By:
March 25, 2021

Joe Biden will hold his first official press conference today since becoming president.

It’s a big deal.

For starters, there’s a lot going on at the moment. There’s COVID-19 and vaccinations; issues at the border; and two recent mass shootings, including one that has further revealed anti-Asian violence and sentiment in this country and renewed talks around gun control.

The other reason it’s a big deal is that it’s Biden’s first press conference — more than two months after taking office, which is longer than most recent presidents. (The Associated Press’ Calvin Woodward included a chart in his piece about the tradition of the presidential press conference.)

Some voices — especially those who are either on or watch Fox News — think it’s outrageous that Biden has gone this long without a press conference. While no media advocate would ever defend a lack of press access or transparency, it should be noted that Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, meets every weekday with the media. And Biden hasn’t been invisible. He does answer questions at various events, he has held a town hall and has given a primetime address to the nation.

Still, today will be welcome.

It’s a big day for Biden. But, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes, it’s a big day for the White House press, too.

Sullivan wrote, “… when President Biden steps to the lectern Thursday, the pressure will also be on the White House press corps themselves, as reporters recalibrate after the tumultuous, misinformation-filled years of Donald Trump to a president who is far less showy and, to date, much more truthful. It’s a major test for news organizations and reporters in covering Biden.”

The question is whether the media will go out of its way to show the public, especially its more conservative critics, that it can be just as tough on Biden as it was on Donald Trump.

CNN’s Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, wrote, “After four years of Donald Trump, the media is used to lies and misstatements and attacks on what the former president called the ‘enemy of the people’ —  the press. Trump thrived on conflict and the media did too. Biden is no Trump. He tells the truth to the best of his ability; he believes the media is an essential part of our democracy and he believes that conflict is bad for the Presidency and the country. The White House press corps needs to adjust to the new President. The rules that evolved around Trump should not be applied to Biden. Some in the White House press corps have figured that out. Some have not. The press conference will be a national event on how the press treats the new President.”

There are plenty of topics that Biden needs to be challenged on, such as the current immigration situation. It shouldn’t be a lovefest. But could today turn into a splashy show with reporters intent on flexing their muscles?

Sullivan wrote, “For the White House press corps, there’s also a temptation to play to the crowd. Every TV reporter has to be thinking about the 10-second clip of their question that might be used on Thursday’s newscast, establishing them as the star du jour who bravely challenged the president.”

If the objective of the reporters’ questions is to get answers, that’s great. If it’s to go viral on social media and get pats on the back from Tucker Carlson then we’re going to have problems.

Sullivan succinctly puts it this way: “What it shouldn’t turn into, though, is a performative exercise in equating two administrations, just to show how tough we are.”

That’s why, in the end, today could be more about theater than actual information. As Lockart wrote, “Press conferences are important but not decisive for a presidency. They rarely produce information of historical importance. But there is no better political theater than a presidential press conference. For myself, I plan to sit back and watch our American democracy work again in a way we haven’t seen in a while.”

Why it matters

NBC News chief White House correspondent Kristen Welker, during a panel discussion that I will share more about in just a moment, talked about why White House press conferences are important.

“We have to be on our toes and keep our eye on the ball and be ahead of it,” Welker said. “We have to make sure we’re (versed) in on the policies that we’re covering and understand all the various different aspects of them. It requires us to speak to people not just here at the White House but all over Capitol Hill and make sure we’re bringing that into the briefing room.”

Biden is expected to meet with the press at 1:15 p.m. Eastern.

Running the show

Clockwise starting in the upper left corner: journalists Andrea Mitchell, Kristen Welker, Cecilia Vega, Kaitlan Collins and Nancy Cordes. (Courtesy: MSNBC)

Women, right now, have a heavy influence over the White House press room. Four White House chief correspondents are women: NBC’s Kristen Welker, CBS’s Nancy Cordes, ABC’s Cecilia Vega and CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. All four sat down for a panel Wednesday moderated by NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell for the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Mitchell opened the event by saying, “I couldn’t have imagined more than 40 years ago when I joined NBC News. It was an all-male press corps with the exception of a few superstar women.”

In talking about the importance of diversity among the White House press corps, Cabinet and White House staff, Welker said, “I go back to even 10 years ago when I got to the White House and sitting in the briefing room and being one of the few women of color asking the press secretary questions. Now, I get excited to see not only are there these all-female chief White House correspondents, but there are more diverse people in the briefing room. Newsrooms should reflect the people and country that they serve.”

As far as what she learned from her White House colleagues, Welker said, “We all work at competing networks and something that people might not realize, we are all genuinely friends and support each other and lift each other up. We come into work every day giving 150%, trying to outscoop each other. It’s helpful to be able to talk among ourselves and support each other. I watch what they do and learn from them every day. Particularly, from being in the briefing room every day and being able to say, ‘Wow, she really stood her ground there.’ So, one of the broad lessons I’ve learned from these journalists is strength — they all have incredible strength.”

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before …

Meghan McCain said something dumb on “The View.” That’s a sentence that is written pretty regularly.

