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How Fox, the NY Times and Slate Welcomed Jen Psaki

Author: Curtis Sparrer
January 21, 2021

One of the biggest changes from the Biden administration took place during its first day of office: how it handled the press.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki lit up the news with the administration’s very first press conference that Slate headlined as “Not Crazy,” Politico noted for its “transparency” and CNN called “honest.

The New York Times drew the immediate contrast on everyone’s mind:

Unlike Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump’s first press secretary, who lashed out at the news media and lied about Mr. Trump’s inaugural crowd size during his first appearance in the briefing room, Ms. Psaki engaged in a largely civil exchange of information with reporters.

“There will be moments when we disagree, and there will certainly be days where we disagree for extensive parts of the briefing even, perhaps,” she said to about a dozen journalists in the room. “But we have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”

Fox News, however, had a different memory they wanted to share.

During her tenure at the State Department, Psaki was known for her combative exchanges with reporters. One of those exchanges became at the center of a controversy after it was discovered in 2016 that an eight-minute exchange from 2013 with Fox News reporter James Rosen was edited out of the State Department archives, where she appears to admit that the department previously misled reporters and the American people about the origins of the Iran Nuclear Deal. 

The Washington Post for its part supports the detail that the video was edited out but adds that Psaki did not say she was responsible. 

What bothered me was that the Fox article didn’t attribute Psaki’s “known combativeness.”  After googling a combination of “Jen,” “Psaki,” “combativeness,” and other such terms, I wondered why Fox opted for the passive voice of “was known for” instead of out-right declaring who thought she was combative.

But that googling brought me to a warning from the Washington Post this morning about one journalistic norm it fears will return: “the desire to appear combative and to blow things out of proportion to demonstrate toughness. Because journalists pride themselves on being tough and objective, they like to take an adversarial-seeming approach, especially to the party in power or the candidate with whom they most identify.”

Media columnist Margaret Sullivan added, “There’s a difference between truly holding power to account and grandstanding. It’s the latter that gave rise to ridiculous dust-ups like the one over President Barack Obama’s wearing of a tan suit — not to mention the vast and shameful overplaying of the Hillary Clinton email scandal during the 2016 campaign.

“They will resist false equivalency. For example, they’ll think twice before they put a reality-denying senator like Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on the air to promote false claims about election fraud simply because they feel they need to ‘balance’ all the (truthful) Democratic voices.”

So, on one hand we have all this praise for Jen Psaki, and on the other hand we have this piece from Fox that digs up an event from 2016 in the name of “balance” and adds some anonymous smear of her “being known for her combative exchanges.”

According to Bospar’s own research, Americans are hoping for a different approach to news that starts at the top.  An overwhelming share of Americans (89.9%) believe the Biden presidency will impact them. More than a fifth of Americans said the news cycle will be more reliable (22.4%), their blood pressure will go down (22.3%), or that they will think about politics less (20.3%).

Part of that will come from a new administration being “not crazy,” “transparent” and “honest.”

But another part of that will come from us refusing to accept false equivalencies.

This is the communication challenge of our time.