White House press secretary Jen Psaki pledged at her first press briefing in January to provide transparency and respect for the free press.
On Monday, Ms. Psaki complained that reporters won’t stick to the Biden administration’s daily talking points.
She changed her attitude after several high-profile skirmishes that undercut President Biden’s campaign promise to be a champion of the free press.
Reporters have complained about Mr. Biden’s unwillingness to answer questions and the White House staff’s efforts to shoo them out of the room before the president veers from his scripted remarks.
Critics say White House staffers have shielded Mr. Biden from getting testy with the press or from mangling statements so Republicans can’t use clips to raise questions about the president’s cognitive abilities.
Efforts to shut down reporters have only fueled questions about cognitive decline rather than extinguish them, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog, and a former White House reporter.
“Some of these gaffes are minor, like pronouncing someone’s name incorrectly,” he said. “The problem is they know these things will be exploited by conservative media and that is what the Biden’ p.r.’ team is worried about. The ‘p.r.’ team really hates the conservative media saying he’s senile. They don’t want a clip where he looks like he’s losing it.”
Ms. Psaki has insisted the president isn’t avoiding the press. She said Mr. Biden answered questions 135 times leading up to September.
“He certainly respects the role of the press, the role of the freedom of the press, the free press, [and] we ensure that we have press with us, of course, when we travel, that we have press with us for [brief question-and-answer sessions] in foreign capitals, and we will continue to. And I think that speaks to his commitment to freedom of press around the world,” she said.
Still, she revealed in a May podcast with CNN’s David Axelrod that aides encourage Mr. Biden not to engage with reporters who shout questions during his public appearances.
“That is not something we recommend,” Ms. Psaki said. “In fact, a lot of times we say, ‘Don’t take questions.’”
Mr. Biden has been less accessible to the press during his first eight months than any other modern president, according to data from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
President Trump was antagonistic toward the press with angry rhetoric and labels of “enemy of the people” and “fake news.” Still, he was more accessible to the press, according to the data.
Through Mr. Biden’s first seven months, he has held seven press conferences, including joint conferences with other world leaders, according to UC Santa Barbara.
Mr. Trump had 21 press briefings in his first year, President Obama had 21 briefings and President George W. Bush held 19.
Mr. Biden waited longer than any other president in the past 100 years to hold his first press conference.
When Mr. Biden faced off with the press on March 25, he had been in office for more than 60 days. By the same point in their administrations, Mr. Trump gave five news conferences and Mr. Obama had two.
Ms. Psaki told reporters last week that she wasn’t sure when Mr. Biden would give another press conference. She said such an event was probably not at the top of the American public’s concern.
John Wihbey, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who has studied presidential communication, said Mr. Biden’s team overreacts to fears that he may misspeak.
“President Biden might commit a gaffe, but in recent exchanges seems quite lucid and makes jokes. I don’t think people should think it’s a liability,” he said. “They need to get over it, accept there might be a gaffe, but the American ideals of free expression and free exchange are more important to convey to the world.”
Frustration among White House aides and reporters climaxed last week after journalists were clumsily rushed out of the Oval Office before Mr. Biden’s meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr. Johnson took several questions from the British press. When American reporters started questioning Mr. Biden, White House aides shouted over them and rushed them out of the room.
The president attempted to answer a question about immigration, but the White House aides talked over his answer, rendering it undecipherable.
After the incident, the press pool immediately filed a formal complaint with Ms. Psaki’s office.
Ms. Psaki said she was unaware of the incident and suggested she was not in a position to offer an immediate solution, according to a dispatch from the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Several journalists in the room took to Twitter and vented their frustration.
One British reporter said the British press thought the shouting was out of line and called it “an unwelcome lack of accountability.”
The next day, Ms. Psaki tried to explain the chaos by blaming Mr. Johnson for calling on British reporters without alerting the White House in advance.
Tensions continued to simmer Friday when Mr. Biden told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that members of the Indian press corps were “much better behaved” than their U.S. counterparts.
“I think, with your permission, you could not answer questions because they won’t ask any questions on point,” Mr. Biden said, venting that the U.S. reporters don’t stay on topic.
Ms. Psaki defended the president’s remarks.
“Now I know that isn’t something that anyone wants to hear in here, but what I think he was conveying, as you know, today, he might want to talk about COVID vaccines [and] some of the questions were about that he might want to talk about, and some of the questions are not always about the topic he’s talking about in that day,” she said.
The incident with Mr. Modi is the latest example of Mr. Biden’s lashing at the press.
During a meeting with the Iraqi prime minister in July, Mr. Biden snapped at an NBC News reporter who asked about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ vaccine mandate.
“You are such a pain in the neck, but I’m going to answer your question because we’ve known each other for so long,” the president said.
In June, Mr. Biden apologized to a CNN reporter after losing his temper with her at the end of his press conference in Geneva.
Pressed on his optimistic view about his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Biden shot back that the reporter “was in the wrong business.” He later said journalists have a negative view of life.
The president stormed off when asked about the Afghanistan exit during a briefing to discuss Hurricane Ida. As he walked away, Mr. Biden insisted he wouldn’t take any questions on Afghanistan.
Mr. Whibey said the president is trying to playfully tease the press in a grandfatherly way, but the tone is coming across as awkward rather than funny.
“What might be fun towel-snapping with the press just isn’t hitting right,” he said. “If I were his handlers, I’d tell him to dial that back.”
Frustration is also boiling over in the press briefing room, where several journalists have complained that Ms. Psaki calls on the same people every day.
As Ms. Psaki concluded her briefing Wednesday, a reporter in one of the briefing room’s back rows asked her to call on journalists who sit in the back.
Although Ms. Psaki promised to start Thursday’s briefing by calling on reporters in the back, she rarely ventured beyond the first three rows, where most of the networks have seats.
A pool reporter covering Thursday’s briefing sent a note saying it ended with “many hands raised and questions unasked.”
On Friday, a White House reporter protested when Ms. Psaki sidestepped her question about imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The reporter, appearing exasperated, said she had been waiting for months to ask her question. She said emails she sent Ms. Psaki about Mr. Assange had gone unanswered.
A White House official told The Washington Times that Ms. Psaki isn’t able to take questions from every reporter and tries to move around the room. The official also noted that Ms. Psaki called on 54 different reporters representing 28 different news organizations over the last three briefings and that Mr. Biden took questions on Friday and Monday.