Continuity and change as KJP succeeds JP at the White House podium

Yesterday, Karine Jean-Pierre, the new White House press secretary, stepped up to the podium thirty-five minutes later than advertised for her first official briefing since succeeding Jen Psaki. She began by reading out brief obituaries for the victims of the mass shooting in Buffalo over the weekend, then previewed President Biden’s hosting of a delegation from Greece and laid out administration priorities around housing and infrastructure. Before taking questions, she paused to reflect on the significance of her appointment. “I am obviously acutely aware that my presence at this podium represents a few firsts—I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman, the first of all three of those to hold this position,” she said, before speaking directly to the assembled press corps. “We might not see eye to eye here in this room all the time, which is okay. That give-and-take is so incredibly healthy, and it’s a part of our democracy.”

Then, questions. Zeke Miller, of the Associated Press, went first, staying on the same theme by asking Jean-Pierre whether she sees her new job more in terms of promoting Biden’s interests or telling the press and the public the “unvarnished truth”; Jean-Pierre answered that the two imperatives go “hand in hand” since “the president believes in truth and transparency.” The briefing quickly moved on to the business of the day—the shooting, the baby-formula shortage, the war, and so on—but Jean-Pierre wasn’t done facing questions about the media. At least two reporters asked whether she wanted to name and shame Tucker Carlson for spreading the racist “great replacement” conspiracy that appeared in an online screed posted by the Buffalo shooter; both times, Jean-Pierre declined to do so, saying that while it’s important to call out hatred, she wasn’t going to “get into a back-and-forth on names and who said what.” Peter Doocy—Carlson’s Fox colleague, who often sparred with Psaki—asked a couple of Doocy-ish questions. Twenty minutes in, some of the reporters in attendance started to leave to cover the Biden-Greece event. “Can we just explain for people who are watching: The pool is departing,” one reporter said. “We don’t want anybody to think they’re walking out on you.”

ICYMI: The Buffalo shooting and the tangled roots of hate

This may have been Jean-Pierre’s first briefing as press secretary, but it wasn’t her first time behind the podium: she previously served as Psaki’s deputy and so stood in for her on occasion. A year ago this month, Jean-Pierre became the first openly gay woman to lead the briefing and the second Black woman to do so after Judy Smith, a deputy press secretary under President George H.W. Bush; ahead of that briefing, Smith checked in on Jean-Pierre, and they posed together for a photo that a White House staffer tweeted with the hashtag “#Gladiators,” a reference to the political drama Scandal, whose lead character Smith inspired. In its wake—and on other occasions, too—the Beltway press channeled chatter that Jean-Pierre was being lined up to succeed Psaki. (Reporters also passed along references to a few verbal stumbles, which were apparently briefed out by internal rivals.) Other names in the frame, we were told, included Symone Sanders, a top aide to Vice President Kamala Harris who eventually left the administration to host a show on MSNBC; Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director; and John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, whose odds were said to improve as Ukraine began to dominate the news cycle, with unnamed insiders briefing out concern about Jean-Pierre’s lack of foreign-policy experience. One strain of speculation even mentioned Abby Phillip, the CNN anchor, as a possible press secretary, though Phillip said she hadn’t heard anything and wasn’t interested.

Earlier this month—amid widespread reports that Psaki, like Sanders, was headed for MSNBC—the White House confirmed that Jean-Pierre would succeed her after all. Many observers lauded the historic nature of her appointment. She also faced a heightened level of scrutiny and attacks on her credibility. Amid questions of a conflict of interest, CNN said that Jean-Pierre’s partner, Suzanne Malveaux, a correspondent at the network, will cover “national/international news and cultural events” but not “politics, Capitol Hill, or the White House” for as long as Jean-Pierre remains in post. (National and international news is, of course, famously apolitical.) Outlets on the right combed through her old tweets—she once described the 2016 election as “stolen”; the New York Post found what it termed “a staggering 57 instances” over a six-year period of Jean-Pierre accusing “people, policies, ideas, or words of being ‘racist’”—and appearances on MSNBC, where she was formerly a political analyst. On Fox, Carlson pronounced her last name with an exaggerated French accent and claimed that she had been selected purely on the basis of her identity. (Jean-Pierre has appeared on Fox in the past, too, later calling it “one of the best places…to learn how to be a commentator.” She has also described the network as racist.)

