There are some curious decisions by the administration of President Joe Biden that make me a little skeptical about his media strategy — like no news conference during his first 50 days in office. Or going on the road this week to sell his landmark relief package and using local TV stations to “speak directly to the American people.”
In fact, if I weren’t so pleased to finally have someone in the White House who at least talks about transparency and honesty after four years of Donald Trump’s lying presidency, I might make a bigger case out of the fact that these strategies feel eerily similar to some employed by Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in the 1960s to avoid media scrutiny. Mr. Nixon hated the national press every bit as much as Mr. Trump ― maybe more.
During his 1968 campaign, Nixon would sometimes land in cities without actually visiting the cities beyond the airport. Instead, he would just meet at the airport with reporters and anchors from local TV stations because he favored their softball interviews. And that way he could ignore the national media following him from stop to stop. He’d deploy senior members of his campaign to do the same in other cities to maximize his reach.
Mr. Biden seems to be following a similar playbook.
“We’ll be putting surrogates and senior officials on local TV in markets around the country,” Jen O’Malley Dillon, White House deputy chief of staff for Mr. Biden, wrote in an email to senior staff outlining this week’s “Help Is Here” tour, according to a memo obtained by ABC News.
“Speaking directly to the American people,” the phrase Mr. Biden used last week to describe one of the goals of his tour, is often political-talk for dodging the mainstream national press. Perhaps, Mr. Biden has somewhat of another excuse given that, unlike 1968 when Nixon won the White House, there are myriad digital ways to speak directly to the American people today. Why take the time-consuming route of a road trip? Especially when the country is still in a pandemic.
But it still raises the question of why Mr. Biden has gone so long without meeting with the national press? The most consistent answer to the news conference question is that Mr. Biden is busy trying to get the nation back on its feet amid multiples crises.
As Biden press secretary Jen Psaki recently put it, “His focus day in and day out is on getting the pandemic under control and putting people back to work. That’s what people elected him to do.”
Fine, but that doesn’t preclude a 45-minute news conference, say, every other week. Not engaging directly with the press raises a fundamental question of accountability. The White House press corps is a surrogate for the American people. At a symbolic level if nothing else, it is important for the president to allow himself to be questioned and challenged by them, especially when he is introducing a massive relief package that could remake America the way Lyndon Johnson did in the 1960s or Franklin Roosevelt in 1930s.
As the questions mounted, Ms. Psaki said Tuesday that the president will hold one on March 25. But even if he has one tomorrow, it won’t erase the fact that he has gone longer without one at the start of his administration than any president in decades.
The most puzzling aspect of this reluctance to engage directly with the press is that Mr. Biden has developed a very effective media style. It was on display Thursday night when he gave his first prime-time address to reflect on the one-year anniversary of the arrival of the pandemic and the successful passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill.
In my review of his speech, I noted the way he exuded empathy for the suffering caused by COVID and communicated a sense of intimacy in speaking directly and fervently to the camera as he called for unity in fighting it. The result was authenticity and credibility.
Mr. Biden sometimes appeared uncomfortable and even awkward, such as when he leaned forward on the podium at his most intimate moments Thursday. But even that only made him seem more authentic to me and, I suspect, others. Many of us had enough of the slick, smug, snarky media style of the man from Mar-a-Lago who told us petty lies about how COVID was going to go away when the weather got warm.
Mr. Biden needs to start meeting regularly with the press. Sure, the political tools from Fox News, One America News Network and Newsmax will come at him. But that’s no excuse, and they will be no match in a TV news conference for someone who comes across as decent and authentic.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik