In late January, at the end of her first full week as President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki went on the radio and bashed the reporters who cover the White House. “In Dana Perino’s book, she talks about having her middle finger up in the podium underneath when they’re really getting under her skin, so I’m holding that out as an option,” she said, referring to her Bush-era predecessor who is now a Fox News star. “When reporters are getting really loud, or they’re starting to ask crazy questions, I just slow down my pace and I talk very quietly, and I treat them like I’m an orderly in an insane asylum.” Fortunately, Psaki was joking. She was appearing not on a rabid right-wing talk show, but on NPR’s gentle satirical news quiz Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me; she bantered with the panelists about Biden’s favored Peloton instructor (“I really want it to be Ally Love”), her habit of answering questions by promising to circle back to you on that, and her Trump-era predecessor Sean Spicer’s turn on Dancing With the Stars, then answered trivia questions about swimming pools—a punny twist on her work with the White House press pool. “A number of people have noted that you have been very generous, professional,” Peter Sagal, the show’s host, told Psaki, referring to her first press briefings. “We’re not used to that.”
Sagal’s praise was typical of much early commentary on Psaki: that, after four years of lies, abuse, and gaslighting, it was welcome—overwhelming, almost—to have a professional person back behind the podium. In her first briefing, on inauguration day, Psaki stressed “the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room” and her “deep respect for the role of a free and independent press”; afterward, CNN’s Van Jones said, in reviewing her performance, that “there was a human, and that person said words, and the words made sense, and somebody asked a question, and that person answered.” Even Spicer praised her: “She has done a very good job,” he told Politico, “and to some degree I’m a bit jealous.” As the novelty wore off, Psaki was held to at least somewhat higher standards. Observers pointed out her circling habit and political reporters griped at other perceived “non-answers” and “jargon.” There were some early controversies, but nothing earth-shaking. Psaki was asked how she would handle the presence of pro-Trump journalists (a group that Spicer, now a host at Newsmax, applied to join, before his bosses cancelled, if you will, his request); her office said they’re welcome in the briefing room, but not if they use it as a platform to spread conspiracies. She arranged for sign-language interpretation of her briefings, which was good, then used an interpreter with apparent links to far-right disinformation, which was less good. (The interpreter has not been invited back; she told the New York Post that she has been “cancelled.”) In early February, the Daily Beast reported that Psaki’s team had been asking reporters to preview their questions ahead of briefings, which “pissed off” some of them. The White House said it was merely trying to prepare better answers. Some media critics defended the practice, noting that briefings should be a place for the productive exchange of information, and not for gotcha questions; the Beast noted that Psaki had, to that point, called on every reporter at every briefing.
Then, in mid-February, came a press-shop controversy of a much higher order. It concerned T.J. Ducklo, a deputy press secretary who has, since last year, been in a romantic relationship with Alexi McCammond, a reporter who covers politics for Axios. On inauguration day—while Psaki was expressing deep respect for the press and Biden was warning his new hires that he would fire them “on the spot” if he caught them acting disrespectfully—reporters at Politico contacted Ducklo and McCammond for comment on their relationship with a view to covering it. As Vanity Fair later reported, a male Politico journalist left a message with Ducklo, who responded by calling the journalist’s female colleague Tara Palmeri and berating her down the phone, threatening to “destroy” her and accusing her of sexual jealousy. Politico eventually ran its story in early February, but not before People magazine broke the news of Ducklo and McCammond’s romance in a frothy interview feature. (“We’re both really happy, and we wanted to do it the right way.”) After Ducklo’s abusive call to Palmeri became public knowledge, Psaki announced that he would be suspended for a week—a punishment, many critics noted, that did not look like an on-the-spot firing. The next day, Ducklo resigned, following what the Washington Post described as a mutual “reassessment” with his bosses. He also apologized for his “abhorrent” language.
