The first State of the Union address by President Joe Biden was unlike anything we’ve seen since, perhaps, World War II. As Russian troops continued a savage attack on Ukraine, Biden spoke to the country.
And to the world.
While he delved into many of the topics you typically hear in a State of the Union address — the economy, health care, immigration — and while he spent a good chunk of time talking about the major story of the past two years (COVID-19), it was Biden’s remarks about Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine that resonated and drew a rare bipartisan ovation.
“Freedom will always triumph over tyranny,” Biden said in his speech. “President Putin thought he could roll into Ukraine — and the world would roll over. Instead, he met a wall of strength he never imagined.”
And with that, Republicans joined Democrats in a rousing standing ovation that showed support for Ukraine. On the Washington Post live blog, opinion columnist Eugene Robinson wrote, “Shouldn’t be remarkable, but in today’s political environment it is.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny called the applause “thunderous” and said that many Republicans he spoke to after the speech praised Biden’s comments about Ukraine.
Zeleny said, “For all of the bitter divide in the chamber, it’s very clear that on Ukraine and the anti-Putin message, this is something that Republicans and Democrats can both agree on.”
CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel followed up that by saying she texted with several Republican leaders and donors and said that she didn’t want to “overstate” it, but there were several occasions, including on Ukraine, where Republicans liked what Biden had to say.
“I think the headline,” Gangel said, “is Republicans didn’t sit on their hands.”
Biden spent the first 12 minutes of his 62-minute speech on Ukraine and those remarks seemed to receive mostly positive responses. MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace said, “I don’t think that President Biden gives soaring speeches, but the Ukraine section was soaring. To call out Zelensky and talk about what the Ukrainian people are doing, groups of citizens blocking tanks with their bodies, from students to retirees, teachers, to soldiers defending their homeland. I mean that is the moment, that is the history being made as we speak.”
Reportedly, the speech was rewritten several times in the past few days as events unfolded in Ukraine. It’s quite possible that even a month ago, Ukraine would not have been mentioned at all. Many media outlets noted that Tuesday night’s speech felt a little like two speeches. A short speech on Ukraine and then the speech that was originally planned to be the entire State of the Union.
NBC News’ Chuck Todd said, “I thought he would spend more time on Ukraine, spend a little more time explaining why it is our fight. As you said, good versus evil, explain a little bit more and a little bit of the history of the defense of Europe, and a little bit about why we’re in this position, why we have these alliances, what it all means. And it just felt like an abrupt end after the 12 minutes of that. It felt like, boy, we could have had more. There was more to say.”
How might it go over in Ukraine and Russia?
ABC News Matt Gutman, who is in Ukraine, said on air, “The speech happened in the middle of the night, but they will certainly be watching this on Twitter (and other social media) in the morning. I think they’re going to like it. It’s very rare to see so many Ukrainian flags, the flags of any other nation in the chamber. They’re going to like what they heard from the president, that he wants to choke off Russia, inflict pain on Russia, deprive it of its funds.”
Reporting from Moscow, ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman said, “There was a mention of it on the radio. … The presenter’s interest was piqued by President Biden’s announcement about releasing some oil reserves. That got his interest because of energy supremacy, that is the way that Russia kind of bullies the world. It is able to use its energy supremacy as a way of getting away with what it wants. The idea that an American president might raise the possibility of releasing some of his own oil in order to help gas prices back in the United States and also stop Russia being able to hold the world hostage, that is scary to, I think, any Russia regime. It’s a small amount, it’s a drop in the ocean at the moment, but raising the possibility is scary here.”
Adding up the numbers
According to a rough breakdown by CNN White House reporter Kevin Liptak, Biden spent 12 minutes of the 62-minute speech on Ukraine, but actually spent more time (25 minutes) on the economy. Seven minutes were spent on COVID-19.
While many tuned in to hear Biden’s remarks about Ukraine, it should be noted that polls showed most viewers were more interested in Biden’s comments about the economy. A CNN poll showed that when asked which topic was most important to them, 64% said the economy as compared to 36% who said Ukraine.
