It’s a major test for news organizations and reporters in covering Biden.
And Joe Lockhart, a press secretary under President Bill Clinton, fears the press corps won’t be able to resist walking in with the mentality of, “We’re gonna show all the MAGA people we can be just as tough on Biden as we were on Trump.”
There’s never a shortage of bluster at a televised White House briefing, but this week, it will almost inevitably center on the heated subject of immigration at the Texas border, where a legitimate crisis has been taking shape as thousands of children have crossed into the United States seeking asylum.
So far, our political press corps has been treating the issue with far more heat than light. This past weekend, ABC News relocated its “Powerhouse Roundtable” — the panel discussion segment of its Sunday morning news show — to the Texas border. It was hard to say just what that accomplished other than declaring the subject Extremely Important.
Or witness the framing that NBC’s “Meet the Press” gave its coverage of the border situation — “a political crisis for the new president, with no easy way out,” Chuck Todd declared in his most serious voice.
So hot is the issue right now that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared on no fewer than five Sunday shows.
The burgeoning number of migrants — including thousands of children — is a legitimate concern and a valid story. But much of the news media seems to be using it to show that they intend to present Biden in just as critical a light as they often did Trump — regardless of whether that’s deserved.
Of course, the administration hasn’t helped this dynamic by refusing news media access to government detention facilities. That pushes a lot of buttons for reporters who are hard-wired to equate transparency with policy wisdom. Which isn’t always the case.
But framing questions as if immigration began with Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay for a border wall ignores decades of complicated history. So it’s important that reporters show some historical perspective and provide a lot of context to the discussion.
By bringing an understanding of how immigration trends have developed over many years — not just the past 60 days — they can do their job well.
Will they? It’s hard to be too optimistic.
A recurring problem that Lockhart noted during the coverage of Trump’s coronavirus briefings: The reporters who knew the most about the subject were not the ones asking the questions.
Political reporters cover the president, and as knowledgeable and talented as they may be, they lack the expertise of science or health journalists — or in this case, longtime immigration reporters — who can best respond to what’s being said, which includes knowing how to challenge it with deep knowledge.
Instead of insight into the crisis, you get the political frame: How will it play with elected officials and their constituents? How will Trump’s allies play this story? What will Tucker Carlson have to say?
For the White House press corps, there’s also a temptation to play to the crowd. Every TV reporter has to be thinking about the 10-second clip of their question that might be used on Thursday’s newscast, establishing them as the star du jour who bravely challenged the president.
Journalists have been agitating for weeks for a first Biden news conference, noting that he’s kept us waiting longer than any other new president in decades. Trump and Barack Obama both held one within their first month in office.
Many Democrats have scoffed at those calling for Biden to meet the assembled press. I disagree. It is important for the president to field questions directly from the news media, even when his press secretary has regularly represented him in near-daily briefings.
And it is important for the public to see this vital form of accountability.
What it shouldn’t turn into, though, is a performative exercise in equating two administrations, just to show how tough we are.
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