All Presidents Avoid Reporters, but Biden May Achieve a Record in His Press Avoidance

Yves here. The speed with which Biden’s all too frequent gaffes become memes on Twitter appears to have obscured the degree to which he has steered clear of the press. If he had better surrogates in the form of his wife and Kamala Harris, he might be able to better maintain appearances. For instance, Biden clearly should have gone to East Palestine. If he wasn’t willing to face citizens seeking answers, why didn’t he send someone able to feign sympathy and not make serious commitments?

Aside from Biden’s senior moments, a second reason for his minders to keep him under wraps is that Biden has too often made dangerously bellicose remarks that the White House quickly walked back.

It will be instructive, in not a good way, to see how his 2024 campaign goes. Then again, he won despite embarrassing stumbles in the debates and on the campaign trail. So his record, as opposed to his presentation, is what is set to put Biden’s candidacy to rest.

This post contends that it’s rational for politicians to hide from the media to avoid “gotcha” situations.  With so many spin-meisters in a Presidential entourage, and the press so hollowed out, I have difficulty with the notion that politicians are more outmatched by the press than before. Look for instance at the way the mainstream media has followed the Administration in burying Sy Hersh fingering Biden and his foreign policy team as the perpetrators of the Nord Stream bombings.

IMHO this take is a reflection of the fragility of sense of legitimacy of people in power, as well as the prevalence of narcissism. Narcissists can’t stand being seen in a bad light. We highlighted this recent interview of the Duma’s deputy chairman, Petr Tolstoy, by six hawkish French journalists. If American pols were as able to hold their ground, I suspect we’d see more of them.

By David E. Clementson, Assistant Professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia. Originally published at The Conversation

There’s nothing new about presidents avoiding the press.

Bill Clinton was in a major scandal – based in large part on getting caught in a deception during a media interview – and successfully outsourced his White House press briefings to legal counsel to avoid having his press secretary or himself trapped by tough media questioning.

Barack Obama campaigned on being the most transparent president in history and then prosecuted reporters as criminals.

But well into the third year of Joe Biden’s presidency, he has held fewer press conferences than any president in recent memory.

There’s a reason that Biden – and all the other presidents – want to avoid the press: While democracy may demand such accountability from a president, press conferences definitely are risky for them.

Avoidance Becomes the Norm

It took Biden until late March 2021 to hold his first press conference, more than two months after his inauguration – the longest a new president had gone without holding a press conference in 100 years.

During Biden’s first year in office, he held a total of 10 press conferences. Most of those featured him reading prepared remarks and then leaving without taking questions from reporters. When he does take questions, he tends to call on only preselected reporters from – in his own words – “a list I’ve been given.”

As a scholar of political communication and public relations, I have found through my research that public figures such as celebrities and sports stars in the age of social media are no longer concerned with answering reporters’ questions, holding press conferences or giving interviews.

Why should LeBron James care about reporters when he can share his unfiltered opinions freely and instantly with his 146 million Instagram followers and his 53 million Twitter followers?

Donald Trump brought this perspective to the country’s highest office, tweeting about the presidency and ignoring and insulting reporters to their faces.

While Biden doesn’t trash the press the way Trump did, he hardly speaks to the public.

The White House press secretary routinely refuses to answer reporters’ questions. Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote in January 2023 that press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly responded to questions about classified documents found in Biden’s home and former office “by essentially not responding.”

Risky Business

I have published studies of presidential press conferences, looking at the effects of journalists’ asking tough questions. I have explored theories about politicians’ different strategies with the press and observed the effects on voters.

Critics point to various motives Biden might have for avoiding the press – and even so, late-night comics appear to have plenty of fodder from him. But empirical evidence and my research suggest that there are multiple reasons no president should want to give a press conference.

Understanding those risks does not mean I am justifying press avoidance by presidents. As a former journalist and a political campaign director for both Democrats and Republicans, I believe that public servants are derelict in their duties if they refuse to face the press. I’m not alone: The White House Correspondents’ Association accused Biden in 2021 of lacking “accountability to the public.” And in June 2022, a group of White House reporters officially complained about Biden’s inaccessibility , accusing him of practices “antithetical” to the “concept of a free press,” noting that “every other president before Biden (including Trump) allowed full access to the very same spaces.”