An ABC News poll said 59% of Americans considered inflation most important to them.
Oh yeah ….
Oddly, with so much else going on, COVID-19 almost felt like an afterthought. But it clearly remains a huge story in the U.S. and Biden did spend nearly 10 minutes talking about it.
CBS News’ Gayle King said, “I think he’s giving us a pass to say, ‘Let’s move on to the next phase of COVID and get back to our normal lives,’ and I think a lot of people feel that way.”
ABC News White House correspondent Cecilia Vega said, “We’re about to hit this point in the country where most of the country will be able to take off their masks and he’s talking about it in a partisan way, saying we have been partisan, we don’t have to be partisan on this anymore. So, a little bit of hope.”
No surprise here
As you would expect, Biden’s speech didn’t go over well with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who said, “As expected, it was an unmitigated, predictable disaster.” Hannity added, “Filled with smoke and mirrors. Detached from reality. Seemingly written, to be honest, by a kid in kindergarten, maybe first grade if we are generous. Delivered by someone in a steep mental decline.”
Republican lawmakers Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado reportedly had a moment or two of heckling Biden during his speech. Check out this photo from Reuters photojournalist Evelyn Hockstein.
At one point, Biden was talking about how American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan developed cancer from exposure to toxic smoke from massive burn pits. Biden called it a “cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”
That’s when Boebert reportedly yelled out, “You put them in, 13 of them” in an apparent reference to 13 American military members killed in a bomb attack in Kabul as the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan last year. Biden then brought up his son, Beau, while Democrats shushed and jeered Boebert’s remarks. One reportedly said, “Show some respect.”
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell was rather critical of the Republican response by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, saying that unless there’s a new powerful COVID-19 variant, the speech would be “increasingly odd.” O’Donnell said, “She’s talking about a world in which students are prevented from going to school. That doesn’t exist anymore. She’s talking about kids being masked forever. That doesn’t exist anymore.”
O’Donnell also mentioned how Reynolds said that Democrats want to defund the police even though Biden specifically said in his speech, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to FUND the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
O’Donnell said, “The Biden ‘fund the police’ line was obviously in anticipation of, no matter what, they’re going to try to stick him with that.”
O’Donnell continued, saying, “The best line in the Biden speech was written by the other president: ‘Light will win over darkness.’ That was President Zelensky’s line.”
All by myself
One of the more amusing moments of the speech was when majority leader Chuck Schumer from New York rose to applaud something Biden said and, well, no one jumped up with him.
Oliver Darcy of CNN tweeted out the moment had a good line when he said, “We’ve all been there.”
This will end up a meme, right?
A few other notable moments from the speech:
- Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen was in attendance as Biden said, “We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit. It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”
- Donald Trump’s name wasn’t uttered once.
- Biden mentioned, but didn’t spend much time on topics such as Roe v. Wade, the LGBTQ+ community, voting rights and the Supreme Court. Although he did acknowledge the upcoming retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer, who seemed genuinely humbled and grateful by his mention.
- How fitting that on the first day of Women’s History Month, there were two women — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — behind Biden during his speech. NBC News correspondent Yamiche Alcindor said on NBC News NOW, “Politics aside, they have the most power in politics that women have had in a generation and it’s still striking to see them standing there.”
PolitiFact’s fact check
Click here to read PolitiFact’s fact check of the State of the Union.
CNN’s Matthew Chance continues to do exemplary work reporting from Ukraine. On Tuesday, he and Reuters had an exclusive interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Speaking from a bunker in Kyiv, Zelesnky said that as long as fighting continues, little progress will be made in negotiations.
“You have to speak first of all,” Zelensky said. “Everybody has to stop fighting and to go (back) to that point from where it began five, six days ago. I think there are principal things you can do. … If you do this, and that side does this, it means they are ready for peace. If they (are not) ready, it means you’re just wasting time.”
