The White House press corps supposedly let out sighs of relief with the return of the “normal” daily press briefings in the Joe Biden era. Psyche! According to the Daily Beast, the new administration has tried to get advance notice of the questions from reporters beforehand. It raises questions about collaboration and independence on the part of reporters, as well as the potential use of that knowledge to manipulate the briefings and access to them:
According to three sources with knowledge of the matter, as well as written communications reviewed by The Daily Beast, the new president’s communications staff have already on occasion probed reporters to see what questions they plan on asking new White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki when called upon during briefings.
The requests prompted concerns among the White House press corps, whose members, like many reporters, are sensitive to the perception that they are coordinating with political communications staffers.
One reporter raised the issue during an informal White House Correspondents Association Zoom call last Friday. According to multiple sources, leaders at the meeting advised print reporters to push back against requests by the White House press team to learn of questions in advance, or simply to not respond to the Biden team’s inquiries.
“While it’s a relief to see briefings return, particularly with a commitment to factual information, the press can’t really do its job in the briefing room if the White House is picking and choosing the questions they want,” one White House correspondent said. “That’s not really a free press at all.”
So much for “circling back,” eh? White House press secretary Jen Psaki uses that phrase often enough during briefings with reporters that it’s turned into a meme of its own. Psaki uses it when she’s unprepared for the questions asked as a promise to get reporters what they need. One has to wonder just how much of “circling back” is on the level, and how much of it might be a circle of some other kind.
The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani notes that informal “gaggles” have been a part of the White House press corps’ relationship with administration press offices for decades. Those often served press secretaries with information on what reporters had on their minds, allowing for a better relationship and better preparation. This case seems to be different enough to raise the ire of the White House Correspondents Association and some of its members, which apparently got more formally involved after several complaints. “It pissed off enough reporters for people to flag it for the [WHCA] for them to deal with it,” one member told Tani.
This can’t be chalked up to rookie blues, either. Biden’s been around Washington for almost 50 years now and served in the Obama administration for eight years. Likewise, Psaki’s a veteran press secretary, not a newbie. They know the rules and the traditions, and yet they are at the least testing the boundaries with the media assigned to their beat just to see how much they can get away with in manipulating them to their own purposes. Ben Rhodes may not work in the Biden administration, but his strategies live on, apparently.