The day after his final briefing, outgoing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney gave The Colbert Report‘s Stephen Colbert an exit interview of sorts, and when Colbert pressed him on the many “tense” exchanges with the likes of ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, Carney chalked it up to the “theatricality” of televised briefings. It’s a common complaint, but that aspect of the briefings is actually a feature, not a bug.
Colbert’s interview was more heavily weighted toward substance than his usual yuckfests, and gave a glimpse through the window of Carney’s briefing room mindset. He told Colbert what was behind the caution he exhibited, especially in the early days of his tenure.
Colbert asked if there were meetings to hammer out the administration’s message, “or do you some days go out there and say, ‘I’m going to wing this and try not to start an international incident?'”
“There is a danger that as you’ve done it for a while, you begin to think you don’t need to actually…”
“I’m kind of the president, I’m kind of the president,” Colbert interrupted. “You know what I mean? You feel like, hey, the camera’s pointed at me. I must be the man.”
“I think I’ll make some policy today,” Carney said. “No, what you realize is that when you speak for the President and the White House and the United States, you have to be careful. and you– you could inadvertently cause a crisis or a misunderstanding between our nation and another nation. So we do spend a lot of time before briefings, going over what is the new development, or what new are we saying about a crisis overseas or at home.”
It was a canny observation by Colbert, because it was that precise dynamic that made Robert Gibbs such a unique press secretary: his long, close relationship to, and advisory role with, the President gave his offhand declarations added weight. Carney was a stark contrast to that.
He also talked about regretting that he “took the bait” from contentious reporters in the briefing room, adding “when you’re at the podium, you’re a little above everybody else, and you can, you know, dictate a little bit how the briefing goes by calling on the next person. Its easy to win an exchange.”
Carney added that ” if they’re really obnoxious, and you get a little rattled and you sort of engage, you finish the exchange thinking ‘I won that, I killed,’ and then you look at it later on TV, and you realize that nobody actually sees the whole exchange. They just see you wagging your finger or, you know, looking like a jerk. And that’s not good for the President.”
Colbert singled out Jon Karl, and Carney said, with a laugh, “We had our moments,” but then added that Karl and others are “dong their jobs,” and blamed the vibe on televised briefings.
“Sometimes I think that the fact that the briefing is televised in its entirety, something that Mike mcCurry back in the 90s under Clinton had said yes to, and has apologized to every successive press secretary, creates a theatricality to it and some sort of, you know, righteous indignation. People pose, and they want to hear themselves talk, or they want to create moments, creating some drama.”
This is a theme that has permeated much of my White House coverage, and a complaint that I hear even from White House TV correspondents, but I think Jay is dead wrong on two counts. First of all, people like Jon Karl and James Rosen aren’t just doing their jobs, it isn’t just about theatricality. Karl fabricated emails, and Rosen conspired with a national security leaker to undermine U.S. foreign policy. They are malpractitioners of journalism, theatrical or not. Lying is not part of the job. This is not all in the game.
More importantly, though, the “theatricality” of televised briefings is only a problem in that White House spokesmen don’t effectively counter it. The transparency of televised briefings is invaluable because it allows reporters, any reporters, to put the administration on the spot, to force them to either answer a question, or blow it off in front of the entire world. The quality of those questions is where editorial judgment comes in, and where those cameras can cut the other way. When reporters display dysfunctional priorities or factual ignorance, that’s also there for the world to see.
That’s why those moments that Carney thinks are bad for the President are exactly what we need more of. When Carney calls out a reporter for lying, or grandstanding, or focusing on frivolous minutiae, that’s a feature, not a bug. Press secretaries should do more of that, not less. Those moments might not get used on TV, but the message gets out in other ways, and it certainly gets to the reporters in that room.