This sort of sniping from the right will surely continue. Many liberals and media-watchers, for their part, will likely judge Jean-Pierre against the standards set by Psaki, who, ever since the beginning of the Biden administration, has been lauded in such quarters for restoring normalcy and decency to the briefing room after the abnormal, indecent Trump years. (Reflecting on her legacy last week, Poynter’s Tom Jones called Psaki “one of the best press secretaries ever.”) For the most part, she took reporters’ questions seriously and didn’t improvise ill-informed answers. She bantered genially with journalists and public-radio game-show panelists, and talked about Peloton and learning to play Wordle, which is on her post–White House to-do list. Most basically, she restored the briefing itself as a daily act, hosting more (224) than her four Trump-era predecessors combined (205), with Stephanie Grisham famously hosting none at all.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Still, Psaki faced criticism, too. Members of the press corps griped about her proposal that they submit questions in advance (she said she wanted to be better prepared to answer them), her uneven record of making her way around the briefing room, and her supposed complicity in Biden’s supposed inaccessibility. More recently, her reported talks with MSNBC while she was still on the job triggered questions about a conflict of interest—the Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple ruled that this was “puny” compared to Trump-era corruption, but a conflict nonetheless—while a journalist at Stat noted that Psaki offered the press corps copies of a covid budget binder that she’d used as a prop, then failed to furnish a copy when asked. When a reporter asked Psaki why the White House wasn’t distributing rapid covid tests for free, Psaki sarcastically snapped, “Should we just send one to every American?”—a step that was already policy in other countries and would, sort of, become so in the US. Last week, Psaki told the Christian Science Monitor that she’d like a do-over of that exchange and that her tone was off. She also said she’d hit a “limit” after being asked the same question repeatedly, and reiterated that sending tests to every American “would have been a waste of taxpayer money.”

Colleagues told Courtney Subramanian, of the LA Times, that Jean-Pierre, a “self-proclaimed introvert,” will likely avoid such barbed exchanges. (Fans of the #PsakiBomb will presumably still be able to find them on MSNBC.) But in other respects—and if yesterday’s briefing is anything to go by—we can expect much stylistic continuity between their approaches. Jean-Pierre’s pledge of “truth and transparency” explicitly echoed Psaki’s language at her first briefing, reflecting a broader, administration-wide commitment to respectful relations with the press. After the disrespect of the Trump years—when the public-facing, democratic function of the press secretary collapsed into passive neglect at best and active antagonism at worst—that’s welcome. Whatever Jean-Pierre may say, though, the “unvarnished truth” clearly does not walk in tandem with Biden’s political interests, and his press secretary is there to serve those; that’s not in itself antidemocratic—quite the opposite—but it’s no reason to get misty-eyed about the role either. Psaki demonstrated this at times, too, and Jean-Pierre doubtless will as well.

Of course, in other key respects, Jean-Pierre marks a departure not only from Psaki but from all of her predecessors. Toward the end of the briefing, April Ryan, the White House correspondent at theGrio, asked Jean-Pierre about the importance of representation at the podium—the only reporter to do so. Jean-Pierre said that while she had “not read a lot of the things that have been written about me because I wanted to focus on the work at hand,” she had been “moved” by a story about a letter in which students at her old school “talked about how they can dream bigger because of me standing behind this podium.” Her next questioner apologized for having to pivot from that story to Ukraine. “That’s what this is all about!” Jean-Pierre said. “It’s okay.”

Below, more on Jean-Pierre and the White House:

  • Some quick background: Jean-Pierre was born in Martinique, an overseas region of France, to Haitian parents, before being raised in New York City. She started out in local politics, including a stint as press secretary to the disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner, and later worked on the presidential campaign of the (also disgraced) John Edwards, before getting a job on the Obama campaign, and then in his White House. In the Trump years, she headed public affairs for MoveOn, a grassroots progressive group, in addition to her commentary work on MSNBC. She also once worked as a firefighter.
  • Vantage points: On the New York Times podcast Sway, Kara Swisher spoke with Sanders, the former top Harris aide, about the recent debut of her MSNBC show and her transition from politics to media. At one point, Sanders pushed back on claims that she practiced “access journalism” to score a rare interview with Jill Biden, the First Lady, then asked her softball questions. “What First Lady are we supposed to be grilling?” Sanders asked. “I think that no one talks about the white men who get access, right? Like, what about all the white men who worked for presidents and vice presidents and worked for and ran presidential campaigns? What about them?”
  • The view from Bidenland: According to Politico’s Jonathan Lemire, Biden has privately expressed frustration with the press of late, arguing that coverage of his administration has “been too quick to gloss over the damage Trump did to the country.” Lemire reports that Biden’s own initial reluctance to take a harder line toward the GOP ran contrary to the advice of much of his communications staff, including Psaki, while Jill Biden privately “urged her husband to be less scripted and more on the offensive.”

Other notable stories:

Listen: An interview with Columbia Journalism School’s new dean, Jelani Cobb

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre takes a question from a reporter during her first press briefing as press secretary at the White House in Washington, Monday, May 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)