It was pretty amazing when Fox News cut to a shot of the White House on Wednesday and the knee-jerk blood-pressure spike was quickly replaced by a feeling of relative calm.
Not coincidentally, former President Donald Trump was replaced by current President Joe Biden on Wednesday. Things have changed, right before our eyes. Not just administrations, but what’s required of journalists to cover them.
A lot of events, historic and otherwise, lend themselves to massive coverage by television news. The inauguration — this inauguration in particular — was one of them. You could chart the shift in history if you watched TV long enough, and I did.
“I love Inauguration Day,” Chris Wallace said as he signed on for Fox News’ coverage. “To me, it’s like Christmas morning for American democracy.” There were a lot of presents under that tree.
From Trump’s early morning exit (a combination of slinking away and self-aggrandizing), to a lengthy lead-up to Biden’s swearing-in, to Biden signing a mountain of executive orders, a drama-free media briefing and a COVID-19 mandated virtual celebration, Wednesday had a little bit of everything.
It’s no less than a new era for journalists and the people they cover. Not once during the day did Biden refer to the media as the enemy of the people. This shouldn’t be noteworthy. Yet it is. Disagreements with and critiques of media are not only unavoidable, but they’re also healthy. But Trump perverted that debate for his own purposes and damaged the notion of truth in the process.
Inauguration Day began with ‘vintage Donald J. Trump’
It started with Trump skipping town hours before Biden took office. He made a brief, for him, speech at Andrews Air Force Base that evidently did not impress Kyra Phillips of ABC News.
“It was vintage Donald J. Trump,” she said later in the day, adding, “He was supposed to have a nice sendoff. He was supposed to mention Biden. He was supposed to say some encouraging words about the new administration and he didn’t. He just said what he wanted to say. He talked about what he had done. He wouldn’t mention Biden’s name. He didn’t mention the inauguration.”
In fairness, Trump did wish the new administration the best. No, he didn’t mention Biden by name, nor did Biden mention Trump during his inaugural address.
“I wish the new administration great luck and great success,” Trump said. “I think they’ll have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular.”
But mostly he talked about what a good job he thinks he did over the last four years and suggested that we haven’t heard the last of him.
And then he boarded Air Force One for one last trip, on his way to Florida, to the blare of “YMCA” by the Village People. It was strange and didn’t fit the occasion and thus perfect. If nothing else, Trump stayed Trump to the bitter end.
These were the kind of antics media have struggled to cover in a meaningful way the past four years, trying to separate the wheat of news from the chaff of outrageousness, attention for attention’s sake.
‘American democracy was able to survive’
Biden went to Mass. As a split-screen showed Trump flying off and Biden walking to church, David Alexrod said on CNN, “It truly is the sacred and the profane, as the reality show leaves town.”
Wolf Blitzer, for his part, said there were only three hours left before Biden took the oath of office. He meant it as a countdown of what was left of Trump’s administration. It sounded more like a threat of talking heads chattering nonstop.
Not a threat, actually. A promise.
All the networks, broadcast and cable, covered the lead-up. The “Today” show talked with Biden’s granddaughters. On CNN, John King mused over whether Doug Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband, should be called the Second Dude.
King’s colleague Jake Tapper, like many other anchors and correspondents, referenced the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, inspired by Trump’s words, on Jan. 6.
“So many Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate were reminded that American democracy was able to survive, it does persist,” Tapper said. “It was tested certainly for months there, if not for years.”
Of course, the visuals were strange. Instead of a huge crowd in front of the Capitol and guests acked behind Biden, there was a gathering that looked like fans at a high-school basketball game, only much better dressed. Everyone wore masks when they weren’t addressing the audience, a stark departure from Trump gatherings. After everyone spoke, a man sprayed and cleaned the lectern, as a COVID-19 precaution.
Kamala Harris made history. Amanda Gorman stirred souls
Biden’s speech, about unifying a divided country, got mostly good marks immediately afterward.
More history: Sonia Sotomayor, the first woman of color to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, swore in Harris, the first woman of color to serve as vice president. It moved Juan Williams, on Fox News, to tears.
“Yeah, I don’t like doing that, but it just came out,” Williams said. “It’s visceral and I’ll tell you why. I have granddaughters. I’m the son of a Black mother. You think about American history, you think about the status of Black women in this country for most of our history, and the idea that a Black woman would assume such power in this moment as a national leader. Truly inspiring, the role that Black women played in this campaign. Tremendous.”
Everyone loved Amanda Gorman and her poem, “The Hill We Climb” — social media exploded with praise, and memes soon followed.
There was no traditional parade. Instead, there was “Parade Across America,” hosted by Tony Goldwyn, who played a president on “Scandal.” It was different and kind of fascinating, whether it was the High Country Cloggers from Boone, North Carolina, doing their thing, or a performance by the Chinese-American Community Center in Delaware.
There was much discussion of the Showtime Marching Band — of Howard University, Harris’ alma mater — before they performed. They lived up to the billing, and then some.
“The strength of our nation comes from the rich diversity of the culture of the American people,” a little girl said by way of introduction. We didn’t hear a lot of this kind of thing during the last four years.
Press secretary Jen Psaki’s first briefing set a fresh tone
Maybe we’ll hear more of it going forward. If you want a stark depiction of how media will cover Biden, White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s first press briefing provided it.
“When the president asked me to serve in this role, we talked about the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room,” Psaki said.
Think about that for a moment. Think about having to bring truth and transparency back. When did it ever go out of style?
Oh. Right. Psaki did dodge some questions. It seemed almost quaint, a throwback. Certainly, it was preferable to lies and attacks.
The night ended with “Celebrating America,” a star-studded entertainment special that was a far cry from Trump’s inauguration team trying to scare up big names for his celebration. And for the first time in a long time, people who cover the news could sign off for the night reasonably assured that no one would make a 2 a.m. claim of a stolen election, or a dishonest tweet attacking a perceived enemy.
That’s going to take some getting used to.
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