If you’re a halfway decent journalist, chances are you’ve been criticized by some of the people you report on. Or yelled at. Or denigrated. Or cursed out.
It comes with the territory, along with threats to sue if you publish a controversial story.
But usually it happens away from the cameras.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a formal news conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 19, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
With President Biden, it’s increasingly happening with White House correspondents, sometimes on hot mics that by this point, the guy who was caught praising Barack Obama’s health law as a big blanking deal must know are an occupational hazard.
I’ve covered Biden on and off since the 1980s, and he used to like sparring with reporters. That suggests to me he is really feeling the pressures of the presidency during this very rough stretch, and for all his time on the national stage he’s not used to having every word analyzed and criticized.
The problem is he’s starting to look thin-skinned. And petty. There are a dozen different ways that a president can defuse questions he doesn’t like, from humor to deflection to all-out defense. He can even challenge the premise of the question.
And look, journalists sometimes ask obnoxious questions. Or unfair questions. Or, if they work for television and are under the briefing-room lights, grandstanding questions. That’s life. Professional politicians and press secretaries have to be able to deal with it.
Now Donald Trump obviously went much further as president. He regularly called journalists morons and idiots, fake news and enemies of the people, which his base loved, and I just as regularly criticized the over-the-top rhetoric. But there’s a crucial distinction: The former president was covered with what became outright hostility–this was far deeper than Jim Acosta–and his way of counter punching in an effort to discredit his interlocutors.
Biden, by contrast, has generally drawn sympathetic coverage until recent months. And even the more aggressive questions he fielded at last week’s marathon presser were about his policies and performance, rather than questioning his character.
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: U.S. President Joe Biden talks to reporters during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. With his approval rating hovering around 42 percent, Biden is approaching the end of his first year in the Oval Office with inflation soaring, COVID-19 raging and his legislative agenda stalled on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Which brings us to the Peter Doocy incident.
Look at the question that Doocy shouted at an event on Monday: "Do you think inflation is a political liability in the midterms?" It’s a routine, bland inquiry that has been the subject of substantial political debate.
Biden tries sarcasm–"It’s a great asset"--and then mutters: "More inflation. What a stupid son of a b----."
What an overreaction.
To his credit, Biden later called Doocy and said, "It’s nothing personal, pal." And Doocy brushed off the whole episode with grace and dignity, saying Biden had called to "clear the air" and that he told the president he tries to ask questions that are different from everyone else. Doocy even joked on air that no fact-checker has proved Biden wrong.
U.S. President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Over the weekend, Biden said "stupid question" to another Fox reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, who asked why he was waiting for Vladimir Putin to make the first move on Ukraine.
But while much of the media reaction has been silence or anti-Fox–though CNN’s Jake Tapper did say he doesn’t think "any president should be calling any journalist a dumb son of a b----"--even this is not about Fox News Channel. At a summit with Vladimir Putin last year, Biden insulted CNN’s Kaitlan Collins for pressing him about how he could call their meeting constructive: "If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business."
The president later apologized, saying he had been a "wise guy."
But in the next moment, Biden told his pool that he never got asked positive questions–which is obviously untrue–adding, "To be a good reporter, you got to be negative, that you got to have a negative view of life, it seems to me."
And this didn’t start when he was sworn in. During the campaign, when CBS’s Bo Erickson asked if he had any reaction to the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop, Biden said: "I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask."
It’s clear that Biden has a bit of a temper. But the presidency requires great discipline, whether dealing with foreign leaders, recalcitrant lawmakers or daily journalists. If the president could learn that lesson, he could stop having to apologize.