By:
April 29, 2021

President Joe Biden, approaching his 100th day in office, delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. He spoke for more than an hour, painting an optimistic picture of America despite crises involving a pandemic, political divide and racial tensions.

He talked about sweeping changes to the economy and infrastructure, the education system, expanding the government’s role. He talked about guns, race, immigration, health benefits for Americans, prescription drug prices and much more. Here’s the speech, minus a few of Biden’s off-script ad-libs.

So how did his speech play out according to the coverage?

NBC’s Kasie Hunt smartly noted, “This speech and being in this room could not be more different than a year ago.”

Actually, it was a little more than a year ago, as Hunt pointed out, that then-President Donald Trump gave a “raucous” State of the Union speech that made just a brief mention of something most of us had no idea how horrific it would be: the coronavirus.

As the country begins to emerge from the pandemic, many saw the hopefulness of Biden’s words.

ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, co-anchor of “This Week,” said, “He’s really trying to bring the country together. It was a Make America Feel Good night, Make America Feel Pride night, and trying to talk directly to people which is, of course, Joe Biden’s strength. But he was also talking to the rest of the world.”

MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace also mentioned Biden’s strength of connecting with people, saying, “His connections to the people in this room — I’m not even sure that all of them are deserving of them — but he does not care. He gives to them the benefit of the doubt, the benefit of his goodwill. I thought it would be a hard speech to make optimistic, he did.”

CBS News’ Nancy Cordes said Biden “was swinging for the fences” in an effort “to remind Republicans that there are some elements of his plans that they support as well.”

But ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl likely nailed it when, after praising the ambition in Biden’s speech, said, “… I don’t think Republicans heard much of anything in this speech that they will be able to work with. They heard an agenda for the next hundred days and beyond, that includes even more spending than what we saw in the first hundred days — tax increases across the board on upper-income Americans and businesses that Republicans absolutely will not support. I don’t think there will be any support for those proposals. Not to mention what he was talking about on comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, police reform is probably the one area where there is a real chance for bipartisan agreement, but not much in here that Republicans will latch on to at all.”

Also on ABC, contributor Chris Christie was especially critical, saying, “The words of this speech sounded like what you would hear from a 15-year-old if you gave him a credit card with no credit limit on it. Except the words came out of the mouth of an adult who should know better.”

The Republican response

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott gave the Republican response. CNN’s Abby Phillip said, “This was an extraordinary partisan speech for Tim Scott, especially, I thought, on the issue of policing, which is something that he is actively right now working with Democrats on. He really, strongly criticized Democrats on the issue in a way that I thought was surprising given that he apparently finds it worthwhile to actually work with them.”

Philip added the speech sounded like “what any other generic Republican would say in this particular moment. But Tim Scott, who is trying to have a slightly different brand, it didn’t really seem to fit him. That was the part that was slightly disjointed for me.”

CNN’s Dana Bash noted that Scott is the lone Black Republican senator and yet criticized the Democrats’ stance on voting restrictions in places such as Georgia.

CNN’s Van Jones criticized Scott for blaming Biden for dividing the country. “That doesn’t make any sense,” Jones said.

Then Jones added this: “(Scott) lost a lot of African Americans, by the tens of millions, when he said ‘America is not a racist nation.’ Look, you can say we’re getting better, you can say we’ve come a long way. But when you look at these numbers and you look at these statistics, it is still very clear that this country is still struggling with racism and we still have racism showing up in almost every institution. So I thought he did himself a disservice by jumping that shark.”

Jones, however, added that Scott is the best the Republicans could put up to respond to Biden.

Working overtime

Biden’s address did run a little long. Long enough that he even closed by saying, “Thank you for your patience.”

According to this tweet by C-SPAN, Biden’s speech ran 64 minutes, 58 seconds. That’s the longest first speech to Congress among all presidents going back to Ronald Reagan. The longest before Biden’s was Trump’s first speech to Congress in 2017. That was 60 minutes, 12 seconds. The shortest? Reagan’s 32-minute, 40-second speech in 1981.

A limited crowd

It was strange to see so few people in the House chamber, but that was necessary because of COVID-19. Instead of the 1,600 or so which normally attend such speeches, only 200 or so were permitted Wednesday night.

As he opened his speech, Biden even made mention of the unusual circumstances.

And, while of course, the need for a limited crowd is a serious matter, Washington Post media writer Paul Farhi had a pretty good line when he tweeted, “The near-empty chamber at the Capitol makes this seem like a Spring Training presidential address to Congress.”

Most networks also reminded us that the scene Wednesday night was much different than the last time Americans watched proceedings from the House chamber. That was Jan. 6, when an insurrection overran the Capitol.

True to form

As pointed out by The Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona, these were two actual chyrons on screen during Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News prior to President Biden’s speech on Wednesday.

First: “Awaiting Biden Admin Propaganda On Cap Hill.”

Second: “Expect Climate Change Propaganda In Biden Speech.”

