Earlier this month, news broke that the White House asked for the resignation of Spicer and other Trump appointees from military academy advisory boards. When asked about the matter, the current press secretary, Jen Psaki, said, “I will let others evaluate whether they think Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and others were qualified or not political to serve on these boards, but the president’s qualification requirements are not your party registration. They are whether you’re qualified to serve and whether you’re aligned with the values of this administration.”
Spicer’s reaction is familiar to anyone who watched him as press secretary attempt to defend the indefensible: a mix of anger and illogic. “Jen chose to stand and question my qualifications and services to this country. Once she did that, the gloves were off,” Spicer is quoted in the New York Times for a profile on Psaki. He also mixed in some pettiness: “I walked into the lion’s den every day — she walks into a bunch of kittens,” said Spicer, skipping over the role of the press secretary in setting the tone for the briefing room.
That tone, in the Trump administration, was set by Spicer on Jan. 21, 2017, when he used falsehoods to scold the media for its coverage of inauguration crowds. He later expressed regret over that day’s shenanigans.
So spectacular was Spicer’s incompetence that the TV cameras couldn’t stay away. Cable news covered the proceedings live, and Spicer — now an anchor at Newsmax — became a pop-culture figure via his portrayal on “Saturday Night Live” by Melissa McCarthy.
By contrast, a Breitbart correspondent rated Psaki’s sessions “boring” in the Times account. Cable news agrees and doesn’t usually cover Biden White House press briefings live. The central cable drama under Psaki stems almost entirely from Peter Doocy, White House correspondent for Fox News. Doocy works under a certain incentive structure: If he can stump Psaki with his questions, he’s all but guaranteed airtime on the network’s widely watched prime-time programs hosted by the likes of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
With the changeover in administrations, for example, Hannity has transitioned from taunting the assembled reporters to taunting the press secretary. “Earlier today, our own Peter Doocy asked Biden press secretary Jen Psaki about the double standard” regarding mask-wearing, said the host. “Needless to say, she wasn’t prepared to answer one moderately mildly tough question from a serious member of the press. By the way, Jen, you might want to learn his name. We’ll help you. We’ll remind you every day.”
The lesson laid down by Spicer, Sarah Sanders and Kayleigh McEnany over four lie-filled years remains: White House briefings can work just as well as entertainment-driven beatdowns as they do as forums where information is exchanged. The formula for making them “exciting” rather than informative is no state secret. Just ask poor Sean Spicer.