Dodging Questions – or Not

The first reason to avoid a press conference is that reporters may accuse the president of dodging questions. And viewers are likely to believe the allegations – regardless of what the president actually said. The tendency of political journalists to accuse presidents of deflecting questions has increased in recent decades and has become fairly common.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden was accused of dodging questions by numerous media outlets. A campaign spokesperson was even accused of dodging a question about Biden dodging questions.

I ran an experiment testing the effects of a journalist’s accusing politicians of evasion.

The voters in the study all saw the same questions and answers. For half of the voters, though, I edited the video to insert the journalist accusing the politician of dodging in an answer.

Voters who saw the journalist making the allegation believed the politician indeed dodged. Voters who saw the identical interview without the allegation of evasion thought the politician gave adequate answers.

What’s more: The politician shown in the experiment had not actually dodged. Voters seem to believe a reporter and disbelieve a politician.

No Good Answer

A second reason to avoid press conferences is that questions will tend to be unanswerable. As has been documented by decades of data, journalists frequently ask about divisive or controversial topics, and they word their questions in tricky ways.

There is no politically advantageous answer to such questions. Based on my research, journalists covering the White House tend to ask about topics that divide the country – such as abortion or gun control – for which any direct answer would offend some group of voters.

You Can’t Win

A third reason is that even if a question is not divisive, and the president answers it, many voters will still think the president is being deceptive.

I ran an experiment in which I filmed an interview of a politician either dodging or answering a journalist’s question. Regardless of what the politician actually said, Republican voters thought the politician was deceptive when he was a Democrat, and vice versa for Democratic voters.

Simply by having a party label, a president’s press conference will likely be skewed through a partisan lens no matter what he says.

TMI – Too Much Information

A final reason for a president to avoid giving a press conference: The more the public gets to know a president, the more they dislike him.

My own research has revealed why a president might become more unpresidential the more he holds press conferences. The more a politician’s words inevitably diverge from voters’ feelings and experiences, the less presidential he will seem to them.

Altogether, presidents probably will lose stature by holding a press conference. Journalists hold the upper hand, asking questions that pose a rhetorical minefield and wielding the power to accuse the president of evasion. And voters will tend to believe journalists’ criticism of the president even if a president honestly answers their questions.

Of course, if what the president is aiming for is not strategic expediency but simply fulfilling an obligation to be held accountable in his role, then the country wins when he holds a press conference – and in that way he does, too.

This story substantially updates a story originally published on March 19, 2021.

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  1. John R Moffett

    The media themselves have perpetrated much of the Red Team – Blue Team dynamics in our country today (think Fox vs. MSNBC), so that everything is framed in a biased (“my team vs. your team”) fashion. The sports mentality of it works very well to polarize the public and create a distraction from the actual problems faced by the country. People end up mad at the other team far more than they are angry about bad policies. It works very well to perpetuate the status quo, and also makes press conferences useless at this point. They always devolve into partisan bickering, and policies don’t even get mentioned.

    1. Rubicon

      Both the Republican and Democratic folks are all being manipulated by the US Financial Big Moneymakers. There’s a few lone politicians out there, but the Power of their Financial Bosses is Overwhelming to the point that more and more millions of common Americans are being bludgeoned.

  2. semper loquitur

    The enterprising journalist will come up with ways to engage with Biden’s attention, say, dressing up like a Girl Scout.

    1. Questa Nota

      Glad I was in between sips of coffee when reading that. Finally a laugh in an otherwise grim article.

      Imagine any current American politician in Parliament attempting to survive Question Time.

      1. semper loquitur

        I cannot. Every time any reporter asks Bidumb anything approaching a pointed question, his handlers immediately begin to shriek “Thank you! No more questions! That’s all for today!” at the top of their lungs. He would crumble under a serious interrogation.

  3. LawnDart

    So without a compelling reason to speak to media, it’s best for a public figure(head) to stay off camera– got it.

