The routine trafficking of political personnel in America to the nation’s television networks hit a road bump last week after staffers at NBC News complained about White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s rumor-as-fact plans to join the liberal news outlet MSNBC when she leaves her West Wing post this summer.
The clumsily handled move, previewed in a leak to Axios, triggered anger among journalists who said they feared Psaki’s hiring would “taint” the NBC brand and reinforce the impression, already well-established in opinion polls, that the news business in the US works hand-in-glove with political factions.
The Psaki saga is hardly new. If the deal goes through, Psaki will join a long line of White House staff who have moved to media roles. In January, Symone Sanders, a former adviser and senior spokesperson for Kamala Harris, signed a deal with MSNBC to host a show.
But the deals are unexceptional to either side of the political divide. Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany joined Fox News last year; Sean Spicer has his own show on Newsmax; and CBS News hired Mick Mulvaney as a paid on-air contributor – also triggering an internal revolt that even prompted late-night host Stephen Colbert to condemn it on his show.
The anger is easy to explain. The pipeline between politics and lucrative gigs in the media in America is one that appears to sully the public view of both professions, creating a feeling that both sides are really in it for the money. It also encourages a sense that politics in the US is seen by the media in the same veins as sports – where hiring ex-players as commentators is common – where winning races is everything and actual policy means very little.
“The pipeline from the White House to news organizations makes it more difficult for news organizations to have sufficient distance or be perceived to be credibly scrutinizing government,” said Ryan Thomas, an associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism.
“Partisans argue that people won’t care or won’t notice, but it is wrong irrespective of awareness. It’s like they are moving from formal to informal public relations apparatus that is unhealthy in its own terms, irrespective of its potential effects on press accountability.”
Psaki’s hire comes at a time of press frustration that Joe Biden has given just eight open-access press conferences during his term, leading to an impression of scripted, artificial performances. Psaki’s tour of duty, transposed to a cable news with a more generous salary, is likely to increase perceptions that political spin and news coverage at cable news networks are so close as to be indistinguishable.
The outgoing press secretary has said that she is undergoing “rigorous ethics training” as it relates “to future employment” before her move, adding that she hoped the press corps “would judge me for my record and how I treat you and I try to answer questions from everybody across the board”.
Yet the transfer of Psaki to MSNBC seemed so natural that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) went so far as to launch a fundraiser. “She’s fought to restore trust in the free press after the Trump administration’s horrific attacks on the media,” it said in a statement. “And now, she’s planning to join MSNBC’s intrepid team of journalists to hold dangerous, far-right Republicans accountable.”
Journalism ethics professors express concern that this type of high-profile hiring to a high-profile cable news network, publicized while Psaki is still in a political role, risks becoming the default image for what the public holds as standard practice for journalism at large.
“There’s a trickle-down effect from the irresponsibility of cable news organizations to local news journalists who get tarred with the same brush,” Thomas said.
Americans of opposing political parties are sharply divided on how much they trust the news reported by national media organizations, according to new research.
A YouGov/Economist poll published last week found that while Americans are more likely to trust than distrust many prominent news sources, there are few organizations that are trusted by more than a small proportion of Americans on both sides of the political aisle.
At the top of the list was the Weather Channel at 52%, followed by the BBC (39%), the national public broadcaster PBS (41%), and the Wall Street Journal (37%). At the bottom of the list, in descending order, came CNN, OAN, MSNBC, Fox News and Breitbart.
A Gallup poll published last October found that trust in the media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly had edged down to 36%, making last year’s reading the second lowest on record. Only 7% of those polled said they had “a great deal” of trust and confidence in newspapers, television and radio news reporting. Thirty-four per cent said they had “none at all”.
The issue of reporting bias, never far from the lips of ideological adversaries, comes as cable news ratings has experienced sharp post-Trump declines that helped expose arrangements that had long been in place but never fully acknowledged. One was the information pipeline between CNN’s Jeff Zucker, his top colleague Allison Gollust, and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo and his brother Andrew. The exposure of Chris Cuomo’s advice to his brother during the sexual harassment scandal that brought the New York governor down eventually helped cost the younger sibling his job, too.
But it does not seem like media executives are learning the lessons of fraught ties and allegiances between their top hosts and the political establishment. According to the news outlet Puck, CNN and MSNBC programming executives were in Washington early in the year, courting potential on-air talent to fill holes in primetime slots exposed by the exit of Cuomo and soon-to-exit MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, whose support for Democratic causes is worn openly.
One of the potential talents, of course, was Psaki who, Puck opined, had “achieved veritable celebrity status for her daily press briefings”.
Wooing Psaki, Thomas said, presents an ethical issue that Psaki was negotiating a new job while determining access to reporters or responding to questions from staff at her future employer.
In the longer term, he said, are questions over professional distance between political institutions and news organizations. “These press conferences are a performance of scrutiny rather than actual scrutiny. They become an audition process for a cable news gig,” he said.
Not only does the rotation of seats damage the material ability of the press to hold government to account, he adds, but also raises issues of access. “The White House press corps is pretty addicted to access, so they’re easily tamed and shy away from asking tougher questions,” Thomas added.