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Opinion ‘I’m very happy with my image’: Sean Spicer speaks

Sean Spicer at the Emmy Awards on Sept. 17. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Plenty of former White House press secretaries have done it: Ari Fleischer, Dana Perino, Josh Earnest, Robert Gibbs, Jay Carney and so on.

Yet there’s one former spox who won’t be joining his peers as a contributor/host/talking head on one of the major television news outlets. That would be Sean Spicer, the Trump White House’s deposed king of official misinformation. As Claire Atkinson of NBC News reports, the big five — ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News and CNN — won’t be hiring him to an exclusive contributor deal.

Having left the White House at the end of August, Spicer was featured in a Politico story just after Labor Day announcing that he’d signed with Worldwide Speakers Group to peddle his services as a guy who stands behind lecterns. What was notable about that news is what it was missing: a talking-head gig.

“Credibility issues” was cited as a reason that the networks wouldn’t bring Spicer on to sit on blab-o-rama roundtables. Surely that’s a big factor, and it comports with this blog’s own reporting on the matter. Think about it: Spicer spent months berating White House correspondents, sticking up for a president who’d called certain media outlets “the enemy of the American people” and spreading misinformation with very little contrition. Any major network that hired Spicer as a contributor may well have faced a revolt among its White House correspondents, as well as other journalists outraged by the press secretary’s conduct.

Asked on the telephone Wednesday morning about his prospects on television, Spicer said, “I am not going to comment on that.” He referred the question to his agent, Robert Barnett.

The former press secretary, however, did comment on several other items, starting with the treatment that he has received from the media regarding his post-White House life. That includes the New York Times, which he criticized for a line insisting that he was on a mission to “rehabilitate his image.” Not the case, says Spicer, who on Sunday appeared with host Stephen Colbert during opening monologue of the 2017 Emmy Awards. That’s not rehabilitation, says Spicer. It’s doing stuff he finds “funny and interesting. That’s it, full stop. … I’m very happy with my image.”

And Spicer is contesting the thrust of that New York Times piece, for which White House correspondent Glenn Thrush interviewed him. The headline says it all: “Sean Spicer Says He Regrets Berating Reporters Over Inauguration Crowds.”

Wrong, counters the former press secretary. “Glenn did a masterful job of taking what I said for his own purposes. He asked if I had any regrets and I said, ‘Yes, of course I do.’ He turned it into, as would be expected, all about the media.” The comment about regrets, says Spicer, wasn’t particular to the inauguration-crowd fiasco. “Everything I do, every event, every interview, I look back on and say, ‘Could I have done that better?’ ” says Spicer, insisting that his admission of regrets is more of a global statement. “That’s just who I am.”

The counterargument here is that Spicer served as press secretary. If those regrets don’t pertain to handling the media, to what do they pertain?

Opening up to a broader point, Spicer doesn’t have many regrets over the media-bashing that occurred during his tenure as press secretary. It’s an “unbelievably one-way street that these guys can go out there and be wrong” about various issues and proceed to the next story with “zero consequences.” As an example, he argues that the “same press corps” that slams the Trump administration for every little thing allowed then-White House press secretary Jay Carney and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to talk about how Benghazi was “caused by a video.” Like those folks, says Spicer, the media is “largely a liberal group of people willing to overlook” the missteps of a Democratic administration. Okay, but then why would the media go overboard on a story about how emails showed that the White House was orchestrating Benghazi talking points?

Nor is this press corps effective at policing its own mistakes, argues Spicer. As reported on this blog, then-White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason in a July meeting spoke of pressure from the folks he was covering. “There have definitely been times over the last several months where the White House has come to us — often to me specifically — asking that we or I intervene and criticize a member news organization or reporter,” he said. Though he declined to give specifics at the time, an episode of Brian Stelter’s CNN show “Reliable Sources” brought to light the details: White House officials were upset with a story that Politico reporter Tara Palmeri had written about media access on one of the president’s foreign trips. Regarding the White House’s request to the WHCA to issue a statement defending the White House, Mason said, “That’s just not something that we do. That’s not a role that we play.”