Zelensky’s interview was just hours before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. Zelensky had this message for Biden: “He is one of the leaders of the world and it is very important that the people of the United States understand (that) despite the fact that the war is in Ukraine … it is (a) war for the values of democracy, freedom.”
Zelensky also, again, pleaded for something that has yet to happen — and likely won’t: for the U.S. and NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine or to send troops into Ukraine.
“I’ve already addressed and (spoken) to some Western leaders with this request, because I do believe that leaders do have to support democratic countries and they have to help them,” Zelensky said. “When we talk about no-fly (zones), we’re looking back into history … and that doesn’t mean that we need to draw another country into the war. And, frankly, you know, everyone is drawn into the war now. I’ve spoken to Biden many times. And I’ve told them many times that Ukraine will resist and fight stronger than anyone else but on our own against Russia we won’t manage it.”
Zelensky added, “That’s why if somebody wants to help us, everybody has to act swiftly. This is the moment.”
Asked about his transformation from comic to president and now wartime leader, Zelensky said, “It’s very serious, it’s not a movie. … I’m not iconic. I think Ukraine is iconic. … Ukraine is the heart of Europe, and now I think Europe sees Ukraine as something special for this world. That’s why (the) world can’t lose this something special.”
It was a powerful interview in a week of powerful moments in Ukraine.
Rachel Maddow, returning from hiatus to host MSNBC’s State of the Union coverage, started Tuesday’s coverage by saying, “Russia is now isolated diplomatically and, extremely so, economically. Ukraine, on the other hand, has the unified support of the whole Western world and much of the world beyond the West, as well. But that support, as heartening as it may be, it is no shield from the brute force and steel of the Russian military for the 44 million citizens of Ukraine who are in the crosshairs of that military might right now.”
More from Ukraine
Here are some more notable moments and journalism regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- The Washington Post’s Shane Harris, John Hudson, Missy Ryan and Souad Mekhennet with “In Putin, intelligence analysts see an isolated leader who underestimated the West but could lash out if cornered.”
- In an interview with anchor Norah O’Donnell on Tuesday’s “CBS Evening News,” Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney talked about the possibility of Putin using nuclear arms, saying, “I think it’s extremely unlikely that he would move in that direction in the current conflict. But I think we always have to recognize that Vladimir Putin has well over 1,000 nuclear weapons aimed at the United States of America. … I don’t think that anybody can really assess what’s going on in the mind of Vladimir Putin right now. The huge table with him sitting at one end is like Dr. Strangelove. He is not listening apparently to people who have contrary points of view. I don’t know if that’s something which suggests a mental imbalance or whether it’s just a recognition — that this is a dictator, that he’s intent on conquest.”
- CNN analyst James Clapper, retired lieutenant general in the United States Air Force and the former director of national intelligence, has been invaluable in his thoughts about Putin and possible strategies. His segments are great insights into Putin.
- Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin continues to be one of the network’s strongest reporters, especially when pushing back against some Fox News commentators with real-time fact-checking. However, according to The Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson appeared to take a verbal shot at Griffin. Here’s the clip.
- Speaking of Fox News, reporter Trey Yingst had these strong comments during one of his reports Tuesday: “The Russians claim they aren’t targeting civilians in Ukraine. They are lying. They target civilians all over the world. In Syria, you can see that thousands of civilians have been killed by Russian strikes. And it’s part of the playbook to instill fear in the population as they move forward with these attacks. And it’s unfortunate to see such a level of human casualties, and such a human toll taken in this conflict so far. But the reality is they are targeting civilian areas.”
- To that point, here’s The New York Times with “Videos verified by The Times show devastated apartment buildings in a town just northwest of Kyiv.”
- The New York Times’ Roger Cohen with “A Surge of Unifying Moral Outrage Over Russia’s War.”
- For Politico, Jack Shafer with “Don’t Pour Your Russian Vodka Down the Drain.”
A touching goodbye
Stephen Colbert had a nice sendoff Monday night for his “Late Show” showrunner Chris Licht, who has been named chairman and CEO of CNN Global.
