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Opinion Jen Psaki’s puny conflict of interest

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House on May 9. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
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Jen Psaki assures us that she has nailed down the ethics of her impending departure as White House press secretary. “I took steps and have taken steps, as I’ve had any discussions with any future employer, that go over and above any requirements by government, recusing myself of any discussions as well, and I’m proud of that,” Psaki said on Sunday in an interview with Howard Kurtz of Fox News.

As Axios and Puck have reported, Psaki engaged in employment discussions with cable news networks, which became exclusive to MSNBC by early April. The plan is for Psaki to host an MSNBC show on streaming platform Peacock, according to Axios, though Psaki herself neither confirmed nor denied the reporting.

To have confirmed it would have been to concede an ethical lapse, albeit one that looks puny in comparison with the corruption of her predecessor.

At the time Psaki’s reported MSNBC job came to light, NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker asked Psaki, who leaves her position on Friday, how she would serve as an “effective briefer” if she was having discussions with a particular media outlet. Not only was she heeding ethical and legal requirements, Psaki responded, “I’ve taken steps beyond that to ensure there’s no conflicts.”

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Now, Psaki is a phenomenal talent, but not even she can wish away the unmistakable conflict of interest at play here. How to ensure fair treatment of media outlets when one of them is a prospective employer?

White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher responded in a statement: “Jen has always gone over and above the stringent ethical requirements of the Biden Administration, and she takes those requirements very seriously when it comes to her interactions with the press or anyone else. As is standard for all employees in the White House, Jen has received rigorous ethics counseling regarding recusal obligations, including those that may arise from negotiating future employment, and has complied with all applicable ethics rules to prevent conflicts of interest.” More: “Any employee who has begun negotiations with a prospective employer must recuse from participating in any particular matter that will have a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of the employer. Responding to questions by a reporter of a prospective employer in a group setting such as the daily press briefing is not a particular matter requiring recusal.”

Hiding among all those words is a low bar. Of course questions at the daily news briefings won’t have a “direct and predictable effect on the financial interests” of a news outlet.

So has the conflict affected Psaki’s work as press secretary? Since the beginning of the year, Psaki has given four interviews to NBC News/MSNBC; three to Fox News; three to CNN; two to HBO/Showtime; one to ABC News and four to podcasts, according to data provided by the White House.

Here’s the breakdown for administration officials appearing on the Sunday public affairs shows since the start of 2022:

  • ABC News — 16
  • CNN — 15
  • CBS News — 13
  • Fox News — 12
  • NBC News — 11

What sticks out here is the evenhanded treatment among networks, particularly Fox News. As this blog has noted previously, the Biden communications team decided early on that it wanted to reach that network’s audience, a strategy that has included not only giving interviews to Fox News but also tossing it occasional exclusives.

There’s another number that sticks out here: Psaki has done 222 briefings since the outset of the Biden administration, lapping her predecessors in the Trump White House.

Whatever the mitigation efforts, watchdogs such as Kurtz and Welker are correct to press Psaki on her conflict. White House correspondents — and, by association, the public — have every right to expect that the people managing the president’s communications have no affiliations or even a handshake agreement with any given player in the briefing room. All of which raises the question: Would it have killed Psaki to hold off on job discussions until she had vacated the White House?

As for the broader issue at work here, the folks who stand at the White House lectern face incentives for favoritism from their first moments on the job. Consider that nine of the 11 past White House press secretaries went on to some TV commentator role or another. (And one of those who didn’t, Stephanie Grisham, doesn’t count because she never did a news briefing.) They are all auditioning for a job in cable news, if they haven’t already used a cable news job to audition for press secretary.

This temptation — to favor one outlet from the lectern — played out with Psaki’s immediate predecessor, Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. As we noted in this space:

After the announcement of her selection as White House press secretary [in April 2020], [McEnany] appeared on Fox News weekday programming at least 93 times. Another key figure: After the presidential election, she appeared on “Hannity” at least 23 times — during the very period that she was allegedly negotiating for a job at Fox News. Meanwhile, for the entire length of her time as press secretary, McEnany turned in zero weekday appearances on CNN and MSNBC, according to Media Matters. And she conducted just 41 formal press briefings, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project.

Plus, those two dozen appearances on “Hannity” advanced the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from President Donald Trump. So, not only was McEnany dissing Fox News’s competitors, she was also providing misleading commentary on its air.

Now that’s an honest-to-goodness ethical morass — and one that makes Psaki’s lapse look like the press-relations equivalent of snipping off a mattress tag.