The hard work was seemingly over.
He had completed more than a week of talking and smiling with leaders of the US’s traditional allies, seeking to restore a relationship left more than a little bruised by Donald Trump. He was even walking off the stage at the end of what had been a pretty slip-free press conference at the end of his European visit.
Yet it was then, as he and his staff, and the assembled press, were preparing to return to the US, that Joe Biden made the amateur’s mistake of responding to a question thrown at him as he was heading towards the exit.
The president stopped in his tracks, turned around and raised a finger.
“I’m not confident. What the hell, what do you do all the time,” he snarled.
Biden then circled back to the media, and claimed he had not said Putin would change his mind. After Collins followed up with a second question, Biden concluded the exchange by saying: “If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business.”
Biden’s behaviour was instantly seized on by his critics. Some outrage came from predictable quarters.
Donald Trump’s former counsellor KellyAnne Conway, apparently suffering from amnesia in regard to the 45th president’s frequent bullying of female reporters, particularly women of colour, as well as his frequent habit of making misogynistic and racist comments, accused Biden on Twitter of “sexist mansplaining”.
Conservative commentator and podcaster Ben Shapiro said that had Trump made such a comment, “all we’d get for three weeks is lectures on sexism and attacks on our free press”.
Yet, criticism of the way Biden responded to Collins extended beyond his political opponents, with a number of commentators suggesting the president would not have reacted in the same way had the questioner been a man.
“I saw it and I went ‘Wow’, and my first reaction was if it had been a male reporter, would Biden have been as dismissive and acerbic as he was, and my thought was he probably would not have,” Cristina Azocar, chair of the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University, told The Independent. “And just because he’s not Trump, doesn’t mean we give him a pass on on that.”
She said there were already too few women reporters, and she feared some of her female students might look at the interaction and feel they did not want to have to put up with such a response from someone in a powerful position they were seeking to obtain an answer from.
She said it was the finger waving and “scolding” that struck her. She said she hoped Biden’s wife, First Lady Jill Biden, had promptly spoken to him about his actions.
Meg Heckman, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, researches the role of women in journalism. She said she would be playing the clip to her students to trigger a discussion when they return in the fall.
She said Biden’s behavior was unprofessional and wrong, and particularly worrying because of the anti-media rhetoric that has been stirred up by Trump.
Yet she said she was unclear whether Biden’s action had been “gendered”, or whether he would have responded to a male reporter in the same way.
And what message did she think his behaviour sent to young women watching the interaction?
She said: “I worry that in some small way, it normalises the type of behaviour … that type of much more egregious behaviour that we saw from former President Trump and many of his supporters.”
About thirty minutes after the exchange in Geneva, Biden spoke to the press again to offer an apology.
“I owe my last questioner an apology,” the president said on the tarmac as he prepared to board Air Force One on Wednesday afternoon. “I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy with the last answer I gave.”
He also suggested the media always asked negative questions.
“To be a good reporter, you got to be negative. You got to have a negative view of life, it seems to me, the way you all, you never ask a positive question,” he said.
Later that evening, Collins told her own network she did not think the president needed to apologise to her.
“I do appreciate the president’s apology, but it is not necessary,” she said. “Because of course, it is just our job to ask the president questions – that’s the business that we are in – and of course, we just want to get answers so then people can find out what the president’s mindset is.”
Jane Hall is a professor of journalism at American University in Washington DC, and a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Among her areas of expertise is the depiction of women in media and politics.
She also watched Biden’s encounter with Collins, and was particularly struck by the fact he felt he needed to apologise. She was impressed by the fact that Collins sought not to make a big deal of it.
“I do think these exchanges are important. They’re symbolic, they have to do with how women who were assertive are viewed and how women who were in positions of power are viewed, and how men in positions of power respond to women,” she said.
“I don’t know what was in Joe Biden’s mind or heart, but the fact that he felt the need to come back and apologise and the fact that she took it [not] as being an issue in gender, I kind of view that as progress.”