Last week, as tensions escalated in the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and in other global hotspots, there was also quite the incident within the White House – resulting in the early end of a press briefing.
It was on Wednesday, when New York Post reporter Steven Nelson, who has been a colorful critic of the Biden administration, interrupted Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre – claiming he hadn’t been called on during the past two seasons.
“And I’m not calling on you today,” Jean-Pierre responded.
Nelson further interrupted, stating, “You should be ashamed of that,” and then added, “That shows disrespect to a free and independent media to blacklist one of our country’s largest and most widely read newspapers, Karine. That shows contempt for a free and independent press.”
“I’m calling on somebody who I haven’t called on for a long time as well. Go ahead,” Jean-Pierre said in response to Nelson.
According to reports, voices were raised and despite efforts to restore order, the press conference was abruptly ended.
Business as Usual?
Even as Jean-Pierre has remained a loyal defender of the administration, Nelson has also been a fierce critic of President Joe Biden and has often found himself at odds with the White House. The White House correspondent has typically pressed the White House on “sensitive topics,” including allegations of corruption involving President Joe Biden and his son’s business dealings.
However, those questions have largely gone unanswered, which has led to further tension between the parties.
In June, Nelson confronted President Biden himself, challenging him on allegations of involvement in a bribery scheme with Ukrainian officials.
“Why did the Ukraine FBI informant file refer to you as the ‘Big Guy,’ Mr. Biden?” Nelson asked.
Biden paused before asking, “Why’d you ask such a dumb question?”
Tensions Between the Press and Press Secretary
The first modern press secretary, James Hagerty who served in the role during the Eisenhower administration, laid down many of the ground rules that are still largely used in White House briefings, including not playing favorites when calling on the media.
However, as some presidents – notably Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump – tended to show distrust or even contempt for the media, the role of the press secretary has only become more difficult. The deep divide in the nation is certainly reflected in the relationship that the press secretary has with the media today.
“Since the Clinton administration, the relationship between the press and the President has deteriorated so much that civil political discourse is nearly impossible. No single actor can be blamed, not the President, nor the press, but a complex interplay of factors that have created a crisis of journalism and the presidency. Ultimately, this has significantly altered the role and function of the White House Press Secretary,” a 2020 study from Eastern Washington University noted.
It added, “The role of White House Press Secretary is an extremely difficult one. To go to the podium every day and answer the questions of an adversarial media can be extremely taxing.”
This can also explain why press secretaries rarely serve more than three years.
Yet, some of it also comes down to their relationship with the president. While Jody Powell served as President Jimmy Carter’s only press secretary, and Marlin Fitzwater actually served as Ronald Reagan’s final press secretary and continued in the role for all of George H.W. Bush’s term in office, serving nearly six years, four individuals filled the role under former President Donald Trump. None of them had what could be described as a friendly relationship with the press.
That would seem to be the job.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.