Nuance is everything when controlling the message
President Richard Nixon at a news conference in the East Room\
When I was a freshman in high school I took an art class.
Not only did I have this strange belief that I might be another Picasso or, even better, another Charles Schulz - since I was a Peanuts fan - but the art teacher was one of the few teachers in my high school that seemed to have been born in the same century as me, and I was smitten - at least until I started doing the work.
I did okay with fashioning art out of clay - my go-to project being a ceramic Great White shark with a representation of Quint in his mouth (after all “Jaws” was popular that summer). But when it came to drawing or painting I was . . . well . . . horrible.
My teacher encouraged me. “You can sketch faces,” she told me. I thought they looked like bad cartoons. I couldn’t even draw a circle well enough to render a suitable copy of Charlie Brown. But she told me my problem was in the “subtlety of shading,” meaning I lacked nuance in shading things so they appeared real.
Many politicians, as it turns out, have the same problem in selling their agenda.
One who does not is President Joe Biden. Of course he is aided by the fact that compared to his immediate predecessor Donald Trump, who had the political acumen of a drunken kindergartner playing with red crayons, Biden is Rembrandt. This is not unexpected. Biden has more experience in government than anyone else who’s ever been president - and he’s learned well how to control the press without appearing to control the press. He’s masterful
at the subtlety of shade.
If you blinked during the bilateral Presidential news conference with President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the East Room last week, you may have missed a very significant event.
The new president of the White House Correspondents Association, Steve Portnoy, on his first day in his new role, was acknowledged by Biden and then gave Portnoy the first question of the two presidents.
Though Covid restrictions have been lifted for all other events in the White House, presidential appearances, for reasons the Biden administration has not explained, are still off-limits to an open press. Only a limited number of people can attend. And Portnoy wasn’t shy about bringing that up:
PORTNOY: On behalf of the press corps, thank you, and we're looking forward to the day we can have even more reporters all the way to the back of the room. So, thank you very much. PRESIDENT BIDEN: (Laughs.)
It doesn’t seem like much but it is. In Portnoy’s very first action as the WHCA president he was encouraging the President of the United States to quit picking and choosing who gets to cover his appearances and allow a full press corps to do so.
It makes sense. The daily briefings are back to “Open Press” and often see as many as 75 people cram themselves into the small Brady Briefing Room in the West Wing that has just 49 available seats. Presidential arrivals and departures from the South Lawn for the president have gone back to being “Open Press” - though the Biden administration has moved the rope line back 15 feet from where it used to be outside of the Oval Office, making it harder to get a question heard over the roar of the helicopter. Still, Biden has approached the rope line and taken questions on a few occasions.
Biden will meet with the full press for the first time in the Rose Garden Monday, July 26. The last time a president appeared before the press there, former president Trump refused to admit he lost the election when I asked him.
Biden is slowly moving toward allowing the full press to cover him, but he continues to limit who gets to cover him - and more importantly his communication staff is selectively deciding who gets to show up besides “pool” reporters to ask Biden questions in the East Room and the White House is not being transparent about how these reporters are selected.
That means some reporters who cover Biden have never actually seen the president or been anywhere near him. Take a close look - it is no deep dive - and you will find that every single president in the modern era has faced a full press corps in the East Room - except the oldest president: Joe Biden.
President Obama at a news conference in the East room before the full press.
It’s obvious the concern by the staff for the president is without much merit. Biden can handle himself for extended questioning. He did quite well during his recent town hall with CNN’s Don Lemon in Cincinnati. He was folksy, charming, and while he didn’t answer a question to a small restaurant owner satisfactorily, he was something the U.S. hasn’t seen from its elected leader in almost five years. In a word: presidential.
That shift in tenor from the commander-in-chief from the past national nightmare has endeared Biden to millions of people. Just look what he said about the insurrection others don’t want to admit occurred:
“I don't care if you think I'm Satan reincarnated. (Laughter.) The fact is, you can't look at that television and say, “Nothing happened on the 6th.” You can't listen to people who say this was a “peaceful march.” No, I'm serious. Think about it. Think of the things being said.”
He also endeared himself to millions, including some Trump supporters when he called the ultra-rich on the carpet:
“I'm tired of trickle down. I come from the corporate state of America. (Applause.) ...And, by the way, I think you should be able to go out and make a billion dollars or a hundred million dollars if you have the capacity to do it. But I ask one thing: Pay your fair share”
Because of these actions, and others, any criticism of how Biden deals with the press can seem like little more than thinly-veiled whining by a press corps. And we have to admit the press corps is not always filled with the sharpest tools in the shed. Criticism about the quality of questions asked, and of the reporting does not fall on deaf ears. I agree. But the answer is not to keep the president under wraps or hidden from the press. It's just the opposite. Cutting the president off from the scrutiny of the press no matter how bad we are, or claiming it is because of how bad we are, isn’t wise. The truth is that doing so weakens a president. It gives his critics the thin veneer of reputability and the president risks losing support from fence sitters who can begin to question him for being unavailable.
It isn’t a good look and ultimately it could cost him. Every president I’ve covered since Reagan has faced a full, robust and large press corps. What does it say that the oldest president to ever serve does not? It certainly, whether true or not, gives rise to those who doubt Biden’s mental acumen. They may be in error, and to be honest as far as I can tell he seems fine - but then again I, like most of the press corps have had limited access to him.
As many members of the press as possible should bear witness to the activities of the man elected to serve as our commander in chief.
This is what transparency in government is all about.
