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News Analysis | Biden’s remarks on Indian press stir up controversy at White House briefing

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US. President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Washington.   | Photo Credit: AP

The American and Indian press became part of the news last week, after President Joe Biden suggested, before journalists were allowed into the Oval Office on Friday for a ‘press spray’ , that he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi not take questions and that the Indian press was “much better behaved” than the American press.

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“The Indian press is much better behaved than the American press…I think, with your permission, we could not answer questions because they won’t ask any questions on point,” Mr. Biden can be heard saying in a video clip from an Indian television channel that was in the Oval Office, setting up before reporters arrived.

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The Indian press has been at the receiving end of restrictions and unflattering references from several quarters in Washington DC over the last few days, around the visit of Prime Minister Modi to the American capital .

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First, the issue around restrictive access to Mr. Modi’s events. Then, Mr. Biden’s hot mic moment, during which he said the Indian press were “much better behaved” than their American counterparts. Third, and most recently, in the framing of questions by American reporters at Monday’s White House press briefing.

‘Not a compliment’

Being called “better behaved” is not, generally, considered a compliment by journalists.

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Mr. Biden’s comments in this instance are similar to his predecessor’s from 2017.

“You have a friendly press,” former U.S. President Donald Trump said to Mr. Modi during the Prime Minister’s White House visit.

Asked on Monday, why the American President was criticising U.S. reporters in that setting, White House Press Secretary said, “Well I would note first that he took questions on Friday and he took questions again today. And I think what he said is that they're [the U.S. press] not always on point.”

“Now, I know that isn't something that anyone wants to hear in here [the White House briefing room], but what I think he was conveying is, you know, today he might want to talk about COVID vaccine …and some of the questions are not always about the topic he's talking about on that day. I don't think it was meant to be a hard cut at the members of the media,” she said.

Asked by another reporter if the President was “reticent” about taking questions in front of a foreign leader, in the context of Mr. Biden’s meetings last week with Mr. Modi and, before that, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Ms. Psaki denied that was the case.

“ … He’s taken questions standing next to a foreign leader many, many times in the past and will continue to,” she said.

Mr. Biden frequently addresses the press – however, these addresses often consist of calling on reporters using a pre-decided list of names.

Press freedom

Then came a question that appeared to speak to Mr. Biden’s lack of knowledge of the Indian press environment as well a poor ranking of the Indian press in terms of press freedoms.

“ The President said that the Indian press was better behaved than the U.S. press, but the Indian press is ranked 142nd in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders, for press freedoms. How does he say that about the U.S. press, compared to the Indian press?” a reporter asked Ms. Psaki.

“I would just say to you that having now worked for the President, serving in this role for nine months, having seen that he's taking questions from the press more than 140 times, including today, and Friday, that he certainly respects the role of the press, the role of the…free press. We ensure that we have press with us, of course, when we travel, that we have press with us for sprays in foreign capitals and we will continue to,” Ms. Psaki said.

“And I think that should speak to his commitment to freedom of press around the world.”

Neither leader answered questions after the Modi-Biden meet and reporters shouted questions out to them as the gathering was dispersing.

The Indian press pool for the bilateral meetings with Mr. Biden and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as for the Quad, had guaranteed spots only for state-run media and one private news agency. Some outfits were assigned more than one spot (such as for handling camera and associated equipment). The White House press pool is decided by a system administered by officials and the White House Correspondents Association, the rules of which are known and shared on request. The White House Press Office did not seem aware that access to the Indian press ‘pool’ for the events was not an equal opportunity process.

The Hindu was finally able to join the ‘press sprays’ at the start of each meeting (the only access any press was given). However, at no point was it informed that it would be allowed a place in these. It is still unclear how exactly this happened.

Mr. Modi did not address the press during his visit. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla held two on the record briefings during the course of the Washington portion of the visit.

Following the Quad meeting on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a press ‘gaggle’ at the White House. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga addressed the press on Friday evening and Saturday morning.


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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 7:16:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/news-analysis-bidens-remarks-on-indian-press-stir-up-controversy-at-white-house-briefing/article36706016.ece

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