Joe Biden’s White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, has likened reporters from Fox News and other rightwing outlets to “representatives of the Russian and Chinese media asking questions directed by their government … propaganda pushers” to be treated with extreme caution.
Psaki was speaking to CNN’s Reliable Sources in an interview broadcast on Sunday. Her relations with the media have been smoother – and her briefings more frequent – than any predecessor in the Trump administration. But clashes with reporters including Peter Doocy of Fox News have made headlines.
Last week, one such interaction involved questions about Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser. Republicans and rightwing reporters have seized on the publication of emails sent by Fauci at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked by Doocy if Fauci should be “held accountable” for “saying one thing in email and then coming to this microphone and saying something else”, Psaki called Fauci “a renowned public servant” who has “overseen management of multiple global health crises”.
“Attacks launched on him are certainly something we wouldn’t stand by,” she said, adding: “I am going to let Dr Fauci speak to his own defence about his emails from 17 months ago before this president even took office.”
Doocy asked about US funding for Chinese research laboratories, a key part of Republican attacks on Fauci as the theory that Covid-19 escaped such a lab gains renewed attention.
Psaki deflected the question.
Doocy asked: “Can you imagine any circumstance where the president would ever fire him?”
“No,” said Psaki, turning to another reporter, who she told: “Go ahead.”
On CNN, Psaki said: “The things that get under my skin are when the premise of a question is based on inaccurate information, misleading information. That can be frustrating. I try not to show it too much, try not to let people see me sweat too much. But occasionally I have a moment of humanity.”
Host Brian Stelter pointed out that most questions “based on falsehoods come from brands like Newsmax, which does sometimes get called on the briefing room. I know a lot of liberals don’t want Fox News to get called on. I think they should be, but … why do you call on Fox News and Newsmax?”
Psaki said: “My point of view and more importantly, the president’s point of view, is that the story is not about me or a debate with news outlets. The story is about the plans of the administration and what we’re trying to project to the American people.
“And when he pledged to govern for all Americans, that means talking to a range of outlets – liberal, conservative, people who have different areas of interest. So that’s exactly what I try to do every day.”
Stelter asked why some viewers celebrate when the press secretary is seen to “shut down” a questioner such as Doocy.
“I also have a responsibility not to allow the briefing room to become a forum for propaganda or a forum for pushing forward falsehoods or inaccurate information,” Psaki said.
“My best preparation for that was actually serving as the state department spokesperson when there were representatives of the Russian and the Chinese media in the briefing room asking me questions that were directed by their government.
“So we see that from time to time in the briefing room, not every single day at all, but I have a responsibility to the public to make sure they’re getting accurate information and the premises of questions that are propaganda-pushing are not giving them inaccurate information.”
Psaki also defended the administration against criticism for holding only one presidential press conference – “That may be driven more by the media than it is by the American public” – and suggest some reporters’ “muscles have atrophied a little bit” when it comes to understanding the realities of governance.
Fox News gleefully rounded up conservative criticism of the interview. Verdicts included “subservient, obsequious” and “bootlicking”.
In his Reliable Sources email, Stelter said his goal had been “to talk big-picture … and to get personal, beyond the news-of-day questions that get asked at the briefings.”