    I doubt this strategy would work well in a democracy: a media that served a public’s right to be well-informed would howl at the lack of access and make much of the public figure’s avoidence (“what are they hiding?”). Imagine if CNN or CNBC were news organizations, and they had a counter that showed “xx-days since Top Official has taken or answered any questions regarding activities of their office,” a press (and comedians) could have a field-day with this.

    Unlike countries where governments are more or less held to account by citizens, I think that the Biden admin is setting a new standard by reshaping the lingering expectation of a duty to inform, and by closing public access to a government where accountability ended decades, if not a generation or more, ago. Also dumping or minimizing a lot of the hokey, stage-settings greatly reduces the chance that a “mission accomplished” moment will come back to bite your behind.

    1. Rubicon

      Can you name even ONE Western Nation that listens anymore to what common citizens need and want? We can not even name one.

      ALL Western politicians are in the hands of the US/EU/UK Financial Hegemons. ALL Of them.

  4. p fitzsimon

    Has anyone evidence and not just motive that Biden, i.e. the U.S.A., blew up the Nordstream pipeline? I hear the accusation but never the evidence.

    1. .human

      As that famous line from Sleepers notes, and in our current age of great deceit, “You will not know who to trust.”

    2. Lex

      You mean the evidence from the investigations that none of us are allowed to see? Where do you expect this vital evidence to come from? Pretty sure if the evidence pointed to Russia, we’d have seen the evidence. And what on earth does this have to do with presidents avoiding the press?

      1. Ashburn

        I believe Sy Hersh said it best in quoting one of his friends reaction to his article on the Nordstream II pipeline sabotage “that he was a ‘master in deconstructing the obvious’.”

    3. JohnA

      Sweden has investigated the site and declared their findings are a state secret, not to be made public. I can almost guarantee that if any Russian flipper prints had been found in the vicinity, this would very definitely have become a front page splash in all western mainstream media.

    4. polar donkey

      Well, as soon as the NYT and Washington Post get a submarine, hire divers, and are given access by NATO poke around the site for an investigation, I guess we’ll just have to wait for Sweden to release its findings.

  5. Realist

    Has anyone else seen the deep fake Biden conference where he is announcing the resumption of selective service?

    It’s really amazing how realistic it looks and sounds, but luckily the trained observer will quickly notice how his eyes don’t glaze over and he doesn’t stutter, emit gobbledegook or forget where he is.

    Do his seemingly dementure related quirks make him hard to fake? I would have thought a more lucid orator like Obama would be childsplay to simulate in comparison!

    1. Hepativore

      In the 2024 election season, if Biden is too mush-brained by then to even respond to whatever dementia medication cocktail they give him before speeches, I would not rule out that the DNC tries to use a body double to pretend to be Biden when he absolutely has to appear in public. Any naysayers about it being the real Biden will then be smeared as Trump/Russia sympathizers.

      All that matters to the DNC is that either he loses but keeps more left-leaning candidates from even entering the primaries due to hesitancy over challenging an incumbent and keeps the DNC donors happy. If by some miracle Biden wins his reelection, Biden’s handlers will make him do anything that they want as he will probably be too senile to know what is going on, and obediently scribbles on the dotted line where he is told to sign.

      It would be like the classic trope of the clueless ruler being manipulated by evil advisors behind the scenes.

  6. Jeff

    To be fair to Biden, his cognitive decline isn’t his fault. As with Feinstein and Fetterman’s cognitive declines, it’s elder abuse and abuse of the disabled taking place publicly. It’s not really a surprise though. We’re the country that deserts the people in E. Palestine and lies to them about how safe the air and water are. Abusing the elderly and infirmed are just a few more bricks in the wall.

    You should be humiliated if you voted for any of these people.

    1. Rubicon

      A few months ago, a camera in the Well of The Senate, showed an informal gathering of Senators/Congress People/Vice President, but the camera kept its lense on Biden. It showed him wandering slowly around, bumping into people, while the folks there completely dismissed him as The President of The United States.
      It was a very sorry sight to behold.

      If you’ve been around older folks with their neurological issues, and you’re knowledgeable about those conditions; imagine what it is like for President Biden’s wife and family?
      It’s a tragedy for them and for ALL Americans in seeing this once vibrant man who is incapable of making sound decisions.

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