A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Coming soon: A restoration of normal relations between the president and the press corps?
Well, President-elect Joe Biden is not going to call the media the “enemy of the people,” that’s for sure.
Biden went to church and spent time with his family on Sunday – a purposefully low-key day after Saturday morning’s projections by the networks and Saturday night’s victory event in Wilmington. Several of his aides fanned out on the Sunday shows to say, as deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said on “Meet the Press,” that “the work starts right away.” On “State of the Union,” senior adviser Symone Sanders said no one from the White House has called about a concession phone call yet, but “a number of Republicans from the Hill have reached out” to the president-elect. She also emphasized that Biden’s team is moving forward.
On “Reliable Sources,” I interviewed the campaign’s national press secretary TJ Ducklo, and I was struck by his statements about the role of the fourth estate. He said things like “the media has an incredibly important job to do” – words that would be uncontroversial at practically any other time in American history, but are newly important now, after four years of venomous attacks against the media by the commander in chief.
“President-elect Biden believes that the media is a critical piece of our democracy; that transparency is incredibly important,” Ducklo said. “You’ll remember we opened all of our fundraisers this campaign, opened to press so that folks could see what was going on and what was being said.”
Ducklo said Biden also believes “that the media’s job is to hold him accountable. He is there to do the people’s work. And, you know, he welcomes that relationship. He welcomes their role, the media’s role in our democracy. And I think it will be, frankly, the polar opposite what we have seen the last four years.” A reset is about to begin…
“They voted for truth”
I also asked Ducklo about the poisoned political information environment – think QAnon, InfoWars, Gateway Pundit, etc – and asked how Biden can possibly “heal” the nation and restore trust when this conspiracy culture is so prevalent.
“Well, look, that’s our job. It’s our job to bring the country together,” Ducklo said. “It’s our job to help the country heal.” He also commented, of Biden’s record number of voters, “they voted for truth. They voted, as the VP likes to say, on the stump, they voted for truth over lies. It is our job to continue to stand up for truth, to continue to stand up for facts…”
The transition team should hold regular press briefings
During the general election campaign, Trump was widely accessible but wildly dishonest, spreading lies through the media’s megaphones. Biden was less accessible but more truthful, though gaffe-prone and vulnerable to out-of-context attacks. So what now? How accessible will the president-elect be? On “Reliable Sources,” ABC chief WH correspondent Jon Karl said this:
“One symbol that I think would be very powerful and very important is for the Biden transition to begin immediately to hold regular press briefings. They haven’t done that as a campaign. It should happen now. It’s the media’s job to show that we ask tough questions of whoever is in power. We have certainly done that with Donald Trump. Now it’s certainly time to do it with President-Elect Biden.” Karl pointed out that “steps need to be taken to be sure everything is done safely” due to the pandemic, but it’s doable…
Will Biden make a ‘strong public commitment’ to press freedom?
Media law professor and CJR press freedom correspondent Jonathan Peters wrote on Twitter:
“There’s a variety of things any administration can do to shape press freedom and journalism practice (FOIA implementation, leak investigations, subpoenaing journalists, etc.), and they’re all important. But what I really hope the Biden-Harris administration does, early on, is make a strong public commitment to journalism and press freedom – to say emphatically that a free press, however imperfect, is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. One in which journalists work in good faith to inform their communities and to enable democratic participation. This kind of commitment would go a long way toward helping to restore respect for the norms that underlie press freedom and its exercise.”
My two cents
I’ve been saying this for a while on TV and in speeches but I don’t think I’ve written it down in this newsletter before. So here: The media’s adversarial approach that you’ve seen during the Trump years – demanding truth from power, calling out lies, criticizing indecency – that approach serves us well no matter who holds high office. If Biden says the blue sky is red, the media must call it out. Of course, different degrees of deception deserve to be treated differently. A slip of the tongue must not be equated with a smear campaign. But in all cases, the media stay on the side of the truth…