Colbert said on air, “Our own Chris Licht, right over there at that podium, is leaving this show to take over CNN. I trained the next president of CNN, so I believe legally CNN now stands for the Colbert News Network.”
Colbert went on to say, “I wasn’t sure whether I would like him, whether we would become friends, because we’re all show folk here, and Chris is not. … I didn’t know whether I’d like him, but six years later, I love you, Chris.”
Colbert also added, “He arrived knowing what he didn’t know, which was anything about comedy or show business, so he approached the job with a level of humility that is rare in executives. But here’s the thing. There are bosses and then there are leaders. Bosses tell you what to do. Leaders work as hard as you do to do what needs to be done and that’s what (Chris) did. That’s why he earned the respect from all of us here who live in the clown car. We showed him what we really want to do, which is the show we do now and he immediately started creating the lines of communication, the lanes of responsibility and the respectful workplace that makes creative ambition at this speed possible. I’m happy that CNN will now benefit from all of his wisdom.”
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Flint and Benjamin Mullin wrote about Licht’s serious health issue in 2010 when he was executive producer of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. Licht felt a pop in his skull and then got a sudden excruciating headache. He was suffering from a subarachnoid hemorrhage — bleeding in the space that surrounds the brain.
In his memoir, Licht wrote his health scare put things in perspective, saying, “There are no (hours) to be wasted on anxiety about who says what about you or whether they like you. These things are beyond your power to influence.”
Who will replace Licht?
While Licht replaces Jeff Zucker at CNN, who will replace Licht as executive producer on “The Late Show?” That’s not immediately clear, Variety’s Brian Steinberg reported.
Steinberg wrote, “One potential candidate to succeed Licht at ‘Late Show’ is Denise Rehrig, a co-executive producer at the show who is said to handle a good chunk of the work Licht oversees. Rehrig joined ‘The Late Show’ as senior supervising producer in June of 2016. She spent eight years as senior broadcast producer for ‘Good Morning America.’ Before joining the news program, she spent eight years producing for CNBC.”
Looking for cash
You might recall that Ben Smith, former New York Times media columnist, and Justin Smith, the former head of Bloomberg Media, left their high-profile jobs earlier this year with plans of starting their own global news organization.
Now, Axios’ Sara Fischer reports that they have reached out to “some of the biggest names in media” in an effort to raise $20-30 million to get their news organization off the ground by this fall.
Fischer wrote, “The Smiths, who tell investors they’ll burn through $50 million in cash before breaking even, have approached Bob Iger, Michael Bloomberg and Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, sources tell Axios.”
A few other interesting tidbits from Fischer’s report include Ben Smith wanting to go “all-in” on the 2024 presidential election because he believes political scoops can drive the site’s buzz and brand. His all-in approach includes a newsletter he hopes to launch by 2024. Fischer also reported that Ben Smith believes The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman is the best reporter in the country and he would love to add her to his news outlet.
From the sounds of it, Haberman might not be the only big-name reporter that the Smiths chase in the coming months.
NBC’s podcasting push
Look for NBC News to make even more of a push into podcasting.
NBC News president Noah Oppenheim told The Associated Press’ David Bauder, “One of our biggest priorities continues to be generating original, distinctive reporting and pushing out across a variety of platforms. Podcasts are a new format for us to play in, but it’s rooted in the same fundamentals that drive all of our work.”
I spoke with Oppenheim back in January, and he told me that NBC News is looking for various ways to tell stories from digital to audio to even original scripted programming. He said, “What excites me first and foremost is the journalism and the storytelling and the enterprise pieces that our folks produce. That is the spark for everything.”
Check out Bauder’s story for some of the podcasts that NBC News is involved with.
How education news is covered, part two
For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.
A week after a study finding parents want news on education to be local and focused on learning and other practical information, researchers at Calvin College are out with a second report turning the question on its head. How do local news outlets actually cover the topic?