Oh, speaking of Carlson’s show, Rudy Giuliani is expected to be on Carlson’s show tonight, presumably to talk about Giuliani’s Manhattan home and office being raided by the Justice Department on Wednesday — although, because it’s Carlson’s show, who knows?

As far as post-speech coverage, Fox News went about how you would expect with Ben Domenech leading the criticisms, calling Biden’s speech “a political blip, immediately forgotten.”

And Sean Hannity called Biden “very weak, very frail, cognitively struggling.”

Hannity also talked with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is still rambling on about a story that has already been debunked when he said Biden is “going to control how much meat you can eat.”

It should be noted, however, that Fox News’ Chris Wallace said, “I think this is going to be a popular speech with the American public.”

Meanwhile, MSNBC’s coverage also was what about you’d expect, with anchor Brian Williams effusive in his praise, saying the speech was, “unspooling an ambition that was Rooseveltian in size and scope.”

Powerful words

This, from ABC “Nightline” co-anchor Byron Pitts: “It seems that the president made clear tonight that he believes you can bridge America’s racial divide with legislation. Think about that, this president mentioned white supremacy and terrorism in the same sentence.”

Just the facts

PolitiFact fact-checked Biden’s speech. Here’s the story from PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson, Victoria Knight, Amy Sherman and Miriam Valverde.

CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale said, “My early assessment is that this was, in general, quite a factual speech. But it was not perfect.”

Dale added, “Now the prepared text that Biden most recited was quite good. There were some claims that certainly can be disputed, have some debatable nuance to it, but there was certainly not a ton in that prepared text that was flat-out false. Where Biden was false a couple of times was when he ad-libbed. This is a bit of a problem with President Biden. He is given a solidly-researched text then he decides to start ‘Joe Biden talking’ and he sometimes gets himself in some fact-check trouble.”

A moment to remember

Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California look on as President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

We saw something that we have never seen before in the history of the United States. Two women — serving as vice president and speaker of the house — next to the president during a speech in the House chamber.

ABC News’ David Muir said, “History already being made this evening … the moment that the vice president, Kamala Harris, arrived there in the chamber, being brought up to the dais. And the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, who made history herself, the first woman speaker, and, of course, all the history … that Kamala Harris has made. And the two of them now stand there together.”

Biden even opened his speech by saying, “Madam Speaker and Madam Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium. It’s about time.”

Photos of the day

Check out this excellent photo display of Wednesday’s Biden speech from the staff of The Washington Post.

Viewer reaction

CNN conducted an instant poll of those who actually watched Biden’s speech. Now, the network made clear that it believed that those who watched the speech were more likely Democrats and/or Biden supporters.

The results: 51% said they had a “very positive” reaction to the speech, with 27% saying they were “somewhat positive” and 22% saying they were “negative.”

For some perspective, here are some poll numbers of some other presidents and their first speeches to Congress. Again, 51% had a “very positive” reaction to Biden’s speech. The other “very positive” reactions: Donald Trump (57%), Barack Obama (68%) and George W. Bush (66%).

Back to Biden, CNN’s poll found 71% felt more optimistic after Wednesday’s speech, while 29% felt more pessimistic.

CNN contributor and former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said if he were in Biden’s White House, he would be pleased with those numbers, but added, “This was a kickoff, essentially. This is just the beginning of a fight that they know is going to be a difficult fight.”

A CBS News poll showed that 85% approved of Biden’s speech, compared to 15% who disapproved.

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Rogan goes rogue

Dr. Anthony Fauci appearing on the “Today” show with Savannah Guthrie on Wednesday. (Courtesy: NBC News)

Podcaster and mixed martial arts commentator Joe Rogan — yeah, the same guy who used to host a show (“Fear Factor”) where people ate bugs and junk — went on his podcast this week and said, “If you’re like 21 years old and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go, ‘No.’ If you’re a healthy person and you’re exercising all the time and you’re young and you’re eating well, I don’t think you need to worry about this.”

This is significant because Rogan’s podcast is one of the most popular in the business with millions of listeners, many of whom are the 20-somethings that Rogan is advising to not get the vaccine.

On Wednesday morning’s “Today” show, Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed Rogan’s comments, saying, “That’s incorrect. You can get infected, and will get infected, if you put yourself at risk … Even if you don’t have any symptoms, you are propagating the outbreak. Because it is likely that you — even if you have no symptoms — that you may inadvertently and innocently then infect someone else, who might infect someone who really could have a problem with a severe outcome. So if you want to only worry about yourself and not society, then that’s OK.”

When asked if young people should get vaccinated, Fauci said, “Absolutely.”

The White House also criticized Rogan and his comments.

During an appearance on CNN, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said, “I guess my first question would be, did Joe Rogan become a medical doctor while we weren’t looking? I’m not sure that taking scientific and medical advice from Joe Rogan is perhaps the most productive way for people to get their information.”

Disturbing news

Soutik Biswas, the India correspondent for BBC News, reports that 45 journalists in India have died from COVID-19 in just two weeks. There are other reports that 100 journalists in all have died from COVID-19.