Outside of the press shop, the relationship between Biden’s team and the press has also had its ups and downs (albeit nothing, yet, to match the Ducklo scandal). Reporters have griped about Biden’s personal inaccessibility, especially when compared with Trump’s reliable lack of filter; so far, Biden has only submitted to one extended exchange with reporters and a handful of interviews, though he did do a high-profile Super Bowl Sunday sitdown on CBS and a CNN town hall from Milwaukee, where his answers were either long-winded or strikingly empathetic, depending on your point of view. He has preferred to leave the media terrain to his surrogates, including public-health experts. Earlier this month, the Post calculated that officials had given more than a hundred interviews to national outlets and thirty or so to local ones, reprising a tactic from Biden’s campaign; an official noted to the Post that local news is more trusted than national news, and has allowed Biden’s team to highlight the specific benefits of policies like its coronavirus stimulus package, whose broad popularity in the country has often been eclipsed by shallow Congressional “unity” chatter in DC-centric media. (There’s also a cynical theory, as the Post put it, that “local reporters are more easily dazzled by the White House,” though that theory often does not match practice.) The administration has also given access to Spanish-language and African-American media, and to specialist publications; Jill Biden, the first lady, spoke to Parents magazine, for instance. And Joe Biden has instituted a series of mini-addresses in which he speaks directly to voters—FDR-style “fireside chats” for the social-media age.
Beyond access, there are some early grounds for concern when it comes to questions of press freedom and transparency. Earlier this month, a coalition of press-freedom and civil-liberties groups called on Biden to drop the Trump-era case against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks cofounder who faces charges, under the Espionage Act, that effectively criminalize the practice of journalism. The plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears; ten days ago, Biden’s Justice Department moved to proceed with an appeal against a judge’s decision to bar Assange’s extradition from Britain, where he is currently incarcerated. Reporters Without Borders accused Biden of a “major missed opportunity.” The White House has pledged to publish its visitor logs on a quarterly basis, but it has not made an equivalent commitment around virtual meetings, which, obviously, are very common right now. And, as Philip Eil wrote for CJR last week, Biden’s early barrage of executive orders did not contain any provisions strengthening the Freedom of Information Act or other open-government laws—“an absence,” Eil argued, “that was itself revealing about transparency’s ranking on his list of priorities.”
A month is too soon to tell how Biden’s record on the deeper issues confronting the press will shape up. His topline public-relations strategy is already much clearer, both in terms of medium and messaging. Access aside, the most consistent media gripe with Biden so far has perhaps been his administration’s tendency to set low bars for itself; as the AP put it on Saturday, a pattern has emerged: “The president and his team would deliberately set expectations low—particularly on vaccinations and school reopening—then try to land a political win by beating that timetable.” Reporters should be alert to such massaging, of course, but we should be careful, too, not to punish Biden for reversing his predecessor’s terrible habit of making false promises at a time of wildly unpredictable crisis. On a visit to Michigan last week, Biden said that he “can’t give you a date when this crisis will end,” instead pleading that he is “doing everything possible to have that day come sooner rather than later.” Scrutinizing the doing is more useful than holding him to the date. Beyond Biden personally, we should continue, too, to scrutinize the conduct of officials across his administration, including in the press office. As Ducklo’s treatment of Palmeri proved, going back to normality can have a dark side.
Below, more on Biden and the press:
- Fact-checking Biden: Yesterday, CNN’s Brian Stelter spoke with his colleague Daniel Dale and Angie Holan, of PolitiFact, about the differences between fact-checking Biden and fact-checking Trump. “Biden speaks less, he tweets less, and he lies less when he talks and tweets. Trump was a unique case” Dale said. “But that doesn’t mean Biden is perfect—he sometimes exaggerates; he sometimes embellishes.” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, praised Dale’s “rational” approach to the Biden era. “No false equivalence. No free pass,” Rosen wrote. “Sense of proportion retained.”
- Merrick Garland: The Senate will today grill Merrick Garland, Biden’s pick for attorney general, ahead of a confirmation vote. Ahead of the hearings, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press ran the rule over Garland’s record on media law from his time as a judge. Garland “has taken strong stands on First Amendment issues,” the group writes, and his “decisions in FOIA cases show a commitment to government transparency, with only a few decisions favoring government arguments for withholding records.” In a recent case, he “reversed a lower court’s ruling that denied public access to certain electronic surveillance records.”
- Vivek Murthy: The Post’s Dan Diamond reports that Vivek Murthy—Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, who also faces a confirmation hearing this week—earned millions of dollars as a coronavirus consultant to private companies last year. Murthy’s recent ethics disclosures “caught the attention of longtime health policy hands, saying that Murthy has the most financial entanglements of any surgeon general pick in recent history,” Diamond writes, “and of watchdogs who raise questions about how credible he would be as a spokesperson on the pandemic response and presidential adviser.”
