It has been clear for quite a while that Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, isn't very good at her job.
Another daily White House press briefing, another cringeworthy response from Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
On Tuesday afternoon, NBC reporter Peter Alexander asked the president's spokesperson for a reaction to the egregious behavior of people ripping down the flyers that show the names and pictures of Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas. "Is the White House's view that these actions should be condemned," Alexander inquired, "or that that's a form of peaceful protest?"
Jean-Pierre replied vaguely that she had "sorta kinda seen the reporting here and there" about the poster-ripping but couldn't comment about it. "I'm just not going to go into specifics on that particular thing," she said. It was clear that nothing in her briefing book instructed her to condemn the vandals and — despite being the president's spokesperson — she wasn't sure what to say about it.
Soon after the briefing ended, however, someone set her straight and she tweeted the response she should have instinctively given when the question was posed: "The families of those who have been taken hostage have lived in agony. Tearing down pictures of their loved ones . . . is wrong and hurtful."
It has been clear for a while that Jean-Pierre isn't very good at her job. She's not quick on her feet, her answers are unconvincing, and she isn't regarded as a confidante of the president. In an unflattering profile in March, The Washington Post quoted one senior reporter's assessment: "She doesn't appear to be in the room where it happens."
So why do reporters keep attending her press briefings?
Why do they attend any White House spokesperson's briefings?
In truth, even if Jean-Pierre were as poised, articulate, and nimble at fielding reporters' questions as her predecessor, Jen Psaki, or as her predecessor, Kayleigh McEnany, the encounters with the White House press gaggle would still, with rare exceptions, be devoid of real news. The crowded Q&A sessions in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room almost never generate important insights, candid confessions, or valuable explanations about the president's performance. Reporters crave the chance to be on TV, and the press secretary uses the "briefing" to parrot administration talking points. The gatherings are staged for show, not for conveying important information. Reporters pose their sometimes barbed questions, fully aware that they will be answered with double-talk, deflection, and multiple reiterations of the party line.
This is not to disparage legitimate press briefings, such as those given by high-ranking officials during a natural disaster or a military operation. And when the president himself takes questions, his answers are newsworthy more or less by definition. But when reporters assemble for the daily White House briefing, it isn't to report. It is to provide a foil for the press secretary, who takes their questions for the sole purpose of defending the president and never, under any circumstances, acknowledging that he could be wrong.
Recall the White House event at which President Biden searched the audience for Jackie Walorski, an Indiana congresswoman. "Jackie, are you here? Where's Jackie? She must not be here," Biden said — plainly forgetting that Walorski had been killed in a car accident a month earlier. Asked about the incident at a subsequent press briefing, Jean-Pierre insisted that Biden had not misspoken or been confused. Rather than concede that he'd had a senior moment, she maintained that Walorski had been "top of mind" for the president and that was why he called for her. Ludicrous though it was, she repeated that explanation 17 times. No one was convinced. Everyone knew she was spinning to put her boss in the best light.
What is gained from such charades?
On the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated, Sean Spicer began his tenure as press secretary by making the preposterous claim that the new president had been sworn in before "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period." In reality, Barack Obama's inauguration had been attended by a far more massive crowd, but Spicer was ordered to lie to the press, so he did. After leaving his White House job, Spicer expressed "regret" for the lies he had told on Trump's behalf. But to one extent or another, every White House spokesperson appears to adopt Winston Churchill's wartime maxim that "truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."
Or at least a stonewall.
Mike McCurry, who was President Bill Clinton's press secretary during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, acknowledged (again after leaving the White House) that his strategy during press briefings was to be relentlessly uninformative. In an interview with ABC News, he described how he would walk into the daily press sessions with "this kind of flimsy little statement that I wasn't going to budge from and that's what I waved around as my only line of defense for most of those briefings." On another occasion, he said his approach to the job was one of "telling the truth slowly."
A witness in court must swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. White House press secretaries who want to keep their job can't do any such thing. If the president falsely maintains that something is true, his spokesperson is expected to back him up. During their stints as Trump's press secretary, McEnany and Sarah Huckabee Sanders routinely lent their imprimatur to the president's distortions. During the 2013 debate over the Affordable Health Act, Obama asserted time and again that anyone who liked their health insurance plan could keep it. PolitiFact would label that the "Lie of the Year" — but it was Obama's story, so his spokesman Jay Carney blindly stuck to it.
As political creatures, presidents may want spokespeople who will defend them and their positions at all costs. But White House press secretary is a government position, and the daily press briefings are government-funded proceedings held on government property. That wouldn't be a problem if they reliably generated useful news, clarified public policy, or provided meaningful answers to journalists' questions. But the daily press briefings don't illuminate the truth, they obscure it. They aren't even good entertainment. They are vehicles for propaganda and sloganeering, and their proper place is in a campaign headquarters, not the White House.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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