NEW YORK (AFP) – US President Donald Trump’s testy relationship with the US media is no secret, but his election rival Joe Biden has had a rather different experience during the 2020 campaign.
The Democratic former senator and vice-president has largely faced polite questions and only rare criticism, experts say, but some call the disparity a justified one given the Republican leader’s provocative style.
Trump has spent the better part of a week repeatedly attacking his opponent over unsubstantiated allegations concerning Biden, his son Hunter and a Ukrainian company suspected of corruption – and the media has followed suit.
But Biden only faced a question about the issue more than two days into the news hurricane, and he quickly swept it aside. The following day, Biden did not speak to reporters.
Finally, on Sunday, he replied to only one question… about the flavour of his milkshake.
“Question of the day for Joe Biden,” tweeted New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin. “Are you in hiding most of this week because you are only willing to answer milkshake-related questions?” On Tuesday, Biden put his active campaign on pause, two days ahead of his final debate with Trump.
‘No real access’
Trump has often accused the media of going soft on his adversary.
For months, access to the 77-year-old former vice-president has been far more limited than in any campaign ever before: Only about 20 national and international media organisations can follow him on the campaign trail.
Officially, Covid-19 restrictions are the reason, but everyone is not so sure.
“You would think that the press themselves, the people who are covering that campaign, would be frustrated by the fact that they’re not getting much information… that there’s no real access to the candidate on a daily basis,” said Richard Benedetto, a former White House correspondent for USA Today.
Nevertheless, complaints from the media have been few and far between.
“If every reporter who’s covering Biden was saying Biden’s avoiding us, then it’d become a mantra and people would understand that that’s going on, but if you’re not doing it, then nobody knows,” said Benedetto, who is now an adjunct professor at American University in Washington.
“If I’m a candidate and I figure I can get away with not having to commit to too many issues and not have to face the questions of the press on a regular basis, and that works, then why not continue to do that?”
Criticism of how Biden is covered transcends the specific issue of his son’s business dealings, and is not limited to conservative commentators, who have roundly denounced the mainstream media coverage.
Last week, when Trump and Biden participated in town hall-style events in place of a planned debate, the gap seemed stark: The president was grilled by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, while observers felt Biden got an easier ride from ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, a former top aide to president Bill Clinton.
“The questioning for Biden was much softer than the questioning for Trump,” Benedetto said. “There’s no question about it.”
Similarly in mid-September, Trump was questioned by Stephanopoulos during an ABC event that Politico described as an “icy grilling,” while characterising a subsequent CNN town hall with Biden as reminiscent of “an affable reunion of old acquaintances.”
For Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, the issue is not “as much how softly the media is treating Biden as it is how harshly the media is treating President Trump.”
Reeher believes that in its coverage of Biden, “it does often seem like the media is rooting him on.” The editorial boards at most of the top US newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post have endorsed Biden. Mass-market daily USA Today also backed Biden – its first-ever endorsement.
Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, admits that his paper’s job is to “very aggressively sort out fact from fiction” in covering Trump, while remaining “journalistically moral.”
‘Apples or oranges’
Some experts say the tougher approach to Trump is entirely merited.
“It’s a complete apples and oranges comparison,” says Gabriel Kahn, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“When you have a candidate that refers to the free press as the enemy and incites violence against members of the press, refuses to answer any straight questions and spills lie after lie about his record, to try to compare coverage of one candidate against the other in this situation is off-base.”
Dan Froomkin, the editor of the independent Press Watch website, agreed, writing in May it would be “journalistic malpractice” to cover Biden’s failings “in a way that makes them sound even comparable to Trump’s.”
But the former Washington Post and Huffington Post journalist admitted: “In a normal election cycle, problems like the ones Biden has would fuel way more media coverage than they are currently getting.”
He wrote that Biden must not be lulled into a false sense of security that “he is immune to press scrutiny.”
“Presidents need to be held accountable, and the period after Trump should be all about restoring accountability and transparency. That won’t happen with a supine press corps.”
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