Apr 20, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How Biden, Trump favor safe spaces

President Biden tapes the "SmartLess" podcast in Manhattan in March. Photo: Biden for President

President Biden tapes the "SmartLess" podcast in Manhattan in March. Photo: Biden for President

President Biden and former President Trump have one big thing beyond old age in common: They duck difficult questioning by reporters, with historic stubbornness.

  • During his 3+ years in office, Biden has refused to give a single interview to White House reporters for The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. But he sat down twice with friendly comedian Jason Bateman and his podcast pals on "SmartLess."

Why it matters: Call it the safe-space election. Biden is more likely to talk to mainstream outlets, and Trump to echo chambers. But both pop up for questioning with sycophants, supporters and sympathetic journalists.

The big picture: It wasn't always so. Biden and Trump not long ago loved mixing it up with more serious reporters. But whether it's age or bitterness about coverage, they're hiding in their own witness protection program.

  • For Trump, it's mostly bitterness and contempt for the media. For Biden, confidants tell us privately it's partly fear the president will go off script or botch an answer that amplifies worries about his age. ("Not true," The White House's Andrew Bates responded.)

Case in point: This is the first time in 60+ years that the sitting president has stiffed the newsroom of The New York Times for a formal interview. (The White House regularly engages with the paper behind the scenes.)

  • Biden has given separate sit-downs to two friendly opinion columnists, David Brooks and Tom Friedman, who ate a tuna salad sandwich and credited the president with "the best performance of alliance management and consolidation" since President George H.W. Bush.

Beginning with JFK, every other president has sat for an interview with a Times newsroom journalist. The tradition dates to FDR, who served 1933-1945.

  • The one possible gap, The Times tells Axios, was Dwight Eisenhower, who preferred talking to reporters in groups as opposed to one-on-one interviews.
  • Elisabeth Bumiller, the paper's Washington bureau chief, told Axios that The Times has proposed a series of interviews on foreign policy, among other overtures. Peter Baker, the paper's chief White House correspondent, has covered five presidents. "The correspondents for the major papers are deeply immersed in the issues and have sharp follow-ups," said Bumiller, who covered President George W. Bush. "They're just tougher."

Reality check: New York Times readers aren't the voters who'll decide the election.

The other side: Trump frequently visits Fox News and ideological outlets. Exceptions this year include a marathon phone interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box" in March, and an interview with Spectrum News 1 Wisconsin.

For Biden, stops have included talking democracy with historian Heather Cox Richardson — and a podcast conversation with CNN's Anderson Cooper about facing grief.

  • Biden sat down last year for serious conversations with CNN's Fareed Zakaria and Scott Pelley of "60 Minutes." A Univision interview earlier this month got 7 million viewers across all platforms, the White House says.
  • Bates, the White House official, said: "President Biden is crisscrossing the country at a rate that often exceeds his predecessors' travel schedules, talking to the American people about their lives and the issues that matter most to them and executing an aggressive, modern, all-of-the-above communications and digital strategy that highlights how he's fighting for families and their values."

The tonal and topic contrast is stark. Trump has mixed it up in Vegas with the mixed martial arts podcast "UFC Unfiltered." Last month, he welcomed Brexiteer and Trump ally Nigel Farage to Mar-a-Lago for an interview on Britain's right-leaning GB News, which bills itself as "the People's News Channel."

  • Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said: "President Trump is more accessible to the press and the American people ... Here is the most basic question to underscore the point: Joe Biden, will you commit, right now, to debating President Trump?"
  • Biden, asked last month about debating Trump, said: "It depends on his behavior."

Context: Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson (Md.) University professor emerita, uses spreadsheets to track every exchange with journalists by U.S. presidents back to Ronald Reagan. She said Biden's approach is in keeping with the evolution of White House practices over four decades:

  • "Every president wants to go where the readers and viewers are."
  • For Reagan, that meant regular chats with TIME's Hugh Sidey. Under George H.W. Bush, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater gathered his staff in his office to watch the 6:30 p.m. network newscasts.

By the numbers: Kumar, noting that Biden's interview pace has been increasing this re-election year, counts 117 interviews from his inauguration through April 16 — 29 with Black and Latino outlets.

  • Trump, by contrast, gave 326 interviews through the comparable period in his presidency, Kumar's meticulous tally shows.
  • While Biden hasn't had as many interviews with reporters as some predecessors, he has held 568 short Q&A exchanges where he has answered one or more questions.

Kumar found that during the equivalent time in his presidency, Ronald Reagan gave 15 interviews just to The Washington Post, including six with White House reporter Lou Cannon.

  • Reagan wrote in his diary after a 1984 Oval Office interview with reporters Lou Cannon and David Hoffman, and columnist Juan Williams: "3 journalists who usually kick my brains out. The Q's were OK but I'm not sure how honestly they'll treat the answers."
  • Biden has given one national print interview this year, to The New Yorker's Evan Osnos.

What they're saying: Marty Baron — the legendary former Washington Post executive editor, and author of the memoir "Collision of Power" — told Axios:

  • "Many among the public think the news staffs of these mainstream organizations are in bed with presidents like Obama and Biden. But Biden's team knows, just as Obama's did, that journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are going to ask them uncomfortably hard questions. Independence is a matter of principle in those newsrooms, and it should be."

Axios' Sophia Cai, Hans Nichols and Alex Thompson contributed reporting.

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