- The PEN is mightier than the sword: Last week, PEN America, a literary advocacy group, announced that it has settled a Trump-era case that it brought against the federal government in response to Trump’s threats to the media. Suzanne Nossel, the group’s CEO, said that the settlement “represents an important win for free speech, a free press, and the First Amendment” that will protect journalists going forward.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, said that power is almost fully restored in the state following last week’s winter storm, though many Texans still lack access to safe water and have been hit with excruciating energy bills. Kerry Flynn, of CNN, and Elahe Izadi, of the Post, both spoke with local reporters who have been living the crisis, as well as covering it. Also for the Post, Karen Attiah, who lives in the state, argues that it’s time to “bury the myth” of Texas exceptionalism; “leave it to a blackout to shine a big, bright spotlight on the problems lying deep in the heart of Texas,” she writes. And United Airlines is hunting for the staffer who leaked details of Ted Cruz’s trip to Cancún to the travel news site Skift. Such leaks, Politico’s Daniel Lippman writes, “are rare in the industry.”
- On Friday, the Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert reported that Patrick Soon-Shiong is considering selling the LA Times after growing “dissatisfied” with the pace of its digital growth and financial losses; he is said to believe that the LA Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, both of which he acquired from Tribune Publishing in 2018, “would be better served if they were part of a larger media group,” and has considered transferring the latter title to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. (Soon-Shiong is still a shareholder in Tribune, and will soon have to ratify or block that company’s takeover by Alden.) Soon-Shiong said, in a tweet, that Alpert’s reporting is “inaccurate” and that he remains “committed” to the LA Times.
- Data collected by Condé Nast, Hearst, and Vice shows that, beyond a “few key hires,” diversity in their newsrooms has not markedly improved since last summer. The data, NBC’s Ahiza García-Hodges writes, shows that “minorities remain underrepresented at nearly every level of these companies and across departments. Also, while some companies showed improvements in the hiring of employees of color, at most companies, the majority of new jobs continued to be filled by white people.”
- Five months after it launched, Column—a startup that helps news outlets process public notices, the legally-mandated government ads that are an increasingly important revenue source for smaller papers as commercial advertising dries up—has already formed partnerships with hundreds of publications, Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire reports. Its clients now include McClatchy, Wick Communications, and Ogden Newspapers.
- This morning, Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based group that supports the journalism of threatened reporters, launched #AmplifyRappler—a series of videos signal-boosting the work of Rappler, a news site in the Philippines whose founder, Maria Ressa, has faced intensifying harassment from the authorities. By sharing the videos around the world, the campaign intends to send the message that “Rappler and Maria Ressa are not alone.”
- On Friday, officials in Hong Kong said that RTHK, the territory’s editorially-independent public broadcaster, should be subjected to increased government oversight, and announced that the head of RTHK will leave his post ahead of schedule, to be replaced by a civil servant. The moves, Vivian Wang writes for the Times, further signal “the fate of independent journalism under an intensifying crackdown on dissent” in Hong Kong.
- In other press-freedom news, a court in Belarus sentenced two journalists who were arrested while filming anti-regime protests, in November, to two-year prison terms, and a court in Iraqi Kurdistan sentenced two journalists to six-year terms, also following their coverage of protests. There was better news in Algeria, where President Abdelmadjid Tebboune pardoned the jailed journalist Khaled Drareni alongside dozens of activists.
- In France, Florence Porcel, a writer and YouTuber, alleged that Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, a well-known TV anchor, raped her, in 2004 and 2009, in his office at the TV network and at a production company where he worked. Prosecutors are investigating the allegations, which Poivre d’Arvor denies. He says he will file a defamation complaint against Porcel. Le Parisien was the first news organization to report the story.
- And Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist who advises the British government, told lawmakers that the media’s shaming of people who went to the beach last summer had no basis in fact. “There was an outcry about this,” he said, even though “there were no outbreaks linked to public beaches. There’s never been a COVID-19 outbreak linked to a beach, ever, anywhere in the world, to the best of my knowledge.”