President Joe Biden wants to restore America’s faith in its democracy. He’s starting by repairing the government’s broken relationship with the press, the reporters of truth responsible for holding politicians accountable.
Former President Donald Trump and his administration were at war with facts. In his routine effort to spread falsehoods big and small, Trump labeled the press as “the enemy of the people,” regularly riling up his supporters to attack the media, and avoiding facing the press at daily briefings — in one stretch, for nearly a year.
In stark contrast, Biden made a concerted effort in his first moments in office to reset the White House’s relationship with reporters. Biden referenced truth several times in his inaugural address Wednesday, and Press Secretary Jen Psaki held her first briefing just seven hours into the new presidency.
The inaugural address
“We must reject the culture where facts themselves are manipulated — and even manufactured,” Biden said in his inaugural speech.
The urgency of a facts-first administration was made clear when an insurrectionist mob attacked the Capitol on January 6. Incited by the big lie about a stolen election that Trump and his supporters manufactured, rioters desecrated America’s greatest symbol of democracy, leaving five dead in the siege’s wake.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson: There is truth and there are lies — lies told for power and for profit,” Biden said in his address. “And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders — leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation — to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
Biden’s speech foreshadowed “a serious attempt at a healthier relationship” with the press, Riley Roberts, an Obama administration speechwriter, told CNN Business.
Press briefings set the tone
Trump, who picked fights with the press during his campaign, set a combative tone for his relationship with the media in the first days of his administration. His first press secretary, Sean Spicer, chastised reporters in his first press briefing that was held on Trump’s second day in office. He accused journalists of “deliberately false reporting” on the inauguration’s crowd size, a claim belied by photographic evidence and government data.
Each of the Trump administration’s four press secretaries declined to hold daily briefings for long stretches. His third press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, held zero televised briefings, although she appeared regularly on Fox News.
When they held briefings, Trump’s press secretaries routinely berated the press, calling them “fake news,” claiming Trump was a victim of unfair reporting.
To repair the White House’s fractured relationship with the press, Psaki held a far more collegial and “normal” daily briefing Wednesday. She pledged to hold daily weekday briefings and to tell the truth.
“I have a deep respect for the role of a free and independent press,” Psaki said, addressing the reporters in the room. “We have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”
Although Psaki noted the media and the White House won’t always agree, she and Biden acknowledged that dissent and holding politicians to account is the bedrock of American democracy.
“The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our Republic, is perhaps our nation’s greatest strength,” Biden said in his inaugural address.
Focusing on facts
“When Biden talks about the crisis in our democracy, he sees the press as one of those core institutions of democracy that has been harmed,” Dylan Loewe, Biden’s former speechwriter and Kamala Harris’ memoir collaborator, said in an interview.
The Biden administration wanted to make that clear from the jump, as well as signal a desire to shift the tenor of that relationship, PBS Newshour’s White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor told CNN Business.
“After four years of a president who routinely lied and attacked reporters, it is clear [Biden and Psaki] are trying to rebuild trust,” Alcindor said, adding that it is essential that journalists move forward and focus on truth, justice and transparency.
Looking ahead at the future of journalism under the Biden administration, a well-informed press will lead to a well-informed public. And after enduring a tumultuous relationship with Biden’s predecessor, it’s crucial that journalists remain critical.
The briefing room will likely feel less combative and more transparent, and the distribution of factual information will provide reporters with a stronger foundation to work from when they are producing stories and aiming to inform the public.
“We, as reporters, will be pushing for information, pressing for details and holding Biden accountable,” Alcindor said, indicating that journalists will fact-check Biden the same way they fact-checked Trump.