When I invited White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on my Snapchat show Good Luck America, I wanted to learn a little more about the White House’s perspective on the infrastructure package moving through Congress and the nation’s protracted fight against Covid-19. But I was mostly interested in what a press secretary is supposed to know best: the press.
Psaki is a veteran of the Obama White House, which, like Barack Obama himself, viewed the Washington media as necessary but also self-important and a bit annoying, enthralled with the kind of ephemeral micro-dramas that found their way into Politico Playbook and Twitter every morning. The Obama team prided itself on utilizing new forms of digital media to reach audiences that don’t follow political news—and they rolled their eyes when blow-dried members of the White House Press Corps whined about the president’s appearances on new platforms that weren’t deemed serious enough by Beltway standards, despite their massive reach.
I have a standout memory from that era, one that Psaki took in behind the scenes. When Obama sat for an interview before the 2015 State of the Union Address with an outlandish YouTube creator named Glozell—who had over 4 million subscribers, most of them young people—the TV honchos were triggered. “YouTube Star Who Drinks Cereal From a Bathtub to Interview President Obama,” went one very serious headline from ABC News, which totally didn’t care at all that Obama wasn’t doing a pre-State of the Union interview with them. Amusingly, ABC then clipped a sound bite from Glozell’s interview for their own YouTube page, racking up some pre-roll ad revenue in the process.
Before joining the Biden administration, Psaki did a tour of podium duty at the State Department, and then watched closely from the sidelines as Donald Trump and his team of CPAC castoffs treated the White House media with outright contempt. But the Trump team was also thirsty for their clubby validation behind the scenes, filling their stories with leaks that helped fuel the Trump-era news boom. Trump’s press aides realized, too, that there was a shared return amid the briefing room jousting. Reporters got Twitter fame, book deals, and TV contracts—while Trump got to expose plenty of them as spoofable clout-chasers who cared more about televised combat than genuine truth-seeking.
With Biden restoring a baseline level of political discipline back into the White House, reporters are now complaining that the thrill is gone. One of them, venting to my colleague Julia Ioffe, said, “Obviously, I’m not wishing that Trump was still president, but as a reporter that wants a story, it’s frustrating how disciplined they are. Kudos to them, they’re very happy with themselves. You can see it, the coverage across the board from everyone is very, very lame. You never get inside the room and hear how this shit’s going down. Like, how are they managing this elderly man?”
In our interview, I asked Psaki about that complaint, what about the media changed during the Trump years, why Democrats should talk to Fox News, what Biden reads every day, and much more. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Peter Hamby: You guys have been going hard at Facebook for not doing enough to remove Covid misinformation and disinformation, and not revealing how far that kind of misinformation is traveling about vaccines and the virus. But why Facebook specifically? Have you guys talked to other platforms? I mean, this stuff is on TikTok and YouTube also.
Jen Psaki: It’s not just Facebook. Every social media platform has a responsibility here and they could all probably be doing more to crack down on misinformation. And that’s really what our message is. Also, it’s not just social media platforms. It’s also personalities on television. It is also elected officials. Unfortunately, the point is, none of us are innocent bystanders here. Just because you work at a social media platform or you’re a member of the media, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a responsibility to save lives.
It is true, though, that because of their own success, a huge swath of the country gets their news from Facebook. We also know, because of a recent study, that it’s 12 people sharing 65 percent of the misinformation. So I think our larger point, we’re not trying to get into a battle du jour with Facebook. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to make clear to the public—and people who get information from Facebook, from YouTube, from Twitter, from a range of platforms—that you should really be clear-eyed about the sources of information. And that’s everybody’s responsibility.
So you continue to think, though, that Facebook isn’t doing enough to tamp down the bad info.
They’re not. When many people hear “algorithms” they only vaguely know what that means. It’s important for people to know that misinformation is not disincentivized. In fact, information that is edgy and sometimes outrageous and sometimes false is incentivized to be shared through their platform. That’s a business decision on their part. They’ve taken steps in the past to pull down information around January 6th, and other times they have taken some good steps on Covid. So not everything they’ve done is bad. No one’s saying that. It’s just that there’s more that they could do. Take somebody like Robert Kennedy, Jr. He is still allowed on Facebook, even though he’s banned from Instagram. And he is one of the 12 purveyors of misinformation. That doesn’t make sense. It’s just a lack of understanding of their policies. And I think our point is, there’s more that can be done.
I want to talk to you about media and media strategy. What’s been the biggest shift in media since you worked on Obama’s first campaign?
I would say two things, off the top of my head. One is that near the end of the Obama administration, everything was meshing together between digital platforms and formats and print newspapers. It was all starting to become a spectrum. But when we would explain it to people that way, including, you know, principals and cabinet members, they would look at us kind of like we didn’t make sense. Now it’s even more so that way, right? Our objective in the White House is not to do a round of network interviews. That’s not what we’re hired to do here. It is to reach the American public. And you can’t be so fragile and fancy about the formats you use. That means using a range of platforms that weren’t even around 10, 15 years ago, for sure, with the president and high-level officials. It also means engaging platforms that may not like the president, because you still need to reach the public where they are. A lot of people still watch Fox News. Do they like the president or even like me? Most days, no. But that’s okay. Our job is not only to talk to people who like us.
That’s an interesting point, because I feel like at the end of the Obama administration, the point of view among the communications team was that there’s no point in talking to Fox. And other Democrats—Elizabeth Warren was one of them, during the presidential campaign—kind of adopted the viewpoint that Fox is only going to lash Democrats. So why should a Democrat engage with Fox News? Like what, what’s the point?
