The Media Today

How the State Department briefing room became ‘bizarroland’

June 14, 2024
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller answers questions during a news briefing at the State Department in 2023. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

On April 16, Matt Miller, the State Department spokesman, came to the podium in the cramped, crudely lit press briefing room deep within the department’s headquarters, and offered to take some questions. 

Over the previous few weeks, a pair of incidents had raised serious concerns about the sanctity of diplomatic facilities around the world.

On April 1, Israel hit an Iranian embassy complex in Syria with an air strike, killing more than a dozen people, including several officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

A few days later, Ecuadoran police raided the Mexican embassy in Quito, to arrest a former vice president who’d been hiding out there. 

Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s national security adviser, had immediately condemned the actions of the Ecuadorans, saying they “jeopardize[d] the foundation of basic diplomatic norms and relationships.” But the Biden administration was having a harder time finding the words for what the Israelis had done. The official line was that they were unable to comment on the strike because they were still working to “make a determination” on whether the specific building that had been hit was actually a consulate.

At the briefing, Matt Lee, the AP’s longtime State Department reporter, wanted to ask about this seeming contradiction.

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“Have you guys decided yet or made a determination about whether what Israel hit in Damascus was a diplomatic facility or not?” he asked.

“We have not,” Miller said.

“Well, how long is this going to take?”

“I can’t answer that question,” Miller said. “We’re continuing to look into it.”

Lee mentioned the situation in Ecuador.

“That was a very clear, well-established embassy,” Miller responded.

“And this was not very clear?”

“This is something that is taking a little bit more time to determine,” Miller said. “The question was…was it an embassy or consulate or not?”

Lee—who has covered State since 1999, and is known for being both staunchly nonpartisan and quick to identify contradictions in policy—seemed to be getting exasperated. 

“How hard is it to figure that out?” he said.

“It’s something that we’re gathering information on.”

“It’s been like two weeks!”

A video of the back-and-forth, posted on X, racked up nearly six hundred thousand views. 

The State Department’s briefing is typically background noise in Washington politics—part of the regular churn of official statements and evasive “no comments” that make up much of daily affairs in the nation’s capital. It is staid and officious, with questions centering on tedious finer points of international affairs. If you didn’t attend every day, you’d have a hard time following along.

But in recent months, particularly since the Hamas attacks of October 7 and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza, the briefing has become a more visible, and surreal, experience.

Contentious exchanges between reporters and Miller, or his deputy, Vedant Patel, often go viral on social media—clipped and tagged for maximum distribution and impact. Similar videos have occasionally made the rounds before, but now there are entire accounts dedicated to scouring the hour-long briefings for moments of evasiveness or contradiction. 

Most of those posting and watching have an agenda: to demonstrate what some see as the Biden administration’s bias toward Israel. But the videos have created a new dynamic between State and the reporters who cover it—one that, several reporters tell CJR, is shining a welcome spotlight on the increasingly byzantine ways the administration has sought to deflect difficult questions.

“It’s so weird, because nobody really expects, under normal circumstances, for exchanges at the State Department briefing to go viral,” said an international reporter who’s appeared in some of the videos, and who, like most reporters interviewed for this story, would only speak on the condition of anonymity. “My takeaway is that the reason they’ve been getting the same type of questions for several months is, frankly, because their position is quite difficult to defend at times. And I don’t mean that in relation to Is it too pro-Israel or too pro-Palestinian?—I mean it in the sense that the argument they have to make is quite convoluted.”

As several diplomatic reporters describe it, the central contortion is that since October 7, the State Department has sought to demonstrate steady support for Israel, while touting the norms of international law that it frequently applies to other nations—all the while asserting that it does not treat Israel as a special case. 

This creates some awkward moments. In March, for instance, Miller sought to downplay the decision to abstain from a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza by dismissing it as “nonbinding”—prompting the AFP’s Leon Bruneau to call Miller’s language “mind-boggling.” “Since when is a UN resolution, a Security Council UN resolution, nonbinding?” he asked Miller at a briefing. (A video of the question has three hundred thousand views on X.)

In late April, Patel defended the decision to continue funding four Israeli military units that had been found responsible by the State Department itself for human rights violations, by saying that State followed a process that was “consistent for all countries”—and also “different on a country-by-country basis.” CNN’s Kylie Atwood responded, “I’m sorry, but then it’s not a standard if you’re saying it’s different on a country-by-country basis.” (One million views for that video.)

“I do think it’s good that more and more people are watching these videos,” said a reporter who’s been featured in some of the viral posts. “You can see the contradictions in real time.”

“It’s bizarroland” is how another diplomatic correspondent put it. “Former State Department people will say openly, ‘Yes, we do treat Israel differently.’ Okay, so let’s talk under the basis of that shared understanding.” 

The State Department did not respond to CJR’s request for comment. But even if the room might grow tense at times, reporters tell CJR that the clashes are never personal. 

“At times, when I see the reactions on social media, I have felt a degree of sympathy for Matt or Vedant, because while some of the criticism is merited, some of it is really quite nasty and personalized,” the international reporter said.

“It’s the job of all diplomats, all spokespeople to put forward the point of view of the government—their job is not to tell you the truth,” said Said Arikat, the Washington bureau chief for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, who has been at the center of some of the most heated exchanges with the spokespeople. “But remember, this kind of forum you will not find in other countries—go to London, or Paris, or Moscow. It is unique—it’s a place where I, as a journalist from a very poor newspaper, from very far away, can ask some very real and timely questions. And I never take that for granted.”

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s new Election Issue, we spoke with fifteen practitioners and observers of election coverage about how the press could do better this time around, particularly when it comes to confronting threats to democracy. “Many felt that we’re in better shape than we were in 2016, but that we still have work to do,” Feven Merid writes. The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes said that the press is “still talking about analog problems in a digital world”; Kate Starbird, the director of the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, suggested that we reorient our relationship to disinformation and describe unverified information as “rumor.” The congressman Jamie Raskin urged the press to “focus on the technical, technological, and bureaucratic infrastructure of elections. And the legal specifications. Look at voter suppression historically.”
  • Last week, Press Gazette’s Charlotte Tobitt reported that a number of small independent publishers in the UK had recently seen articles that they posted to Facebook flagged as “spam” and taken down—a big problem, since “many small local news titles are heavily reliant on Facebook for content distribution and traffic.” Now Tobitt reports that publishers in the US and various European countries have had similar experiences, and have struggled to get answers from Meta, Facebook’s parent company. “There doesn’t seem to be any way to speak to anyone or try to get it sorted out,” one publisher in the UK said, “not to mention every time you see a notification you get a little bit of a sick feeling.”
  • Recently, Sam Forster, a white Canadian American journalist, was widely condemned after revealing that he had “disguised” himself as a Black man to write a book about racism in the US. Writing for The Conversation, Alisha Gaines, who authored a book about “empathetic racial impersonation,” notes that Forster “is not the first white person to center themselves in the discussion of American racism by pretending to be Black.” Such endeavors “are futile,” Gaines writes. “They end up reinforcing stereotypes and failing to address systemic racism, while conferring a false sense of racial authority.”

New from CJR: We’ve learned a lot from past elections about disinformation, social platforms, and voter suppression. Journalists have work to do.

Josh Hersh is an editor at CJR. He was previously a correspondent and senior producer at Vice News.