Thus Portnoy’s first act as the president of the WHCA portends the showdown coming if the Biden administration does not act with greater transparency. Opening up the Rose Garden Monday was at least a partial capitulation to those concerns. Portnoy threw down the gauntlet in the press event and speaking for every reporter who was denied access, spoke as diplomatically as possible in letting Biden know this was unacceptable. It was an action worthy of a veteran diplomat.
A study in contrasts: President Biden faced fewer than 20 reporters in his only East Room news conference of his presidency.
In the briefing room, there are other problems. Press Secretary Jen Psaki, while earnest and engaging, is not in the loop. It has become obvious since she re-opened the press briefings to the full press in June. She is given a short leash and has little to no input on policy. She takes questions mostly from the front two rows of the Brady Briefing room where most of the major networks and newspapers sit. She rarely works her way to the back of the room or out into the aisles to the reporters who have no seats. April Ryan and myself are two notable exceptions.
As a consequence, there have been seats left empty from the third row going back to the back of the room since the briefing room reopened in the first week of June. Psaki also allows the reporters representing the largest media companies to ask multiple questions while limiting other reporters to one or two questions. She has heard complaints about this, but has done nothing about it. She could limit each reporter to just two questions - as has been the case in the past. She could also start by taking questions from the back of the room first. She has done neither - though it has been brought up to her repeatedly.
It is very subtle shading. The front rows are known quantities. Few push her - and those who do are often disarmed and derided with a savvy subtlety, a quick brushing away or righteous bombast - whatever she thinks the occasion warrants. Her performances have served her well. Her deftness in handling reporters stands in direct contrast to the inept and embarrassing actions from all of the press secretaries in the last four years. She can be snarky and condescending, but remains professional and often even polite.
Her briefings routinely start late - but that’s not unusual for any administration. They usually last 45 minutes to an hour and she spends much of that time dodging questions she cannot answer and sticking to the talking points of the administration with the focus of a laser. She doesn’t overtly lie to us. That is not her way. She has lied by omission, but more frequently than not she merely shifts gears, blowing past questions she doesn’t want to answer while using facts that may not directly answer the question asked, but aren't outright lies. One day when I asked her if the administration was engaged in a diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan she told me we have an ambassador in Afghanistan. You think? That’s not an answer, but she wouldn’t engage me any further on that issue.
Like every president, Joe Biden wants to put his best foot forward. And like every president before him he uses his people at times to keep the press and the public at arm’s length to avoid facing difficult policy problems.
Almost two weeks ago, during one of her press briefings, press secretary Jen Psaki answered a question from the AP’s Zeke Miller about a journalist being held in Myanmar.
Zeke Miller: And just on a different topic: An American journalist, Danny Fenster, has been in prison in Myanmar for months now. His family has raised considerable alarm about his health situation -- that he's showing signs of a potential COVID-19 exposure and is not getting treatment there. Has the President been briefed on his condition? And what has the White House engagement been to try to get him free and returned to United States? MS. PSAKI: Well, first, we take the detainment of individuals -- Americans and journalists -- around the world very seriously, and we work through a range of channels to raise concerns.
This administration says the right words but its actions sometimes tell a different story.
How can we believe Joe Biden supports a free press when, for example, in the case of the death of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi the Biden administration gave those responsible for his death a free pass?
And how can we believe the president supports a free press domestically when he continues to limit access and keep the press at arm’s length while he conducts business?
Last Thursday in the press briefing the Surgeon General warned about misinformation and how destructive it can be in battling the coronavirus pandemic. He was right. And while Biden certainly hasn’t told us to inject Clorox, by denying access to reporters he helps perpetuate misinformation on the pandemic and every other issue by denying reporters access to him. The fewer reporters, then the fewer variety of questions. Transparency cannot be achieved without a diversity of questions, questioners and points of view - whether the president likes them or not.
It is very easy to become complacent and accepting of Biden’s methods. After all, he’s a great deal better than Trump. I haven’t had a death threat in six months. That’s much appreciated. But the fact remains the president’s staff is overly protective of him. He’s fine. The staff is another story.
All of them have the president’s best interests at heart - but they don’t always agree what is best for him. Right now they’re playing very sloppy ball. Inflation is rising, the president is struggling to get an infrastructure bill passed, he’s still trying to deal with the ongoing pandemic of the unvaccinated and foreign policy problems are leaving us with some very serious questions that only the president can answer - and yet he has not done so. His longest foray into the public during the last few months was in a controlled town hall meeting.
I’m told the president has good intentions. I believe it. But, we all know the highway to Hell is paved with those. I’m also told that by picking who covers Biden, we can be assured that those spreading misinformation about him, OANN, News Max, even Fox News, can be cut out of the process. But those networks still exist and will report on him whether or not he gives them access. They might not be accurate if you don’t give them access, but I can guarantee that denying them access only ensures inaccuracies and poor reporting - and cutting out those you don’t like - for whatever reason is no different than what Trump did - only more fashionable.
In the end if you want better, more factual coverage, there are ways to accomplish that goal which do not include and can never include limiting access to the president. In fact the best answer is to allow everyone possible to be present.
Such efforts would only help Biden’s stated goal of bringing the country together. So far he hasn't felt the need to widen his reach because, as CNN reported over the weekend, his polling numbers remain rock steady - deviating less than most other presidents in recent memory during his first six months in office.
Those numbers are better than his predecessor's, but it also shows that Biden hasn't converted many to his cause. And ultimately that could portend how effective his administration actually will be. Opening up to greater access remains an option to solve that particular knotty problem.