The latest? Just a couple of days after she apologized when HBO’s John Oliver pointed out her past statements about having no problem with calling COVID-19 “the China virus,” McCain tried to make another point about race.

“The View” co-hosts were talking about Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s decision to not approve any of Biden’s cabinet nominees until more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were nominated or put in high-level positions in his administration. (Duckworth has since backed away from that stance after getting assurances from the White House.)

McCain then said, “We’re going to a place where, even if people need money, even if people are qualified to get into Ivy Leagues, race and gender is more important than your skill qualifications, the content of your character; it is not what Martin Luther King Jr. preached. I think this is a very, very slippery slope. … ‘The View’ is 25 years old next year. We’ve only had one Asian American host co-host this show. Does that mean one of us should be leaving because there’s not enough representation? We’re talking about — is identity politics more important than the qualifications of a job?”

Social media quickly reacted to McCain’s lack of self-awareness considering her best “qualification” might be being the daughter of late Sen. John McCain.

Veteran journalist Soledad O’Brien tweeted, “Whew: this is an interesting take in many fronts. First: does Ms. McCain think she is qualified for this job or could it be possible that her bold face name late father opened those doors? Why does increasing diversity in Ms. McCain’s mind correlate with not ‘qualified’?”

CNN’s Abby Phillip tweeted, “There have been more View co-hosts who are children of famous people than view co-hosts who are Asian. Does she really think that’s because there aren’t enough Asian people with the right qualifications?”

Vulture’s Justin Curto wrote, “We hate to break it to you and her both, but McCain may actually be on to something here — maybe the women who chair ‘The View’ should actually represent their audience. And it sounds like someone just offered up their spot.”

So what happens now? Probably nothing.

As Washington Post media writer Jeremy Barr tweeted, “One of the greatest television sagas of our day is how is Meghan McCain still on this show.”

Pushing back

Caitlin Dickerson, a writer for The Atlantic, appeared on Wednesday’s “Morning Joe” to talk about the situation at the border. When it was over, Dickerson took to Twitter to call out the show for “a lot of inaccuracies.”

Dickerson tweeted:

There were a lot of inaccuracies in a Morning Joe segment that just ended. I only got a chance to respond to some of them and wanted to provide further clarity:

It is not a “Biden administration policy” that allows unaccompanied minors to request legal protection at the border. That is the American asylum system, codified into law by congress in the Refugee Act of 1980.

Case management programs that were eliminated by the Trump administration and are being reestablished now yielded immigration court appearance rates higher than 90% — not 25-30%. The general implication was that requesting asylum is unfair or illegal. It’s not. See above.

Getting closer

Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds writes that Tribune Publishing has moved closer to being owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Edmonds wrote, “A special committee that is screening proposals decided that Alden’s firm bid of $17.25 a share was preferable to a tentative bid of $18.50 a share from hotel chain CEO Stewart Bainum Jr. that does not have committed financing.”

Edmonds noted that things could still change.

“Bainum could present a full financing plan in coming days, or he could up his bid,” Edmonds wrote. “Alden too could increase its offer.”

Read Edmonds’ piece for more details.

Objection!

Fox News and Fox Business’ Jeanine Pirro. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)

Not that we should be shocked, but one of the latest PolitiFact pieces shows Fox News’ Judge Jeanine Pirro playing fast and loose with the truth. In a recent segment, Pirro said, “It is now open to anyone from anywhere in the world who wishes to enter our country, leaving one to wonder whether America is a sovereign nation anymore or a simple globalist landing spot.”

Bill McCarthy, from Poynter’s PolitiFact, looked into that statement and rated it “false.” Here is McCarthy’s story.

Meet the new boss

Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root, has been named editor-in-chief of HuffPost. Belton takes over a job that has been open for about a year. And she walks into a tough situation. Purchased by BuzzFeed last November, HuffPost recently laid off 47 people — or about 25% of its staff.

In a statement, Belton said, “I am so excited to be joining HuffPost, a powerful and ambitious newsroom that aims to help its tens of millions of monthly readers understand and navigate the complexities of the world around them. HuffPost is recognized for its compelling and urgent journalism and I look forward to helping shape its formidable future and taking its impact to new heights.”

A First Amendment champion

An impactful figure in the world of journalism has died. Jane Briggs-Bunting was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press who went on to earn a law degree and become a media law professor at Oakland University. She died Tuesday from complications of cancer. She was 70.

The Detroit Free Press’ John Wisely wrote about Briggs-Bunting and her relationship to her students: “As a journalist who earned a law degree, she would have them read hundreds of pages of 1st Amendment case law, then stand them up in class and drill them with questions, leaving no refuge for slackers.”

Briggs-Bunting started at the Free Press in the early 1970s. She spent time on the police beat, including reporting on the disappearance of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa. She earned a law degree and left the Free Press in 1979 to teach at Oakland University. In 2003, she took over the journalism program at Michigan State University.

Be sure to check out Wisely’s excellent story in the Free Press.

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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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