Summary List Placement
When former White House press secretary Jake Siewert recently spoke before a Columbia University class, the hosting professor described his resume in reverse chronological order.
Siewert served in the Treasury Department under President Barack Obama. He worked for aluminum giant Alcoa Corporation. And before that, he worked as a White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton.
“Literally the entire class laughed,” Siewert told Insider. “I think the first challenge is to make the job respectable enough again that when you introduce yourself as the former White House press secretary, it’s not a punchline.”
After four years of President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media — and an extra year of name-calling during his 2016 campaign rallies — White House briefing room veterans say they are hopeful for a monumental reset when President-elect Joe Biden’s new press team sweeps in.
That reset began with a big bang on Sunday as Biden’s transition team announced a historic all-female White House communications team. Jen Psaki, who served as President Obama’s communications director, nabbed the coveted press secretary post that serves as the literal face of the entire US government. And as White House communications director, Kate Bedingfield will fill a job Trump left vacant for long stretches of his term but that remains instrumental in shaping a president’s public-facing message.
During the transition, the Biden communication staffers will stay busy outlining White House and Cabinet appointments and helping the incoming Democratic administration avoid any embarrassing scandals or snafus that can throw them off topic. Their jobs will only get more challenging come January. Once in office, Biden plans to bring back the daily press briefings that Trump eliminated during several critical periods of his administration.
A reset button
Mike McCurry spent three-plus years of spinning, defending and spitting out one-liners as Clinton’s press secretary from 1994 to 1998. And yes, that included the Monica Lewinsky scandal. McCurry was respected by his colleagues and among reporters, even if he didn’t answer all their questions. Many interviewed by Insider chose McCurry as an example of one of the best press secretaries in the last 30 years.
In a Washington Post article announcing McCurry’s exodus from the Clinton administration, reporter Peter Baker wrote that McCurry’s “general barbs and skillful spinning of reporters helped steer President Clinton through 3½ years of often hostile media fire.”
McCurry — who is now a veteran communication strategist and a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington — told Insider he didn’t watch “many” Trump administration press briefings over the last four years.
“It wasn’t a good investment of my time,” he said. But he’s fully aware the Biden administration will need a reset button.
“First and foremost, reconstitute the role, because they really haven’t had a press secretary that does the normal job for the last four years,” McCurry said.
The job entails preparing information, scouring all the federal agencies for things the public should know, and being clear about the topics to discuss at the daily briefing, he said.
“Those are all, to me the fundamentals of the job. And, you know, they’ve been lost over the last four years,” McCurry said. “If we can reconstitute to some of that, that would be hopeful.”
McCurry said he used to meet with Clinton before his daily briefings to go through what he was prepared to say. And he would often get some pushback.
“He would just say, ‘Well that doesn’t make sense. That’s just a bunch of bulls—,'” McCurry said of Clinton. “He would then pick up his phone and call people and say, ‘We need a better answer to this question.'”
“The daily briefing actually had an action, forcing impact on the way in which public policy got formally met,” McCurry added. “That, to me, is one of the most important aspects of the job.”
Spinning is expected — but lies are not. And the role of the press secretary is twofold.
“The press secretary has two bosses: one is the president and the other is the American public,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN White House correspondent and current director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. “They are there to provide information to the American public. Not to dissemble, not to disrespect. Several press secretaries that I’ve talked to in the past have said that their arrangement with their boss was, they’ll represent but they won’t lie. So there needs to be a commitment to truth.”
‘Like abused dogs waiting to be adopted’
As recently as last month, Trump called CNN reporters “dumb bastards” during a campaign rally over their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The past four years have led to PTSD of sorts for many members of the press corps. Reporters were baited consistently. Reporters left briefings shaking their heads. It wasn’t until two days after the election that major networks took the bold step of dropping live coverage of a Trump speech to correct the president’s falsehoods, including that he had won the election and saying the voting process was “rigged.”
Like “abused dogs” that have been adopted. That’s how one former White House reporter described what it’ll be like for the White House press corps to return to some semblance of normalcy in the briefing room when Biden moves in.
Matthew Nussbaum covered the early days of the Trump White House for Politico after spending months on the 2016 campaign trail. He left the profession to get a law degree. Nussbaum says Biden press briefings will go back to normal, or dare you say it, even back to boring at times.
“I don’t think the press briefings are going to be nearly as interesting. I don’t think people are going to be tuning in the same way that they did during the Trump years,” Nussbaum said. “Look. In the same way that abused dogs need time to adjust when they’re adopted, the White House Press corps is going to have to adjust to a normal traditional press secretary after four years of being berated, lied to and belittled every day.”
White House reporters had access to Trump directly over the last four years during many of his press conferences. And that’s something that is very unlikely in a Biden administration. Instead, the Biden administration is expected to have a highly organized team of communication spinners, something reporters have already seen during the campaign.
Judith Miller, a former New York Times Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and author who is now a Fox News contributor, offered some common sense advice for the incoming team.
“How about not calling us scum, the worst people on the planet? That’s what journalists want,” Miller said.
Miller said journalists and news outlets should have to rethink their own coverage as well. Trust has been lost over the last four years, for a plethora of reasons, including reporters becoming the focal points of the stories they cover and having to defend themselves from attacks directed toward them.
“The problem now is that we have become so much part of the story, rather than covering the story. And when that happens, America doesn’t believe anything we say,” Miller said. “That’s a real problem for us, whether or not it’s acknowledged. And I see it every day.”
“I don’t see how you go back to doing quote, objective journalism if you have been so utterly hostile to Trump, for understandable reasons, and then turn around and suddenly start soft balling questions to Biden,” she added.
Miller has had her own experiences becoming the story. In 2005, she spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal a confidential source and later testified before a federal jury about the leak of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Miller left The New York Times after 28 years following scrutiny of her articles that suggested Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which helped the Bush administration build a case for invading that country.
“In her letter to the editor, Ms. Miller noted that even before going to jail, she had ‘become a lightning rod for public fury over the intelligence failures that helped lead our country to war,'” The Times reported in announcing her exodus.
Miller and the other former White House reporters and press secretaries who spoke to Insider see no easy way to repair the increasing lack of trust Americans have in the media.
“The danger with Biden is we’re all going to be so happy to have a normal human being in the job there, that we’re going to forget that, despite all the experience and despite all of the talented people around him who know what they’re doing, we’re going to let them get away with stuff,” Miller said. “And that will only further deepen the crisis of confidence that people have in the media.”