‘Harsh’ exchanges: Dismissive Biden press strategy undermines lofty campaign vows

Questions on ISIS strike, Russian video met with pushback

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki wondered aloud during a briefing with reporters how anyone could be “skeptical of the U.S. military's assessment when they went and took out the leader of ISIS.”  (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki wondered aloud during a briefing with reporters how anyone could be “skeptical of the U.S. military's assessment when they went and took out the leader of ISIS.” (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted February 9, 2022 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS “Democracy dies in darkness” became The Washington Post's guiding principle during Donald Trump's norms-busting administration. But what happens when democracy is confronted with dismissiveness, deflection and delays?

Perhaps owner Jeff Bezos and his editorial board should, in the interest of fairness and objectivity, consider an update tailored for the Biden White House.

Reporters who cover the White House and State Department were last week confronted with stunning allegations from a pair of top Biden administration spokespeople — both Washington veterans with years of experience handling tough questions for two administrations — that reporters were siding with two American foes.

“Like any administration that is underwater in the polls and has seen its legislative agenda fall apart, the Biden team has decided the easiest thing to do is blame the messenger. Nothing unusual about that,” said one veteran White House scribe, granted anonymity to be candid. “The difference is the way they talked a lot about transparency and restoring trust and unifying the nation.

“Last week's exchanges mean no one is under any illusion any more,” the veteran reporter added. “All that was missing was Jen Psaki or Ned Price accusing NPR or AP of being enemies of the people.”

Psaki, the White House press secretary, did a briefing with reporters on Feb. 3 aboard Air Force One after the administration claimed ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi blew up himself and family members as U.S. special operations forces were raiding his hideout in northern Syria earlier that day. She was asked by NPR reporter Ayesha Rascoe if the administration planned to release evidence that al-Qurayshi detonated an explosive device, also killing children who were living at the compound, that would show there was no chance American troopers killed them.

Psaki responded in a way reporters felt was dismissive and accusatory, wondering aloud how anyone could be “skeptical of the U.S. military's assessment when they went and took out the leader of ISIS.” She seemed bewildered how anyone could wonder if Pentagon officials “are not providing accurate information” before questioning whether any such reporter believes “ISIS is providing accurate information.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price suggested the same day that veteran AP reporter Matt Lee was siding with the Kremlin after asking if the administration would produce evidence of its claims Russia was producing a fake video it intended to use as a pretext to invade Ukraine.

"I'm sorry you are doubting the information that is in the possession of the U.S. government," Price said. That prompted ABC Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl, a former White House Correspondents' Association president, to tweet this: “It's a journalist's job to question ‘the information that is in the possession of the U.S. government.’”

The underlying message from the Biden administration during both exchanges was a mixed — and troubling — one: 1) Just trust us. 2) If you question the U.S. government, you’re with the enemy.

‘Harsh’ exchanges

But rewind to August: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley called a U.S. drone strike outside Kabul a “righteous strike” that sacked an ISIS bomb plot — even though it killed seven children. But defense officials later admitted mistakes and that an investigation found there was no bomb in a vehicle headed for an airport where thousands were trying to flee the country. (President Joe Biden ordered no punishments for the deadly and botched strike.)

“The harsh Price and Psaki exchanges with reporters were evidence of the intensity of President Biden’s views. Press spokespeople reflect a president’s tone, not just his words,” said Martha Joynt Kumar of the Presidential Transition Project, who monitors White House-press interactions. “For Psaki, known for her non-confrontational demeanor, her sharp words were a noticeable deviation from her normal briefing style.”

Reporters also expressed frustration with a practice of limiting the number of journalists, ostensibly due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, who can attend presidential events on the White House campus and when Biden hits the road.

“I didn’t even know how to try to get in the room,” said one longtime White House reporter, granted anonymity to be frank, referring to Biden’s Jan. 19 news conference, the second one he did by himself on U.S. soil. “They used some lottery system but clearly didn’t tell everyone who wanted to be there covering it.”

Time magazine politics reporter Molly Ball on Friday took her frustrations public, blasting how the White House went about credentialing and choosing reporters for an event with the new mayor of New York City.

“Apparently Joe Biden wants to be seen with Eric Adams so badly that the White House is ... not letting the national media cover it!” she tweeted. “Biden is doing a ‘public’ event with the mayor here in NYC, but it is open only to the pool and an invitation-only press list. Mayor's office says they had no say in who was invited.”

“There was no credentialing for this event, @WhiteHouse just handpicked pre selected media outlets to cover it. Very cool, very transparency,” Ball added, taking a swipe at the Biden White House’s pledge to be among the most open in U.S. history.

Psaki did not dispute Ball’s description of planning for the event, writing in a reply tweet: “The event is live on television with a full press pool selected by the rotation run by the White House Correspondents' Association. If we are trying to keep it a secret we are doing a bad job.”

Both have valid points. But the larger point Ball and the longtime White House reporter were making is they, too, have questions for the leader of the free world and would like a shot at asking them while adhering to COVID-19 protocols.

'We trust no one'

For her part, Psaki on Feb. 4 said she welcomes “good-faith scrutiny” and said “we respect and value the role of the press.” And Price tweeted that he called the AP reporter to let him know “he’s no one’s dupe,” adding: “Nothing but respect for him, which I underscored in a call to him after the briefing.”

But neither spokesperson said their comments went too far. In fact, Psaki was sure to lightly criticize the NPR reporter’s framing of the question, saying it “wasn’t in all of the context of what was put out there” about the ISIS raid.

The net effect of the administration’s “just trust us” media strategy is an often-paltry discourse on important issues and — which is ironic, given the Biden campaign’s promises — more rather than less false information flying around on social media and cable news.

Americans should not be expected to accept every statement from the White House as gospel, and the president's aides certainly shouldn't expect it from journalists.

“It's absolutely not our role, and it's more important than ever that we never give in to that,” David Zurawik, a former Baltimore Sun media critic who now teaches at Maryland’s Goucher College, told CNN on Sunday. 

“You know, Lyndon Johnson said trust him on Vietnam,” he said of the 36th president. “No, we trust no one. That is exactly what we do. And here is why it's so important today. … I have never seen a crisis like the one we are now in with disinformation and misinformation.”

As frustrations among the Washington press corps have grown during Biden’s first year, several reporters have shared a common perceived thread with CQ Roll Call — and Zurawik echoed it.  

“I think the Biden administration thought just because they weren't Trump, they were going to get some kind of free ride,” he said. “And it's outrageous.”