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Bickering with and insulting the press isn't new. How Biden's hot mic moment fits into presidential history

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WASHINGTON – American presidents live in a big white house that is often filled with reporters, cameras and microphones.

There's always going to be some tension.

Sometimes it spills out into the public, as happened Monday when President Joe Biden labeled Fox News' Peter Doocy as a son-of-a-you-know-what – the latest dust-up in the rocky relationship between presidents and reporters.

"It's not built to be friendly," said Harold Holzer, author of "The Presidents Vs. The Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media." "It's supposed to be adversarial."

US President Donald Trump points to ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 6, 2020, in Washington, DC.
US President Donald Trump points to ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 6, 2020, in Washington, DC.

And it often is.

Every president has had issues with what first chief executive George Washington called "infamous scribblers" who didn't hesitate to critique his administration. But every president – even Donald Trump, who infamously attacked the press as "an enemy of the people" – has dealt with reporters: Most of the time seriously, some of the time humorously and occasionally harshly.

"People don't like being criticized," Holzer said, "and presidents are no exception."

BIDEN'S HOT MIC: President caught calling reporter a 'stupid son of a b----' over inflation question

Historians all have their favorite president-reporters smack-downs. Here are some of them, starting with the most recent:

Joe Biden's hot mic moment

Biden made his special contribution to White House-media relations after Doocy asked him about elections: "Do you think inflation is a political liability ahead of the midterms?"

The president apparently found it a rather obvious inquiry. "No, it's a great asset," he muttered sarcastically under his breath, near a microphone. "More inflation ... What a stupid son of a b----."

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on efforts to lower prices for working families, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on efforts to lower prices for working families, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.

(The quotes are from a White House transcript, an exchange now etched into history.)

Screen shot of a transcript of remarks by President Biden before meeting with the White House Competition Council released by The White House.
Screen shot of a transcript of remarks by President Biden before meeting with the White House Competition Council released by The White House.

It's not a first for Biden. "C'mon, gimme a break, man," Biden once told a reporter who asked if his vaccination goal was ambitious enough.

Biden is also the guy who, as vice president in 2010, told President Barack Obama near another hot mic that signing the health care law was a "big (bleeping) deal."

While relations are generally friendly, reporters have criticized Biden for avoiding them. He held only seven solo news conferences during his first year in office – two at the White House, five while on foreign trips.

Donald Trump's long campaign against the press

Trump was a different president in so many ways – especially when it came to the media.

No president has vilified the mainstream press like Trump. He attacked reporters by name, promoted conservative news outlets that carried his propaganda and described the media overall as "unbelievably dishonest" as well as "the enemy of the people."

At mass rallies, Trump supporters and some of his aides verbally abused and threatened reporters. After a news conference in 2016, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabbed the arm of a reporter and forced her out of Trump's way as she tried to ask him a question. The reporter later tweeted a photo of her bruised arm.

"Trump was different because he didn't just insult members of the press, but he threatened them," Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication at Texas A&M University and author of "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump." "He used his coercive power against the press – both as candidate and as president."

To be sure, Trump enjoyed taking questions from reporters and did so often in all sorts of settings. Privately, he was friendly with reporters and had a good rapport with many of them.

Publicly? Another story.

The 45th president called out individual journalists as "an incompetent moron," "a sleaze" and just plain "stupid."

US President Donald Trump, flanked by White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, speaks to reporters onboard Air Force One after a campaign rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin on September 17, 2020.
US President Donald Trump, flanked by White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, speaks to reporters onboard Air Force One after a campaign rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin on September 17, 2020.

TRUMP AND THE PRESS: Some of the notable moments CNN's Jim Acosta and the White House have clashed

At one point, the Trump administration suspended the White House press pass of CNN's Jim Acosta after a testy exchange with the president. It restored the credential after Acosta and CNN sued.

Trump was particularly insulting to women, especially women of color.

"She’s shocked that I picked her, she’s like in a state of shock," Trump said during a 2018 news conference to Cecilia Vega of ABC News.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs the White House September 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to Ohio for a campaign event.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs the White House September 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to Ohio for a campaign event.

"I’m not. Thank you, Mr. President," Vega said.

Trump shot back: "That’s okay. I know you’re not thinking. You never do."

During a 2020 new conference, Trump told Yamiche Alcindor of PBS: "Look, let me tell you something ... Be nice. Don't be threatening. Don't be threatening. Be nice."

Barack Obama sometimes got testy

Obama sometimes scolded reporters, especially if they interrupted him.

"Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview, all right?" Obama told one Texas-based reporter after a regional television interview in 2011.

President Barack Obama calls on a reporter after speaking about new rules aimed at deterring tax inversions, Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama calls on a reporter after speaking about new rules aimed at deterring tax inversions, Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington.

Obama was also known to criticize his press coverage in off-the-record sessions with reporters, especially in the area of foreign affairs. One of these sessions yielded Obama's own off-beat and succinct description of his foreign policy approach: "Don't do stupid s---."

Like many of his predecessors, Obama had an amiable relationship with journalists behind the scenes, even as many criticized him for not taking more questions in public. Obama often expressed irritation at shouted questions from reporters who drew near at presidential events.

George W. Bush and the New York Times

George W. Bush's most acerbic press critique came during his first presidential campaign in 2000 after he spotted Adam Clymer of The New York Times, who had written some tough pieces on Bush and running mate Dick Cheney.

“There’s Adam Clymer, major-league a------ from the New York Times.” Bush told Cheney.

“Oh yeah, he is ... big time," Cheney responded, adding another immortal phrase to the political lexicon.

Bush did not apologize, telling reporters that “I regret that it made it to the airwaves.”

