The Biden Campaign’s Losing Battle

Watch a few minutes of the NBA Finals, and you’ll likely notice how the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic argues with the officials every time a whistle blows in his direction. “Working the refs” is a long-standing tradition, but Doncic, one of basketball’s marquee stars, takes complaining to a new level. In his eyes, the referees are incapable of correctly calling the game, no matter the circumstance. Whining has become muscle memory.

A similar dynamic has lately been playing out between members of President Joe Biden’s campaign staff and journalists. Each week, Biden-team members and a cadre of notable Democrats spend hours locked in a public spat not just against former President Donald Trump, but against the media.

Recently, TJ Ducklo, a Biden-campaign senior adviser for communications, posted on X: “The President just spoke to approx 1,000 mostly black voters in Philly about the massive stakes in this election. @MSNBC @CNN & others did not show it. Instead, more coverage about a trial that impacts one person: Trump. Then they’ll ask, why isn’t your message getting out?” Responding to Ducklo, the election statistician turned Substack writer Nate Silver pointed out that Democrats often lament that the media don’t cover Trump’s misdeeds enough. Ducklo fired back: “This perfectly incapsulates [sic] the disconnect between the ivory tower/beltway know-it-alls and voters. Donald Trump’s trials don’t impact real people. They impact Donald Trump. His horrific, draconian, dangerous policies impact voters. Cover those. Stop covering polls & process.”

To suggest that a former—and potentially future—president’s legal woes are items not worth discussing is, frankly, absurd. But Ducklo’s complaint was part of a much larger theme: Biden’s allies believe that journalists are failing to meet the moment; that they’re falling back on horse-race coverage and ignoring the knock of fascism at America’s door.

Many Biden supporters and campaign staffers have fashioned this argument into a shield against any critical coverage of the president. Like a previous White House occupant raving about “fake” stories, they sometimes behave as if they are the arbiters of what’s newsworthy at all. Sounding a bit like Donald Trump isn’t the only problem with this strategy, though; it’s also highly unlikely to advance the campaign’s larger goal of actually winning the election.

Biden’s first bid for president, in 1988, was one of the subjects covered in Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, a masterpiece of the campaign-journalism genre. When Cramer died from lung cancer in 2013, Biden, then serving as vice president, spoke wistfully at his memorial service. Although Biden has endured his share of embarrassments that have triggered unflattering news cycles across his decades in public service—including a plagiarism scandal that ended his ’88 bid—he has maintained an apparently earnest belief in the role of journalism in upholding democracy. Now some members of his 2024 team worry that the press has become Trump’s unwitting accomplice.

[David A. Graham: How Musk and Biden are changing the media]

Rather than reserve their concerns for phone calls, as was custom for virtually every pre-Trump presidential campaign, they are following Trump’s lead and making their attacks public. “Online and on social media, you’ve certainly seen Biden’s aides get into it more with reporters,” David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent, told me. “God knows these are conversations that would have taken place in private before.”

Headlines, specifically those that appear in The New York Times, are daily points of consternation. Campaign gripes sometimes seem to share a wavelength with the X parody account New York Times Pitchbot, which has carved out a niche satirizing “both sides” journalism. Ammar Moussa, the Biden campaign’s director of rapid response, posted on X recently that The Wall Street Journal had committed “unbelievable journalistic malpractice” for its story on what members of Congress allegedly say behind closed doors about the president’s mental acuity. The complaint among Biden’s allies was that the story didn’t include enough quotes from people who believe the president is up to the job.

Speaking broadly about this moment, Ducklo told me, “Media can’t cover this election like this is George W. Bush versus Al Gore. Donald Trump is a fundamentally, uniquely different candidate that has to be covered in a uniquely different way than ever before.” What does this look like in practice? The Biden campaign seems to believe that journalists should stop reporting on polls, rallies, and other tentpoles of traditional presidential races, and instead devote their resources to telling Americans that Trump wants to be a dictator, over and over again. If that means ignoring Biden’s missteps and weaknesses, well, the Biden campaign can accept that.

When I asked the Biden campaign about its relationship with the media, it emailed me a statement: “This election isn’t just about a few minor policy differences—we are running against a guy that has all but promised to erode American democracy, rule as a dictator and strip Americans of their freedom … Donald Trump has fundamentally changed the stakes of this election, and we firmly believe it is everyone’s job to not take their eye off the ball of just how dangerous Donald Trump has become to the basic fundamentals this country was founded on, the free press especially.”

Most of the people willing to speak on the record about this issue have the word former in their job title. Former Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz, who served in Barack Obama’s administration, has become one of the most fiery Democratic voices on the perceived 2024 problem. “WSJ adopting the Arthur Sulzberger extortion approach: give us an interview or we’ll parrot Republicans that Biden is too old,” Schultz posted on X recently, attacking both that contentious Journal report and the New York Times publisher in the space of a few words.

“You’re right, I pop off a lot on this online,” Schultz told me. He also acknowledged that most readers of publications like the Times are probably supporting Biden, and that it’s the “low-information voters” whom Democrats need to do a better job of winning over. The instrument to reach swing voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, for example, is not the Times, Schultz said, but “that doesn’t mean the way The New York Times covers this race is insignificant.”

