EDITORIAL: Biden revives purpose of the press secretary

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The Daily Star, Oneonta, N.Y.
·3 min read
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Feb. 12—With a new president turning the page on one of the country's most dreadful years, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is doing some restoration work of her own with an office that had reached its nadir under the previous administration.

President Joe Biden hasn't been in office long enough yet for Psaki to face any serious grilling about her boss' conduct, and her work thus far has mostly been limited to helping define the new administration's positions on specific issues. But that has some value in itself, as does Psaki's revival of her office's daily media conferences.

"It's great to have a return to briefings and a useful exchange for reporters to get their questions answered," The Associated Press's Zeke Miller, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said last week to the Daily Beast. "But it's not just about the exchange of information; it's about the potent symbol that that forum sends around the world, but also in Washington — that the government is not above taking questions from journalists."

Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple noted last week that Psaki has brought another subtle tradition back to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room: waiting for a nod from the White House press corps' senior correspondent before calling an end to the briefings.

Those who held the position for President Donald Trump began in embarrassing fashion and only proceeded to get worse. Sean Spicer spent his first day flatly insisting that Trump's inauguration had "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe," a claim that was easily and clearly refuted by photos comparing Trump's inauguration crowd to Barack Obama's. Spicer was replaced by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said that being the mother of young children had "perfectly prepared me to deal with the White House press corps," because "I get to answer the same question all day long, and I've gotten pretty good at saying 'no.'

The tenure of Sanders' successor, Stephanie Grisham, could be better defined as a vacancy in the office. Grisham, who made a $183,000 salary, held zero press conferences while in office, only making occasional media appearances with far-right propagandists and Trump loyalists such as One America News Network and Fox News' Sean Hannity. She was followed by Kayleigh McEnany, who was certainly more hardworking and organized than Grisham but spent more time engaging in specious whataboutism than actually answering questions.

To be fair, McEnany had a much more difficult job than Psaki, who works for a president who doesn't fire off ignorant, half-baked opinions at all hours without consulting his advisers. Biden's policy positions, like most presidents', are formed by collaboration with experts he trusts and his own judgment, whereas Trump's were based solely on the likelihood of a personal transaction that could benefit him. The American people don't expect their president to be available 24/7, but they do expect that when he isn't, the White House press secretary can tell us what his position is.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo could learn a thing or two from Biden about transparency with the media. His administration was defeated in its attempt to conceal data about mortality rates at New York nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic when Acting Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O'Connor ordered the release of the information last week. The lawsuit was filed by the Empire Center for Public Policy; O'Connor also ordered the Cuomo administration to reimburse the Empire Center's legal fees at taxpayer expense.

Cuomo argues that the data would be misinterpreted and used against him politically, therefore it shouldn't see the light of day. Apparently he thinks New York voters aren't clever or informed enough to sniff out a political smear. But as long as people are demanding accountability and prying information loose from those who want it hidden, such cover-ups are bound to fail.