Is Jen Psaki the Next Rachel Maddow?

Jen Psaki
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Dylan Byers
February 23, 2022

Earlier this month, while the cable news industry was consumed by the ongoing and seemingly never-ending Jeff ZuckerAllison Gollust-Chris Cuomo imbroglio, and as WarnerMedia C.E.O. Jason Kilar was flaccidly trying to calm the nerves of a restless newsroom staff, CNN interim co-president Amy Entelis and CNN+ programming lead Rebecca Kutler were in Washington for a top-secret and mission-critical recruitment assignment. The chaos embroiling their brand had not deterred their efforts to court a new potential on-air talent who, in their eyes, had the potential to become a marquee star both in the CNN lineup and its nascent streaming service. 

They weren’t the only ones to hatch this novel idea. Less than one week later, NBC News Chairman Cesar Conde and MSNBC President Rashida Jones made a similar pilgrimage to Washington to meet with the very same talent, in the hopes that she might one day join their networks in a flagship role, and perhaps even take the top spot in primetime on MSNBC. CNN may be reeling from the Zucker mess, but MSNBC is imperiled in its own way, as Rachel Maddow prepares to exit her nightly show, prompting a presumed top-down re-think of primetime.

The potential talent, of course, was Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary. In the last year, Psaki has achieved veritable celebrity status for her daily press briefings, which have restored sanity and professionalism to the office and earned her the adoration of the mainstream media, as well as a fervent following online. Psaki intends to leave the White House at some point this year and, according to sources familiar with her thinking, intends to go into television news—not as a contributor, but as a host. Her lunch meetings with the CNN and MSNBC executives, which also included her agent Jay Sures, were the opening salvo in what is likely to be a long effort by several networks to court the woman who could potentially become the next big star in television news. ABC News and CBS News have also expressed interest in Psaki, sources familiar with the matter told me. (Representatives for CNN and MSNBC declined comment; representatives for ABC News and CBS News did not respond to a request for comment.)

Psaki’s appeal to the cable and broadcast networks is obvious. She is a political celebrity, with the combination of West Wing bona fides and telegenic charm that allowed George Stephanopolous to pave the road from the White House comms shop to the broadcast booth some two-and-a-half decades ago, and Nicolle Wallace more recently. She’s widely respected by liberals and moderates, many of whom credit her with restoring dignity to a lectern that had been ravaged and abused by Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders and Kayleigh McEnany. And her daily briefing has become appointment viewing for fans who eagerly await her pithy retorts to reporters, most notably Fox News’ Peter Doocy, and turn them into viral moments on social media. She was profiled favorably in Vogue and photographed by Annie Leibovitz. She’s hammed it up with the ladies of The View. Saturday Night Live doesn’t know how to make fun of her.

Psaki wants to be on TV, to be sure, but the industry needs her even more. After it became clear that Maddow would be stepping aside in the spring, many industry insiders commented privately on the lack of an obvious successor. As new platforms had evolved, talent had migrated elsewhere. Wallace’s name emerged as a possible successor, in part, because there was simply no one else. Some even joked that MSNBC needed to hire someone like A.O.C. Psaki, it seems, provides a potential and unique solution.

The news industry is suffering from severe post-Trump ratings declines and is in desperate need of new marquee talent, especially as the major networks build out their streaming services. This is especially true for MSNBC, where Maddow’s impending departure from primetime has created a near-existential crisis—indeed, Maddow’s current month-long hiatus has resulted in a 25-percent ratings drop in total viewers (and the coveted 25-to-54 year-old demo), and dragged down the rest of primetime. It’s equally true for CNN. Zucker’s sudden exit has exacerbated concerns about its editorial direction after the Discovery merger. Psaki’s star power has the potential to change the narrative for either network. For them, the fact that she actually wants to go into this business—as opposed to making a small fortune running communications for a major corporation, a la Jay Carney at Amazon or Robert Gibbs at McDonald’s—must seem like a meaningful opportunity to manage the decline of primetime while creating a meaningful streaming product. 

The discussions with CNN and MSNBC are in early stages, which means that the contours of Psaki’s television career are still taking shape. But sources familiar with these early conversations say there could be a natural progression from Psaki’s role in the briefing room to her job as cable news host. (Too-obvious ideas for show titles include The Brief with Jen Psaki.) After all, her current role requires her to explain complicated matters of politics and policy and debunk falsehoods—which is not dissimilar from the job Maddow has created for herself at 9 p.m., where she typically punctures G.O.P. talking points and spends entire segments circuitously arriving at a point. 

At the same time, after watching Psaki on The View, it’s not hard to see her sliding into a more informal setting where she discusses issues of the day with like-minded Washington colleagues. In addition, Psaki would likely be featured prominently across election coverage and breaking news specials, wherever they pertained to politics or international affairs.

And which of the two cable networks would be a better fit? MSNBC is, of course, unapologetically liberal, and arguably a better home for a longtime Democratic operative. That said, Psaki is also a card-carrying member of the political establishment, and far closer to the political center than MSNBC’s most outspoken liberals. She also spent three years as a CNN political contributor, from 2017 to 2020. But at the end of the day, both networks are staring down vacancies at 9 p.m. So, as with all things, this will likely come down to who makes the best offer.