Biden’s Orchestra Pit Paradox

Biden understands he doesn’t need the media as much as they think he does.
Biden understands he doesn’t need the media as much as they think he does. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
August 14, 2023

Last week, after a “Bidenomics” event in New Mexico, Peter Doocy of Fox News approached the president to ask about the latest kernel of intrigue in the ongoing Hunter Biden scandal—the allegation that Hunter would sometimes put his powerful father on speakerphone to talk business with clients. “I never talked business with anyone,” Biden retorted. “I knew you had a lousy question.” Biden walked off with a scowl on his face, while Doocy landed another spicy sound bite that Fox could air over and over, on television, YouTube, and beyond.

Doocy said that Biden had actually waved him over to talk, a departure from the president’s usual habit of avoiding shouted questions from reporters. What jumped out at me from Doocy’s on-air recap, though, was that he also uttered a bit of self-own—not about himself or Fox News necessarily, but about the broader impulses of the White House press corps. “He wanted to talk about the transition to the green economy, he did not want to talk about [Hunter],” Doocy explained.

Has there ever been a more succinct description of how the press covers a president? The president wants to control his message and talk about his accomplishments. Reporters don’t want to play by those rules. Doocy’s remark about the New Mexico event fits nicely into The Orchestra Pit Theory, Roger Ailes’ timeless summation of how the media covers politics. “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?” Ailes said, back in 1988. We all know the answer. The nature of media has changed dramatically since then, but the fundamental behaviors of political reporters have not. This was the main thrust of my study about modern political journalism published by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, back in 2013.