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Both Fox News and Newsmax came for Jen Psaki on Tuesday. It backfired.
The briefing encapsulated why "#PsakiBomb" and "Doocy" are regularly trending terms.
For today’s edition of Public Notice I want to lighten things up by giving some attention to a White House press briefing that has been compared to drinking fine wine or watching the Harlem Globetrotters beat up on the Washington Generals.
The briefings in the Biden era don’t come close to approximating the circuses they were in the Trump years — period. But they do regularly feature verbal jousting between Press Secretary Jen Psaki and correspondents from Trumpy outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax. These exchanges say something about the state of right-wing media.
The White House reporters for those outlets — usually Peter Doocy and Emerald Robinson, respectively — routinely ask questions that are less designed to shed light on issues and more geared toward creating 20-second soundbites for Sean Hannity or Greg Kelly to use on their primetime shows. But this approach often blows up in their faces, because Jen Psaki is very good at her job.
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Tuesday was a case in point. Doocy asked a question meant to advance one of the baseless right-wing conspiracy theories currently in vogue — that the Biden administration wants to spy on everyday Americans’ bank accounts. (In reality the Treasury Department proposal in question would merely require banks to report inflows and outflows to certain accounts so the IRS can have a better sense of when rich people underreport income.)
“Is the plan to catch billionaire tax cheats by snooping on accounts that just have $10,000 in them?” Doocy asked, stretching the meaning of “snooping” to its breaking point.
Psaki, however, didn’t let him get away with framing the question in that manner — and admonished him in a way that reminded me of an elementary school teacher dealing with a troublesome pupil.
“That's not exactly an accurate description, so let me help with you an accurate description of what is actually happening here,” she began. “People who get W-2s — whether they are teachers, firefighters, employees at Fox News, anywhere where they may be getting a W-2 — that’s not what we’re talking about here. They’re already reporting their income. We’re talking about high net worth individuals who are not paying the taxes they owe, and that’s what this policy would propose to address.”
But Doocy wasn’t done. He asked Psaki another loaded question meant to advance Fox’s anti-vaccine mandate narrative by driving a wedge between public health and public safety.
“The whole point of a vaccine mandate is to make people safer, but if a vaccine mandate also means tons of police and military may walk off the job, then at the end of the day, does a vaccine mandate make people safer?” he asked.
Lost in Doocy’s hypothetical is the reality that vaccine mandates are meant to keep cops and troops safe, not just the people they interact with. Information recently released by the Fraternal Order of Police indicates that Covid resulted in 724 deaths among law enforcement officers since the beginning of the pandemic, making the virus the top cause of death to police in that timeframe. As for the military, the Washington Post reports that Covid killed 32 service members in August and September, none of whom were fully vaccinated.
Psaki alluded to some of these facts in her response to Doocy, and even left him flummoxed when she turned the tables by asking him a question.
“What was the number one cause of death among police officers last year, do you know? Covid-19. So that’s something that we’re working to address,” she said.
Doocy then starting ticking through societal problems that could be exacerbated in a scenario where anti-vax cops and troops quit en masse — “terror, murder, robberies, kidnappings” — but Psaki cut him off.
“Peter, more than 700,000 have died of Covid,” she said. “Again, it was the number one cause of death among police departments and police officers. It’s something that we should take seriously. Departments are trying to save people in their departments, people who work for them. We support that effort, and there has been success across the country in that regard.”
This is usually how the Doocy-Psaki exchanges go. Doocy asks a loaded question, gets swatted down, tries again, gets swatted down, starts trending on Twitter with #PsakiBomb, rinse, repeat — and then he comes back the next day for more. His pluckiness would be commendable if it wasn’t so often in service of misinformation.
But if you were watching Tuesday’s briefing and thought Doocy’s latest attempt to create a 30-second gotcha clip didn’t pan out, you hadn’t seen anything yet.
Newsmax makes Fox News look like the BBC
Newsmax staffer Emerald Robinson’s presence in the White House briefing room these days feels like a throwback to the Trump era, when “reporters” from propaganda outlets like OAN would often get called upon to ask questions designed to own the libs.
As you’d expect, the dynamic is much different now that Biden is in charge, and Psaki doesn’t always humor Robinson by giving her a chance to ask questions. As a result, the spectacle of Robinson shouting questions that Psaki ignores as she walks away from the podium has become commonplace. Tuesday, however, was the rare day when Psaki gave Robinson a chance to do her thing.
It didn’t turn out well for her.
Robinson began by asking Psaki a question about a right-wing talking point infused with homophobia and toxic masculinity that became a thing last week when Tucker Carlson brought it up on his show — that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg somehow shirked his duties by taking paternity leave to spend time with his newborn twins. But Robinson was unaware of just how outdated that line of attack is.
“Given the seriousness of the supply chain crisis and the multiple issues that you outlined, wouldn’t it be wise for the secretary to get back on the bicycle, so to speak, and come back to work?” she asked.
“He’s at work,” Psaki replied.
“He’s on paternity leave,” Robinson said.
“I was on a conference call with him this morning,” Psaki replied.
Psaki could have left it at that, but instead chose to address the underlying point Robinson was trying to make.
“Listen, Emerald, I think what you’re getting at here is this question about whether men, parents, women, should have paternity and maternity leave, and the answer is absolutely yes, in our view,” she said. “That is the policy of this administration. That is what we’re pressing to make law so it’s a reality for women, parents, fathers across the country, and we’re not going to back away from that.”
Robinson tried to ask a followup question about vaccine mandates, but Psaki was fresh out of patience.
“Emerald, I think we’ve spent plenty of time with you today,” Psaki said, as Robinson just kept talking. “Emerald, let’s give some other people more time here, okay?”
Adversarial journalism is good. Bad faith gotchas, not so much.
To be clear, holding power accountable is a fundamental part of a political journalist’s duties, and one of the important things about White House press briefings is that they give reporters an opportunity to ask the press secretary and other administration officials tough and challenging questions. But that’s only superficially what Doocy and Robinson are up to.
Psaki’s deft handling of questions like the ones she faced on Tuesday undoubtedly makes for good theater. But some media observers, such as American Independent writer Oliver Willis, argue she’d be better off ignoring the likes of Fox News and Newsmax altogether.
If Psaki were less skilled at revealing bad faith questions for what they are, I’d agree. But taking questions from Doocy encourages Fox News to broadcast part of the briefing live, which allows its audience to see her push back on talking points that usually aren’t treated critically on that network.
Setting aside the debate about whether it’s worthwhile or not, watching Psaki handle the likes of Doocy and Robinson remains reliably entertaining. And after four years of press secretaries gaslighting and talking about “Holocaust centers” and using doctored videos used to smear reporters, that counts for something.