Schultz, who playfully referred to himself as a “Democratic hack,” said that he believes the media have fallen into their “worst habit” of covering only a single story each campaign cycle. In 2016, he said, that story was Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Although the media did obsess over Clinton’s emails, former FBI Director James Comey’s very public investigation into the subject is what made it impossible to avoid. At any rate, reporters devoted tons of resources to documenting the 2016 Trump campaign’s many scandals, including the infamous Trump Tower meeting about potential “dirt” on Clinton, and the Access Hollywood tape. Journalists were extremely tough on Trump then, as they are now.

But Schultz sees the past differently and now believes that 2024’s “single” media narrative is Biden’s age. He argued that if you were to ask 100 D.C. reporters which candidate is more capable of thinking through and discussing any policy issue, “100 of them would say Joe Biden.” Yet Biden, he said, is the only one who gets hammered on age. Schultz even went so far as to say that political journalists have become Trump’s enablers: “The confluence of the burn-it-all-down message and journalists having a long-standing bias towards negativity … it amounts to putting the thumb on the scale for Donald Trump.”

[Mark Leibovich: Ruth Bader Biden]

Kate Bedingfield, a member of Biden’s 2020 campaign team who went on to become his first White House communications director before leaving last year, echoed Schultz’s larger critique. “I am not arguing that Biden should never be criticized,” she told me. “I don’t believe that.” Yet she also said that Biden’s flubs on the campaign trail were being covered with the same intensity as, for instance, a Trump statement about how he’d subvert the Constitution. “Those two things are not comparable, and I don’t think it’s a partisan statement to say that,” Bedingfield said.

Biden allies are quick to bring up variations on that theme: The candidates are not comparable, but they’re being covered as if they were. Kate Berner, the White House deputy communications director until last year, suggested that one obvious and major difference between Trump and Biden was precisely their relationship with the media: Reporters feel “unsafe” covering Trump events, not Biden events.

I have covered many Trump rallies and have never felt unsafe, even when asking his supporters difficult questions. It’s true, though, that vilifying the media has been a building block of Trump’s political identity. Once, in an interview with 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl, Trump explained his motivation: The more he went after the media, the less voters would trust any negative story published about him. This strategy, in tandem with one coined by his former adviser Steve Bannon, to “flood the zone with shit,” has succeeded. And if Trump returns to office next year, he has threatened to prosecute his adversaries—potentially including journalists.

The Biden campaign doesn’t menace journalists, but it doesn’t trust them, either. Biden has held the fewest press conferences of any American president since Ronald Reagan. And Biden staffers clearly believe they have every right to set the agenda of journalistic decision making. As Berner put it, “There’s plenty of work that the White House and the campaign and others do behind the scenes to shape a story, to push back, to have editorial conversations. But when coverage is particularly out of bounds, it’s fair for them to make those criticisms public, because working the refs publicly is an important way of taking that spotlight and turning it around back on them.” That this statement sounded Trumpian seemed lost on her.

Few people better understand the competing motivations of the media and politicians than David Axelrod. Long before becoming an architect of Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign and a White House adviser, Axelrod was a newspaper journalist. He told me about covering City Hall in Chicago and having mayors threaten to expel him from the building because they didn’t like the stories he was writing. Axelrod’s opinion on this strategy is that it’s ineffective.

“Generally, my view is if you are spending your time complaining about news coverage, it’s kind of a loser’s lament and a waste of time,” Axelrod said. He went on: “Trading snarky asides with members of the news media is not, to me, putting points on the board. Unless you’re going to embrace the idea that Trump has, which is you’re gonna make the news media a foil … I don’t really sense that’s their plan,” he said of the Biden campaign.

“Sometimes you’re going to get a bad story that you deserve,” he add later. “And sometimes you’re going to get stories that you don’t like, but that are within the parameters of what good reporting is. And those you should let go.”

Trump can win this race without favorable media coverage: By spending the better part of a decade turning the press into his staunch adversary, he’s become dependent on negative stories. Critical reporting fires Trump up, but it also gives him material that he can use, in turn, to fire up his base. Trump has sold millions of voters on a fantasy world in which “crooked” journalists peddle “fake news” even when they’re recording, reporting, and broadcasting his quotes verbatim. He and his voters believe that any election Trump loses is “rigged.” That the former president’s trials are all “shams.” That the Democrats are one enemy, the Department of Justice is another, and the media are a third.

[From the January/February 2024 issue: Is journalism ready?]

Biden is in a different, arguably opposite position. His campaign argues that Democrats, unlike Republicans, are actually tethered to reality. Biden’s people are desperately trying to convince voters that the country is in much better shape than most Americans seem to believe. That elections are safe. That the economy, and unemployment, are not as bad as you’ve heard. Biden’s team needs voters to trust reputable publications that reliably print and publish facts—such as the Times and the Journal.

Then some campaign staffers and high-profile Democratic supporters turn around and attack these publications, in the process casting doubt on their reliability. It’s a losing proposition.

When Luka Doncic works the refs, he’s not helping his cause. Last Wednesday, during a pivotal game in the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, he was forced to sit on the bench with just minutes to go after fouling out (and complaining about it). When Biden-campaign allies work the media, they’re at best wasting time, suggesting that they have run out of better ideas for how to try to save their candidate.

Biden’s belief in the Constitution means he supports a free and independent press. Authoritarians rise by lying and sowing mistrust. If journalists are truly going to combat that force—as Biden’s campaign implores them to do—they will have to be honest and rigorous about not just Trump but also his opponent.