A content analysis of 1,500 articles from late 2020 and early 2021 gave local media a high score on the most basic question. Education reporting did give priority to stories about learning (especially in the context of the pandemic) and treated potential solutions as well as identifying problems and issues.
But the report found room for improvement as well:
- Stories, particularly on local TV stations, were overwhelmingly about breaking news, giving comparatively little attention to trends, investigations and soft news about what goes on in classrooms.
- On all platforms, stories were heavily sourced to officials with much less input from parents, teachers and students.
- “Local news organizations focused on serving communities of color — sometimes referred to as ethnic media — stood out for their use of non-breaking-news formats such as service journalism, their emphasis on reporting about solutions to education-related problems, and their attention to matters of race in the educational context.”
I asked Jesse Holcomb, lead author of the report, whether the findings from the analysis of story content from a year ago could be extrapolated to the present, now that live classes have resumed and curriculum about race has become highly politicized.
Holcomb said, “I think it’s totally fair to qualify the findings about which education themes received the most coverage at the time of study, versus what that might look like right now. But I’d also say the following: Regardless of what’s going on, national media are generally going to go all-in on the politics of education, while … local news providers are generally going to have at least a slightly different agenda.
“Second … the findings reveal something about how local media perform in the midst of a crisis, and those insights I think transcend the news cycle. At the moment, things may feel less catastrophic in American K-12 education, compared to earlier moments in the pandemic, (but) the sobering reality is that schools are under duress, inequities are exacerbated, and crisis is always around the corner, if not at the door.”
Taylor Lorenz, the former New York Times reporter who is joining The Washington Post as a columnist, posted a wild Twitter thread on Tuesday.
Lorenz tweeted, “Someone has hacked/commandeered dozens if not hundreds of IG accounts and is using them to spam everyone I follow with this insane message smearing and lying about me. WaPo is not ‘reducing my position’! These smear campaigns are just what I deal with for doing my job.”
Lorenz then followed up with another tweet that said, “This person has actually commandeered thousands of accounts and is using them to blast out the same crazy lies in an attempt to smear me. He is using bots or hacked profiles to do this. Again, these types of modern day smear campaigns are what newsrooms need to prepare for.”
She then went on to post examples of the Instagram posts — all of which said the same thing.
- Melinda French Gates will sit down with Gayle King for an interview that will air Thursday morning on “CBS This Mornings” (7 to 9 a.m. Eastern). The interview will include Gates’ efforts to bring equity to women across health care, business and education, as well as her divorce from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
- My Poynter colleague, Angela Fu, with “Journalists at Jezebel, The Root, Gizmodo, Lifehacker and other G/O Media newsrooms strike.”
- Sam Sanders, host of the NPR podcast and radio show “It’s Been A Minute with Sam Sanders,” is leaving NPR. He joined NPR as a Kroc Fellow in 2009 and has been a field producer and breaking news reporter and was one of the original co-hosts of “NPR’s Politics Podcast.” “It’s Been A Minute” will continue on with guest hosts. In a note to NPR staff, Sanders thanked NPR and his colleagues and said he will continue being an NPR listener. He then wrote, “I’m taking about a month off, and then I’ll be making something new again. … More to come. Talk soon.”
- The New York Times’ Sam Roberts with “Michele McNally, Who Elevated Times Photography, Dies at 66.” McNally became The New York Times’ director of photography in 2004 and a year later became the first photo editor to be named to the Times’ masthead when she became an assistant managing editor. She retired in 2018. During her 14-year tenure leading the Times’ photography staff, the Times won six Pulitzer Prizes for news and feature photography.”
- New England Today’s Jon Marcus with “Hard-Pressed/The Fight to Save the Small-Town Newspaper.”
- Sports Illustrated’s Howard Megdal with “How Airplanes Became the WNBA’s Biggest Scandal.”
- Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga with “Nobody in baseball cares deeply enough to save the game from the people who run it.”
- The latest “Sway” podcast from Kara Swisher of The New York Times: “Maggie Gyllenhaal Wants to Tell the Transgressive Stories of Motherhood.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at email@example.com.
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