It was one of the most memorable exchanges in the White House press room during the Trump administration.
During a briefing Tuesday, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the media for using anonymous sources, citing CNN’s now-retracted story on ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Reporter Brian Karem decided to speak up, accusing her of “inflaming” public sentiment against news outlets.
This is a moment to watch and remember. pic.twitter.com/Ld6EGfwiPx
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 27, 2017
Karem tells CJR he has been attending the press briefings since 1986. He has served for 13 years as the executive editor of The Sentinel newspapers, two papers that cover the Washington, DC suburbs. He is also a contributor to Playboy magazine, where he published a column explaining his comments.
“The foundation of a free republic is a free press. You take the good with the bad and you move on. As I’ve said before, in quoting [Reagan-era Press Secretary] Larry Speakes: we won’t tell you how to stage the news, so don’t tell us how to report it,” Karem wrote.
We talked to Karem about his experiences inside the White House press corps, reactions to his interjection, and the lesson he hopes journalists learn from the confrontation. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you feel the need to speak out?
They say that they support the First Amendment, but they have called us enemies of the people, and they repeatedly call us fake media. We had a briefing yesterday, it was the first one in a week, and the White House put it on camera to embarrass CNN specifically, and reporters in general. I’m not the enemy of the people. I’m not fake news. And I felt like someone should speak to those issues in the press briefing and let them know that we deserve the respect that we show them. Everyone in that room has shown a great deal of respect to the president. We deserve to see that respect, and we have yet to see it.
There is this idea that if one person speaks out, that person will be villainized, which can also play well for the other journalists in the room by eliminating competition. Have you seen that happen?
We do eat our own. That’s absolutely true, but I’m not the guy who really cares. I’m just fed up with bologna, and I felt like it was time to say something. It is what it is, and let the chips fall where they may.
Do you think access has been a problem for the White House press corps?
I don’t think we’ve had a lack of access. Sean Spicer has done some great things about increasing access. He has brought in cabinet members, he’s given us multiple briefings with them, he’s given us background briefings. He brought in the Skype seats. I’m not at all complaining about access. I am tired of the lack of respect that this White House has for the press.
The press has been attacked by this White House, yet you’re the first person to defend reporters during a press briefing. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. They call me the “honey badger” in the press room. I had my limit, man. Maybe other people have a better limit than me, but I just had it.
How did you get the nickname of “honey badger”?
When I walked into a briefing late one day, one of the White House staffers was smiling and said “you’re like the honey badger, you just don’t care.” I had just seen the YouTube video, and it made me laugh. I have been called worse by people who love me. I’ll take that one.
What has been the reaction to your interjection?
It has been complimentary for the most part. There were a few reporters who told me I did a good job. There were some technicians who have been there for a while who said this is what it was like when Sam Donaldson, Helen Thomas, and others were around. I have received some negative feedback online. I keep those, and usually I print them out and frame them and laugh. They are good sources of material for comedy, to be honest.
For anyone who said you spoke out of turn, what would you say?
That’s their opinion. Everyone is entitled to their opinions. The tension had been building for awhile. If it wasn’t me, it was going to be someone else. It’s the issue that’s important, not who brought it up. Like I said at the time, any of us in that press room are expendable.
Mostly we are ink-stained wretches who work in the dark. If there is any strategizing, it is on the other side.
Have you talked to anyone from the White House since it happened?
I saw a couple of the staffers afterwards. A couple of them accused me of grandstanding, and another accused me of being me.
Is there any degree of huddling up that reporters do after press briefings? I would think maybe it would be helpful if reporters got together and unpacked what happened. Do you all do that?
Sometimes others might say “good question,” or “nicely done,” but there is no real strategizing I’ve seen in the years I’ve been coming and going out of that room. Mostly we are ink-stained wretches who work in the dark. If there is any strategizing, it is on the other side.
Are there any lessons you want journalists to take away from this?
Don’t be bullied. You can’t allow them to bully you. It’s not right. It’s not fair. You have to stand up for yourself. I told my kids there are two ways to handle a bully: You can either make them your friend or you can pop them in the nose. I prefer to be friendly, but if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.