India’s battle against COVID-19 right now is heartbreaking with new daily records in cases and deaths being reported almost every day. The latest daily numbers: 360,000 new cases and 3,293 deaths.

Disappointing remarks

Fox News’ Bill Hemmer (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Many of Fox News’ pundits say outrageous and harmful things, almost on a daily basis. They do so to enrage viewers, provoke the other side and, essentially, cause division. It’s one thing to offer up conservative views. It’s another to say some of the race-baiting and irresponsible comments that you hear.

It would be nice to see some of Fox News’ so-called real journalists speak out against some of the things said by the likes of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. But even those moments are rare.

Take Bill Hemmer, a Fox News anchor who was interviewed by Mediaite’s Aidan McLaughlin.

When asked about Fox News’ opinion hosts, Hemmer told McLaughlin, “Does it bother me? No, because I know these people personally. I understand that they’re very good at the job that they do. Tucker and Sean and Laura are three of the best hosts you’re going to find in the industry, and they produced the show, they won every day, and if you want to watch, it is there for you.”

Seriously? Hemmer seemed to be saying that since he knows them personally and they get good ratings then what they say is cool by him. Aside from not standing up for what’s right, Hemmer also might not realize that many of the things said at night on Fox New undermine some of the legitimate work done during the day on Fox News — such as reports aired when Hemmer is on screen.

Wemple on Santorum

Erik Wemple’s latest piece in The Washington Post is about controversial remarks made by CNN contributor and former U.S. Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. Speaking at a conference, Santorum said, “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

What’s notable is that CNN, when asked for a comment, has referred inquiries to a private PR firm, which passed along a statement from Santorum that said, “I had no intention of minimizing or in any way devaluing Native American culture.”

Wemple writes, “Perhaps the network thinks it can stay silent because the offending remarks took place in a non-CNN venue. If that’s the excuse, we’re not buying. In signing Santorum as a CNN contributor, the network associates itself with his remarks whether they appear on the network, Twitter or any other public platforms. Had a Fox News contributor made similar remarks in a non-Fox News setting, you can be sure CNN would have a thing or 20 to say about it.”

Wemple is spot on. This is a CNN issue as much as a Santorum one. By putting him on air and paying him to appear on air, CNN is giving Santorum credibility. They are saying he has a voice worth listening to.

Part of the issue is CNN, like the other cable networks, believes it necessary to offer “both sides” of a story. There’s nothing wrong with trying to get voices that represent many sides. But when those voices say something controversial, they are representing that network even if they don’t say the controversial thing on that network. And when it comes to politics, cable news contributors are going to say controversial things.

And therein lies the problem. As Wemple wrote, “As the Republican Party continues its indulgence with the politics of Trump, it’ll be harder and harder for an outlet like CNN to find Republican contributors who don’t offend people of color, democratic imperatives or just general decency. What better impetus to scratch the entire model of contributor-driven news: CNN hires plenty of journalists who’d be happy to fill Santorum’s airtime with facts, reporting, quotes, data, whatever — anything but the contributor-analyst model. No one needs 24/7 news channels anyhow.”

Tensions inside Simon & Schuster

In a story about tensions inside Simon & Schuster over the publishing house’s decision to sign those from the Trump administration to book deals, The New York Times’ Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter had a surprising passage. Many editors and employees at Simon & Schuster delivered a petition to management protesting a deal with former Vice President Mike Pence.

Now for the surprising part of the Harris and Alter story. They wrote, “Most were probably not aware that the company has also signed the former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, according to people familiar with the matter — a move that is sure to throw gas on the fire.”

What happens next?

Harris and Alter smartly write, “In today’s hyperpartisan environment, however, Simon & Schuster has become a test case for how publishers are trying to draw a line over who is acceptable to publish, and how firmly executives will hold in the face of criticism from their own authors and employees.”

Baron’s book deal

Former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Speaking of book deals, Marty Baron, who recently retired as executive editor of The Washington Post, has signed a book deal. Baron’s book will be called “Collision of Power” and will be published by Macmillan’s Flatiron Books. It will be focused on Baron’s eight years in charge of the Post, as well as the press’ role. There is no timetable for its publication.

Media tidbits

  • The NFL Draft starts today with round one. The rest of the draft will be Friday (rounds two and three) and Saturday (rounds four through seven). The draft will be aired on ABC, ESPN and NFL Network. Unlike last year’s virtual (and very entertaining) draft, this year will go back to a more traditional format with the draft being held at various downtown Cleveland locations, including FirstEnergy Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center. And now that he’s fully vaccinated, commissioner Roger Goodell could get back to his handshake/hugs with those who are drafted and in attendance.
  • Rudy Giuliani’s Manhattan home and office were raided Wednesday by the Justice Department. It’s part of a federal investigation into Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine while he was Donald Trump’s personal attorney. The Washington Post’s Shayna Jacobs, Devlin Barrett and Josh Dawsey have more details. And writing for Esquire, Charles P. Pierce with “The Rudy Giuliani News Made Me Think of Everyone Whose Lives Were Ground Up in His Later Work.”

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

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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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