

In part, it reads:

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.

Not long after her speech, I wondered if she would someday be back on the same stage … giving her inaugural address.

Fox News’ Martha MacCallum said, “A star, this young lady is. … She said, ‘And as we grieved, we grew.’ Just a beautifully delivered poem that was written by this really remarkable, impressive young woman.”

For more on Gorman, check out “Amanda Gorman Captures the Moment, in Verse” by The New York Times’ Alexandra Alter and “How a 22-year-old Became Biden’s Inauguration Poet” by he Los Angeles Times’ Julia Barajas.

And Gorman gave an interview to NPR.

The new press secretary

New White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

New White House press secretary Jen Psaki held her first White House press conference Wednesday evening, only hours after Biden became president. She spoke and took questions for 30 minutes and immediately set an optimistic tone that the press office of this administration would be more open than the last one.

In her opening remarks, she vowed to bring “truth and transparency back to the briefing room.” She added, “Rebuilding trust is central to our focus in the White House and in the press office.”

She called upon The Associated Press to ask the first question, which was, “Do you see yourself as promoting the interests of the president or are you there to provide us the unvarnished truth so we can share that with the American people?”

Psaki said Biden works for the American people, she works for Biden and, therefore, she works for the American people.

She also said, “I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and for the role all of you play. … There will be moments where we disagree … but we have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”

She was asked how she and Biden plan to combat misinformation.

“There are a number of ways to combat misinformation,” Psaki said. “One of them is accurate information and truth and data and sharing information even when it is hard to hear.”

HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington tweeted, “Wait, a press secretary just stating facts and then answering questions truthfully? This is going to take some getting used to.”

It’s only one day, and the questions are going to get tougher from here on out. But so far, so good.

Psaki said the White House plans to have daily press conferences.

“Not Saturday and Sunday,” Psaki joked. “I’m not a monster.”

She closed by saying, “Let’s do this again tomorrow.”

The old press secretary

Kayleigh McEnany leaves as White House press secretary, her last press conference held on Jan. 7. And that really wasn’t a press conference. It was a two-minute speech about the insurrection at the Capitol in which she took no questions.

Now she’s gone. Good riddance. I don’t say that because of her politics, but because of her ineptness. She seemed to spend more time sniping at the media instead of doing what American taxpayers are paying for her to do: passing along the message of the president and explaining his decisions, policies and behavior.

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote, “Her primary contributions consisted of amplifying Trump’s lies and divisive rhetoric; repeating nonsensical talking points; reading specious closing statements at briefings; and, whenever cornered, attacking the media in absurd assertions of whataboutism.”

CBS News’ John Dickerson said, “Some briefings in the Trump administration where you had a net reduction in information, it is the goal of this administration to actually convey information at least for the purposes of giving you as much as they can.”

Chilling report

The scene at the Capitol on Wednesday was in stark contrast to what we saw exactly two weeks earlier when a mob stormed the Capitol building. In fact, those memories caused serious concern for those attending Wednesday’s inauguration.

NBC News’ Kasie Hunt reported one congressman told her he was going to wear a bulletproof vest in the event there was violence. Just as haunting, Hunt reported that she spoke to one House member who didn’t want their spouse to attend the inauguration “because they were worried about who was going to be with their children in the event something terrible happened.”

ABC News George Stephanopoulos said, “Many members of Congress (are) wearing body armor.”

Good question

Good question by CBS News’ Margaret Brennan when she pressed Sen. Lindsey Graham if he should apologize for entertaining and amplifying Trump’s claims that the election was stolen from him.

Graham told Brennan, “There’s things that we can do but starting this presidency with the idea that somebody needs to apologize probably doesn’t move us forward.”

The next step regarding Trump is an impeachment hearing in the Senate. But it comes at a time when the Senate also needs to get to work confirming Biden’s cabinet picks.

Sen. Bernie Sanders told CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, “What is absolutely imperative now is that the Congress show the American people we can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. In other words, we can impeach Trump, we can allow Biden’s nominees to have hearings and be appointed, and, most importantly, we deal with the crisis facing working families all over this country. So we have got to move forward in an unprecedented way. As the incoming chairman of the budget committee, I’m going to do my best to make that happen.”

About Trump, Sanders had this to say: “Look, what can you say about Donald Trump? He lives in his own world, he’s an egomaniac, he couldn’t care less about democracy or precedent or the American people.”

Worth reading

As a new administration begins, here are a few insightful pieces to read:

Final thought

I end this special newsletter with how “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt closed his Wednesday broadcast:

“We have held our breath for this day, not to celebrate the achievement of one man but just to know that we could do it without interference, that the Constitution remains our guiding set of principles. This is not how we wanted it. Neither against the background of a Capitol under siege by a man-made threat of violence, or above a National Mall empty of spectators because of nature’s threat, COVID. There above the Capitol steps, President Biden could literally see all around him the reminders of an ailing and wounded America. He may or may not be the person you wanted taking the oath today to lead our country but he is the leader we have and we desperately need him to be good. This was an inauguration like no other, in a time like no other. What remains is whether we will recall it as a moment of fear and anxiety, or as a lasting symbol of American resolve and resilience.”

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

Correction: This newsletter has been updated to indicate a quote about Joe Biden’s inauguration speech and the media originally attributed to CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell should have attributed to CBS News’ Margaret Brennan.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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