That’s a role that the organization should play, according to Spicer. He cites another instance in which he says a reporter misrepresented the level of access to a White House event. Given that the WHCA’s core mission is to lobby for access to the White House, it stands to reason that it should be involved in correcting false impressions about this topic, he argues. Of the refusals by the WHCA to call out its members, Spicer reflects, “So in other words, it’s your job to say when we’re wrong,” but not the other way around.

Another resounding Spicer gripe relates to greenery and The Washington Post. “Jenna Johnson made up a lie about me being in the bushes,” says Spicer, citing The Post’s famous scene piece describing chaos in the White House communications shop on the night that President Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey hit the news. To address the situation, Spicer says he “had a conversation with the editors … It literally is probably one of the lamest, weakest things I’d ever seen.” To contextualize the situation, Spicer argues that he was doing his best to provide access to a hungry press corps that night, making himself available to the assembled journalists. “Instead of focusing on the news, you had Jenna Johnson saying, ‘How do I create a fake scene to make something more clickworthy,’ ” says Spicer.

Asked to comment, Steven Ginsberg, The Post’s national editor, who was senior politics editor at the time the story was published, said, “The story speaks for itself.” The piece narrates Spicer’s movements as he went about his business that night:

After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the darkness and among the bushes near these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged.
“Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,” he ordered. “We’ll take care of this. … Can you just turn that light off?”
Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness between two tall hedges, with more than a dozen reporters closely gathered around him. For 10 minutes, he responded to a flurry of questions, vacillating between light-hearted asides and clear frustration with getting the same questions over and over again.

It contains an editor’s note saying, “This story has been updated to more precisely describe White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s location late Tuesday night in the minutes before he briefed reporters. Spicer huddled with his staff among bushes near television sets on the White House grounds, not ‘in the bushes,’ as the story originally stated.”

That editor’s note rests at the bottom of the shrubbery story, a placement that Spicer scorns. “It was literally the definition of a pathetic update,” he says. Negotiating with the newspaper over that update was “like getting blood from a stone,” says Spicer.

Right there sits the essence of Spicer’s post-White House critique of the media. Sure, the fact-checkers can nail him and his ex-boss on hundreds of factual errors and a lie here and there. But the media, he says, doesn’t react to its own failings, its own factual slip-ups with the same level of accountability and transparency that it delights in demanding of the White House. There’s evidence to support the critique: At some media organizations, corrections are extracted only with a winch and a carbon swivel hook. And even when corrections and retractions are issued, explanations can be scarce, as Indira Lakshmanan argued in a recent Poynter piece. Genuine apologies for screw-ups should be more frequent as well.

No one, however, is going to nominate Spicer to serve as Media Industry Ombudsman. Back in March, he attempted to defend President Trump’s claim that he’d been wiretapped at Trump Tower on orders from then-President Barack Obama. In so doing, he cited a report from Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano that Obama had gone outside of normal channels and appealed to GCHQ, the British version of the National Security Agency. “Nonsense,” screamed GCHQ, in what would become an international crisis rooted in the White House briefing room.

Following the blow-up, Napolitano disappeared from Fox News’s air for a couple of weeks. Spicer declined to apologize for his role in the matter. “I think it’s a silly question,” he told the Erik Wemple Blog when asked about his stance. “You’re asking me if I regret quoting someone making a statement. I referred to a quote on the record. The irony of you asking me stuff from a paper that has misquoted and taken so many people out of context is unbelievable.” Or, the unbelievable part is how Spicer staked the credibility of the White House on the unconfirmed assertions of some Fox News analyst. As Fox News’s Bret Baier said, “We love the judge, we love him here at Fox, but the Fox News [news] division was never able to back up those claims and was never reported on this show.”

Though Spicer is critical, he doesn’t sound bitter. When we asked him to name White House reporters who did good work, he was generous: Jennifer Jacobs (Bloomberg), Margaret Talev (Bloomberg), Steve Holland (Reuters), John Roberts (Fox News), Kayla Tausche (CNBC), Eamon Javers (CNBC), Carol Lee (NBC News, “very solid reporter”), Hunter Walker (Yahoo). “I’m missing a bunch, for sure,” says Spicer. When we asked whether he’s failing to include anyone from CNN, he responds, “Oh, no.”

And don’t ask Spicer what he says on his speaking engagements. “If you would like to pay at some point, you’re more than welcome,” he says.