White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has demonstrated once again why it’s time to do away with the insulting spectacle known as the White House daily press briefing.
Rather than serve the public interest, the daily briefing has become a venue for White House propaganda. It has also become a springboard for shrewd, self-serving reporters who see the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room as a shortcut to easy notoriety. It has been this way for many years. It is time we all stop pretending otherwise.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden abruptly exited a White House ceremony honoring a Vietnam War veteran. The president didn’t excuse himself. He didn’t offer an explanation for his sudden departure before the ceremony’s conclusion. He simply walked out of the room, to the apparent surprise of the Medal of Honor recipient and his audience. At a very minimum, the White House owes the public an explanation.
Yet this is what we got Wednesday from Jean-Pierre: The president, whose wife tested positive recently for COVID-19, was merely trying to minimize the risk of the disease’s spread.
“[H]e left when there was a pause in the program in order to minimize — to minimize his close contact with attendees who were — who were about to participate in a reception,” Jean-Pierre said at the Sept. 6 daily press briefing.
For the record, attending a crowded event and leaving early doesn’t “minimize” the risk of spreading a disease. If anything, it speeds up the potential spread of the disease.
Moreover, President Biden, an 80-year-old man, had failed to wear a mask when he presented retired Army Capt. Larry Taylor, 81, with the Medal of Honor. As it turns out, Jean-Pierre has talking points for this exact discrepancy: “The President took off his mask…to deliver incredibly powerful remarks about this captain — Captain Taylor — and what he did in service to our — our nation. And he wanted to honor the captain.”
Why are we still doing this? Why do newsrooms dedicate so much time, effort and manpower to cover what is obviously and has been an extended exercise in dishonesty and self-serving spin?
The daily briefing — not to be confused with national security or natural disaster emergency briefings headed by cabinet officials or the president himself — is a gimmick. It’s a game. No White House spokesperson is ever going to admit to a major scandal. No White House spokesperson is going to give an unvarnished, unflattering account of an administration’s failures.
For at least the last four presidencies, the message has been clear: White House press secretaries exist entirely to protect the chief executive, even if that means lying. They are not there to dispense facts or matters of historical record. They’re there to spin, mislead and, increasingly, to deceive.
Just recall a handful of recent examples from both Republican and Democratic administrations.
In 2013, Obama spokesman Jay Carney insisted upon the accuracy of Obama’s false promise that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”
“[T]he fact of the matter is,” Carney said at a daily briefing, “if you had insurance on the individual market prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act and you have that plan today, you can keep it. You’re grandfathered in forever, no matter how crummy the plan is.”
This wasn’t a half-truth or a misstatement. It was a lie. PolitiFact even crowned this line the “Lie of the Year” in 2013.
Later, in 2016, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest did his part to promote the pitiful Russia-collusion falsehood, a Democrat-produced smear job that posited that Donald Trump had coordinated with Moscow to steal the 2016 election.
“You didn’t need a security clearance to figure out who benefited from Russia’s malicious cyberactivity,” Earnest said with a wink and a nod at a daily press briefing in December 2016. “It was the president-elect who, over the course of the campaign, indicated that he thought that President Putin was a strong leader. It was the President-elect who indicated the potential that he would withdraw from some of our critically important NATO commitments. It was the president-elect who refused to disclose his financial connections to Russia. It was the president-elect who hired a campaign chairman with extensive, lucrative, personal financial ties to Russia. It was the president-elect who had a national security advisor on the campaign that had been a paid contributor to RT, the Russian propaganda outlet.”
He added, “One conclusion that it leads me to is the special responsibility that members of Congress have to take a close look at this — particularly those members of Congress that endorsed Mr. Trump in the election.”
Hey, he’s just asking questions, folks.
And who can forget Trump spokesman Sean Spicer, who boasted in 2017 that his boss enjoyed the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders alleged before the entire press corps that Trump had dismissed disgraced former FBI Director James Comey largely because the “rank-and-file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director,” a claim which then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe disputed. But Huckabee Sanders stuck to her guns, claiming elsewhere in a separate daily briefing, “I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president’s decision.”
She later told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team that her “countless members of the FBI” line was a mere “slip of the tongue.” She also told Mueller’s team that her assertion that the FBI’s rank-and-file had lost confidence in Comey was a remark made “in the heat of the moment,” and not based upon any fact.
Elsewhere, in the Biden era, former spokeswoman Jen Psaki infamously claimed that American nationals were not, in fact, left stranded in Afghanistan following the U.S.’s disastrous withdrawal from the county.
“[I]t’s irresponsible to say, ‘Americans are stranded,’” she asserted indignantly at a press briefing. “They are not.”
But Americans were, in fact, left stranded in Afghanistan. In fact, an unknown number of Americans are still stranded there to this day. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified in March that an estimated 175 Americans were still trapped in Afghanistan then, some of whom were in Taliban captivity.
Let’s stop pretending the daily briefing is a legitimate, newsworthy event. Let’s redirect our efforts elsewhere. Instead of blocking off several hours every week so that an administration mouthpiece can lie directly to our faces, let’s get back to, say, working the phones.
No serious, consequential news is going to be made in any White House daily briefing. That’s the entire point of the thing, isn’t it?
Becket Adams is a writer in Washington and program director for the National Journalism Center.
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