Joe Biden’s White House is running out of responses. On 3 February, on two separate occasions, the president’s press team – the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, and the State Department spokesman, Ned Price – implied that journalists questioning their briefings were taking the side of state enemies.
After NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe asked Psaki for evidence that a blast in Syria during a US operation, which killed six children, was an Islamic State (Isis) leader detonating a suicide vest and not American forces, Psaki bristled.
“There may be people that are sceptical of the events that took place and what happened to the civilians,” Rascoe said.
“Sceptical of the US military’s assessment when they went and took out an Isis terror– the leader of Isis?” Psaki replied. “That they are not providing accurate information, and Isis is providing accurate information?”
When Psaki was then criticised for the comments on Twitter by the Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez, the press secretary pointed to the rest of her answer, in which she said the US would be providing more information. Those vague assurances, though, don’t change the fact that she suggested that questioning US narratives on civilian deaths was tantamount to a betrayal of the country.
“It’s the job of reporters to ask for proof to back up government statements,” Sonmez said. “Doing so does not mean one believes propaganda put out by US adversaries.”
The same day, Price used similar language when replying to the Associated Press writer Matt Lee. Price briefed that the US believes Russia is planning to launch a “false flag” attack as a pretext for invading Ukraine. When Lee pointed out that the US has provided no evidence for the claim other than referring to declassified information that reporters were not allowed to see, Price sneered that the long-time State Department reporter was siding with Russia.
“If you doubt the credibility of the US government, of the British government, of other governments and want to, you know, find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do,” Price said.
The contempt with which the Biden administration’s press team treats reporters speaks to something deeper. In the 13 months since Biden took office, his team has treated the Fourth Estate with baffling disrespect. There’s an underlying implication – that the 2016 election of Donald Trump proved the press and the people can’t be trusted with big decisions. It’s been the refrain from establishment Democrats and its pundit allies so it’s no surprise to see it reflected in Biden’s team.
The attacks on the press show that the White House communications team is fumbling its message. Expecting to be given a free and easy ride by the press by virtue of Biden simply not being Trump, the administration is instead discovering that professional journalists ask hard questions. That’s not what they expected and they’re reacting poorly.
Even so, the disloyalty comments were an escalation in terms.
There’s a precedent for this specific type of hostility towards the media. But it’s not, as you might expect, to be found in the Trump administration – rather it’s in the George W Bush White House. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s press team consistently used national security as a pretext for silencing dissent and tough questions. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer laid out the rules of communications engagement on 26 September 2001: Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do”. It seemed the mantra “you are either with us or against us” applied not just to allies but to the US’s own media.
That there would be little daylight between these two administrations on these matters is not a surprise. The overlap of Bush-era conservatives and the national security wing of the Democratic Party became more pronounced in the Trump era. Now, as the GOP careens further into a far-right mess of its own creation, the neocons are looking for a new home. They’ve found it in the Democrats.
But there’s more going on in the Biden administration’s communications approach than simply aping the behaviour of the Bush White House. Psaki has become well known for her stinging barbs and sarcastic comments — some of which backfire, like her incredulity that the government would send out home tests, which generated such a fierce backlash that the government is now sending out home tests. Meanwhile, Price’s battles with Lee and his condescension to other State reporters has been a hallmark of his tenure at the department (battling with Lee at State was once Psaki’s job under the Obama administration).
Their snark can be read as pandering to an audience that expects some hostility to the press. Journalists reporting on Hillary Clinton’s record in 2016 have been cited as a reason for her loss by partisan commentators unwilling to accept her failure to beat Trump. That hostility has percolated through the partisan apparatus, from supporters to the party establishment, and has led to an ideological anger to any challenging questions, based on a presumption that they come from insincere insolence rather than people doing their jobs.
The response to this adversarial perception has been to use whatever hostile tactic is available. Whether it be the baseline snark and condescension that Psaki has perfected at the White House or the dismissive attitude deployed by Price at State, the Biden team has chosen its approach with the press. This most recent move to tar reporters as disloyal for asking basic questions about government pronouncements is just the latest escalation in a battle with the media that the administration can’t win.