US President George W. Bush (L) talks to reporters at the British Museum in London on July 19, 2001.
US President George W. Bush (L) talks to reporters at the British Museum in London on July 19, 2001.

The son of a president, Bush had many long-standing and friendly relationships with individual reporters, bestowing nicknames on some and chatting amiably about baseball and politics if the opportunity arose. He sometimes teased reporters, which didn't always go over well.

In 2006, Bush took an unfortunate poke at a reporter who wore sunglasses to a Rose Garden news conference – a reporter who had severe eye problems and was legally blind.

"Are you going to ask that question with shades on?" Bush asked.

"I can take them off," the reporter said.

"I'm interested in the shade look," replied Bush. "Seriously."

Bush then said "for the viewers ... there's no sun."

"I guess it depends on your perspective," the reporter replied.

Bush, who was unaware of the reporter's disability, did apologize for that one.

Bill Clinton's purple rages

In private, Clinton sometimes exploded into what aides called "purple rages," often directed at reporters.

He sometimes let it show on camera.

After Clinton announced in 1993 he would nominate appeals judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, and after Ginsburg's moving speech about her rise in the legal profession, reporter Brit Hume asked the president about claims of "a certain zigzag quality" in his decision-making process.

President Bill Clinton stops and talks to reporters as he leaves a White House ceremony in Washington, Monday, April 26, 1993.
President Bill Clinton stops and talks to reporters as he leaves a White House ceremony in Washington, Monday, April 26, 1993.

Clinton's angry reply: "I have long since given up the thought that I could disabuse some of you of turning any substantive decision into anything but a political process. How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me."

He cut off the news conference.

Clinton also used humor to jab members of the media. At a press dinner in 1993, Clinton expressed his preference for a certain talk show by saying: "You know why I can stiff you on press conferences? Because Larry King liberated me from you by giving me the American people directly."

Ronald Reagan pretended not to hear questions

Reagan had a habit of brushing off questions from the press.

As he walked to or from the presidential chopper, Reagan would cup his ear and pretend not to hear questions shouted by reporters who were kept far away – unless it was a question he seemed to want to answer.

Reagan also used humor with an edge to spar with the press, including aggressive shouter Sam Donaldson, ABC's White House correspondent.

In this Dec. 8, 1984, file photo, President Ronald Reagan points to a reporter during a brief news conference in the White House press briefing room in Washington.
In this Dec. 8, 1984, file photo, President Ronald Reagan points to a reporter during a brief news conference in the White House press briefing room in Washington.

During a correspondents dinner in 1987, Reagan joked about the Iran-Contra weapons-for-money scandal: "I have to admit we considered making one final shipment to Iran, but no one could figure out how to get Sam Donaldson in a crate."

Reagan also made his fair share of attacks on the press, particularly television news accounts of his economic program: "Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off, that he should be interviewed nationwide?" he complained at one point.

Richard Nixon's hostile relationship with the media

The Nixon White House had a historically hostile relationship with the the media, most famously in a dust-up with Dan Rather of CBS News during the heat of the Watergate investigation in 1974.

As Nixon took questions from reporters in front of a crowd in Houston, the Texas-born Rather won a smattering of applause when he rose to make his inquiry

“Are you running for something?: Nixon asked (and not in a friendly way).

“No sir, Mr. President," Rather replied. "Are you?”

The Nixon administration put specific journalists on its "Enemies List," and talked about physical attacks on at least one of them, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson. Nixon aides mulled plans to poison Anderson's medications, or plant LSD on his car's steering wheel.

Thanks to his White House tapes, Nixon's scathingly low opinion of the press is enshrined for posterity.

In a 1972 conversation, Nixon told aides: "Never forget the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy ... Write that on a blackboard 100 times."

Lyndon Johnson and barnyard epithets

LBJ occasionally brought in reporters for private chats, including a memorable exchange with Charles Mohr of the New York Times.

When Mohr asked Johnson about staff raises, the president glowered and used one of his favorite barnyard epithets: “Here you are, alone with the President of the United States and the Leader of the Free World, and you ask a chicken-shit question like that.”

Mohr later wrote that LBJ added “Yes, yes, that’s right. You want to run that, you go ahead.”

John Kennedy's use of humor

Kennedy was another president who used humor to troll reporters.

Asked at a news conference about his treatment by the press, Kennedy responded: "Well, I'm reading more and enjoying it less."

Harry Truman sparred by post

The tart-talking Missourian lashed out famously at one journalist the old-fashioned way – by letter.

After Washington Post music critic Paul Hume wrote a less-than-glowing review of a performance by daughter Margaret Truman, the president sent a letter that appeared to threaten physical violence.

"Some day I hope to meet you," Truman said. "When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below.”

'Part of presidential life'

Republicans condemned Truman – just as each party has condemned the other's president after one of these exchanges.

"I think it's just a part of presidential life," said John Murphy, a University of Illinois professor who specializes in political rhetoric.

Exploiting it can be tricky, Murphy said. In 1960, Republican candidate Nixon "piously condemned" Truman's profanity, comments that "came back to haunt him after the tapes were released," he said.

All presidents have complained about parts of the press at one time or another.

Even Washington, the very first president, said he didn't want to seek a third term because he was “disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.”

Franklin Roosevelt, whose news conferences with reporters in the Oval Office were most often off the record, would describe some reporters as dunces. When one persistent scribe kept asking FDR about the prospect of running for a third term in 1940, he replied, "oh, Bob, go put on the dunce cap and stand in the corner."

In the old days, interactions between presidents and the press were pretty controlled, said Mercieca, the Texas A&M professor of communication.

"It was typical for a president's colorful language to be hidden from the public," she said. "That's less true now that 'authenticity' is more prized and we have more cameras running."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden joins a long history of U.S. presidents insulting the press

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