Can the White House Press Briefing Be Saved?

Can the White House Press Briefing Be Saved? thumbnail

Just how low has the bar been set for the Biden administration? Look no further than the reaction to new press secretary Jen Psaki’s first day on the job. Psaki has held two briefings in her first 36 hours—a big improvement over Trump administration press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who held zero during her nine-month tenure. Psaki has made qualitative gains, as well: She has been cordial and reasonably forthcoming; she has not shouted at reporters or made up bonkers, easily refutable lies about the crowd size at Biden’s inauguration; there have been no melodramatic attacks on the integrity of the media. There have been some dodges—she circles back to the phrase “circle back” when pushed on tougher questions, like D.C. statehood or Biden’s past support of the Hyde Amendment. No outright lies, though. Just some normal press conferences, in which relatively little of note was disclosed but also no one was belittled, attacked, or gaslit.

People responded as if she had turned water into wine. Vox’s Aaron Rupar gushed that there were “no insults yet. No meltdowns. No smears of the ‘fake news.’” The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty welcomed her new overlord with a column heralding the return of “reality-grounded briefings.” Psaki was roundly applauded by the press for pledging to hold daily briefings. The longer you’re starved of the bare minimum, the more it looks like the extra mile when it returns, perhaps.

That the mere promise of regular White House briefings is being hailed in this fashion is as good a sign as any of how dire things were over the previous four years. In the best of times, the briefings are bland affairs: Begun in 1969 during the Nixon administration, they rarely raise much of a stir and, indeed, they may have outlived their usefulness. They were rarely televised, or discussed with much intensity, until Trump brought his geek show to town and made them part of the spectacle.

Their return, however, presents an interesting acid test for relations between the Biden administration and the press. As Tumulty opined in a separate column, the briefings are—in theory, at least—the “ritualized means of holding power accountable.” But they’ve rarely been used as such: It may be more accurate to say that their purpose is to hold big media brands accountable by demonstrating to the world that they have a reporter filling a post in The Room Where It Happens. But Psaki’s press briefings will pose a challenging question to the media in the post-Trump era: How do you hold the Biden administration to account while at the same time contextualizing a “normal” administration based on the monstrosity that preceded it?

The comparative normalcy of what are the early days of this new administration hits differently from what we were dealing with just days ago. For a press accustomed to Trump’s bizarre sleep habits, emotional imbalance, and general ignorance of current and world events, they are especially jarring. The daily abuses of power—and abuses of the Fourth Estate—are gone.

This administration appears to be well organized and disciplined. Its early appointments are full of familiar Beltway hands, most of whom have decades of experience. There are no Kayleigh McEnanys or Omarosas or Johnny McEntees. There are no bomb-throwers; no one who sees administration experience as a pathway to a lucrative post-politics career in partisan media; the West Wing isn’t crawling with hunted paranoiacs locked in a dreadful battle for survival, looking to drop a zingy anonymous quote in a constant war of one-upmanship. Sean Spicer isn’t hiding in the bushes; the guy who runs the far-right pillow factory isn’t darkening the threshold. Instead, the press will be dealing with familiar faces and a press strategy that appears to be very similar to the one deployed by the Obama administration: “Hey, we don’t need to be on the front page every day.”

This is all a considerable improvement, but we needn’t honor it with extended bouts of applause. Let’s recall that while those Obama-era press briefings were comparatively free of drama, those Obama-era briefers had a higher opinion of their commitment to transparency than they had any right to demand. The Obama administration’s own record on press freedom was abysmal and helped pave the way for some of the excesses of the Trump administration—particularly its war on leakers. Obama’s second press secretary, Jay Carney, got some raves similar to Psaki’s (he listens to Guided by Voices!) but has been no one’s idea of a friend to the press since his time in the White House ended. Now ensconced at Amazon, he has gone to war with journalists who have uncovered the secrets that company would prefer to keep from the public. The revolving door between Democratic administrations and Silicon Valley monopolists is hardly a sign of well-oiled democracy, let alone a commitment to straight talk with journalists.

Holding the Biden administration accountable will take a dexterity and finesse that few in the Beltway press corps have had to practice in recent years. Too often, holding power to account in Washington revolves around whatever is juicing the news cycle—and as Press Run’s Eric Boehlert is fond of pointing out, that’s typically whatever the GOP is mad about that day, whether it’s questions about deficits or the nonscandals percolating on Fox News. (The psychotically critical coverage of Obama’s tan suit is still traumatizing for normal human beings to recall.) To hold the Biden administration accountable, you have to be more than a mouthpiece for Republican flacks; it means rigorously testing the administration’s policies and promises, with a keen eye for separating legitimate partisan criticism from bad-faith pamphleteering.

The missteps of the Biden administration won’t be like the excesses of the Trump administration. It’s not likely that the fourth estate is going to come in for the same sort of scabrous, juvenile abuses, either; sitting in the same adversarial crouch that the press corps has squatted over for the last four years doesn’t make much sense. And a White House that’s orbiting the same universe of fact as the rest of us will be a big improvement: CNN’s Daniel Dale may have to retire the rapid-fire 200-fact-checks-in-two-minutes act he honed during the Trump era.

The trick is going to be holding onto that same fervor for accountability without overcorrecting.

Some may be tempted to perform their lack of bias by treating Psaki and other Biden officials the way they treated the deranged liars of the Trump White House. Some might feel compelled to blow minor matters out of proportion in a misguided attempt to balance the scales. Reporters will have to be clear-eyed about the distinctions between the era that’s beginning and the one that’s just past. The higher standards of a non-Trump administration may not provide as many opportunities to fight on truth’s behalf, but the possibility that the future portends fewer conflicts between the press and the president doesn’t mean the importance of those conflicts won’t grow in magnitude.

Certainly nice to see a press briefing with information and without personal attacks. Ok, now that that’s out of our system let’s hold these people accountable

— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) January 21, 2021

In all likelihood, the press briefing itself will quickly fade from view. At some point, we won’t need its daily reminder of normalcy. It will just become part of the fabric, neither an ennobling example of holding power to account nor a symbol of American decline. At best, the daily press briefings will provide an official record; raw material for reporters stationed far from the briefing room to use on more important stories. At worst, it will remind us that the Biden administration, while not as bad as what came before, is not as transparent or as media-friendly as one might have hoped. So, enjoy these early days of rosy feelings about the Psaki-led briefings while you can. They won’t last.

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