Well, first, we don’t do a lot of the personalities on Fox. We do engage with some of the anchors on Fox and with the White House correspondents from Fox. Look, I would say that the president’s number one goal still is beating the pandemic. And we know, and we’ve seen statistically, that there’s still a lot of mistrust, still a lot of lack of understanding among swaths of the population. It’s only about a half a dozen states where most of the cases are coming from at this point in time. And so our objective is to beat the pandemic, to put people back to work. And we need to talk to Fox and Fox viewers in order to do that.
Now, they are not waiting for the president, vice president, me, other people from the administration, to tell them what to do. But they might listen to medical experts or some of our doctors. There might be information that strikes them, because it’s so fact-based. If we convey it to Fox then they may hear that. And I think our view at this moment is we don’t have to approve of everything they do editorially. But it is still a platform for us to communicate with the public. And frankly, the other piece of it is, getting in a fight with Fox News, at this point in time for the administration, isn’t particularly constructive to getting our agenda done. And some of that may also be this period of time that we’re in, which is that we’re coming off of an administration that completely destroyed trust in media, trust in institutions. That’s not the fight we want right now.
There’s been a few complainy background quotes lately from White House reporters saying that Biden is too scripted and too managed. And they’re not getting the kind of scoops that they got during the chaotic Trump years. But if you covered any president or politician before Trump, you realize, whether we journalists like it or not, that you guys are supposed to be managing your boss and sort of protecting them from things you don’t want out there. How do you think individual behaviors and expectations from White House reporters have changed in the last four years?
There’s no question they were impacted by the Trump era. And I will say the thing that’s—there’s a lot of silly things about this—but one of them is: yesterday I traveled with the president, he did an hour-long town hall. He also did two unprompted press avails with the traveling press corps. He has done more of those than most presidents in history. And he takes questions nearly every single day, which he’s happy to do. And he actually looks forward to doing them.
Putting that aside, I would say, look, you don’t cover the federal government, or policy-making or legislating—or you shouldn’t, I should say—because you were looking for a scandal or you’re looking for a personality-driven story, or you’re looking for stories about people’s love lives. That’s not really what we do here. It doesn’t mean there aren’t personality stories, but what we’re trying to do every day is make policy and work on behalf of the American people. I don’t find that boring. I work in the government. If you find that boring, I don’t know. Maybe you should work for Us Weekly and cover scandals in Hollywood.
It feels like cable news still occupies a lot of headspace in Washington. But once you leave D.C., there’s Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro and the Young Turks on YouTube, and then Netflix, Hulu, Twitch, my show on Snapchat, all of which have audiences that dwarf cable news. How much do you guys care about the back and forth jousting on cable every day? Because I do feel like in the Obama years, certainly during the Trump years, there was a lot of attention paid to that, when only a minuscule percentage of the country is actually watching.
You’re right. Now, I would say when we’re legislating or in the process of negotiating legislation, you also have to remember who your audience is. And there is a large swath of Washington that watches and consumes and pays attention to some of these different morning rags. I don’t mean that in a bad way. These morning tip sheets and cable news, that’s fine.
We also recognize that local news is still one of the most trusted sources of news across the country. That’s consistently been the case. We’ve had over a thousand interviews with local news outlets, with a range of officials. In a weird way, Covid has enabled that to be possible because people are looking for content. And we are always trying to think about how to get outside of the Beltway and meet people where they are and the American public.
How would you define your job and your point of view as the White House press secretary in the year 2021? And a related question: In an increasingly Balkanized media environment, what are the bellwethers you look for to give you a sense of the president’s standing in the press?
On the second question: I have two preschoolers and I sometimes wish that I had the luxury of reading all the news in the morning. I do not. I do look at Twitter and consume it as like, what do the White House reporters care about and how are they consuming things? It is an important gauge. We can all deny it, but it is. I rely a lot on an amazing team who is reading deeply into the Covid coverage or the coverage of the Build Back Better agenda to say, is this really rising, or is this moving in this direction? The White House reporters, as you know, are very attuned to how things are being digested about the president. So even with the briefing on a daily basis, the president will often ask me, ‘What are they asking about? What didn’t make sense to them? What did they push you on?’ Because he also wants to know how things are being digested.
On the first question: My job as the press secretary is to speak on behalf of the president and to be as aligned with him and his thinking as humanly possible. On any given day, there’ll be topics I haven’t talked to him about. And you have to do your best to align with exactly where you think he would be. He’s also very conscious of that, and is also very focused on making sure that I know, and I can ask and be aligned with where he is at. I keep my own list of thoughts, of things I might say on a podcast one day, or I would say if I was out of government, but that’s not my role. My role is to speak on behalf of his positions, the White House views, what our policies are and why we’re doing things we’re doing.
Is Biden watching you like Trump used to watch his press secretaries? Like, is he sitting back in the office, checking in on you?
I’m going to go out on a limb, Peter. And I think his schedule’s a little bit more packed than the former guy’s. So typically during the briefing, he’s got meetings, sometimes he’ll catch something or a clip. And I always say to him, please tell me if something is not aligned with what you’re thinking. My job is to be aligned with your thinking or what you think about issues. But you know, he consumes media just like everybody else.
What does he read or watch?
I would say he reads every major daily newspaper. The hard copy, in the outer oval. I think he consumes, through Apple News, a range of information, a range of sources of information. He doesn’t only read one outlet or another. Because there are TVs everywhere in the White House—it’s nothing like the former guy—but he’ll kind of see somebody doing an interview or we’ll show him a clip. He gets a packet of clips in the morning, too. So it really depends on the day. He likes to know how information is being digested. He thinks it’s a prism into the outside world, and he thinks the media has a really important role to play. But on any given day, they all want hours of their time to think. And that’s just like, not a reality for most presidents.