CNN’s Brian Stelter Tells Jen Psaki He’s Not Sure #PsakiBombs Are ‘Good for the Country’ — Does He Have a Point?
CNN host and media correspondent Brian Stelter told White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki he wasn’t sure that the skillful incineration of dumbshit that’s become known as #PsakiBombs is actually “good for the country,” which makes him just the latest media figure to make that observation.
Individual reporters have complained about a growing fandom — which one outlet even called “dangerous” — that revels in the sorts of exchanges that Stelter was referring to during his interview with Psaki on this week’s Reliable Sources.
“There’s a version on the liberal blogs of something that goes like this: Psaki smackdown this — Psaki shuts down a questioner,” Stelter said.
“It’s this narrative that we’re seeing, people celebrate you for doing it. And yet, that kind of reminds me of cable news, and the way that the cable news engages. I’m not sure that’s always actually good for the country, even though it might be entertaining,” Stelter said.
Psaki responded with something that could arguably be described as a #PsakiBomb, first pointing out that she’s not the one “putting out those assessments,” and then delivering a punchy response that equated some of the White House press corps to state-run media from authoritarian countries:
What I will tell you, though, is that I also have a responsibility not to allow the briefing room to become a forum for propaganda, or a forum for pushing forward falsehoods or inaccurate information. My best preparation from that was actually serving as the State Department spokesperson when there were representatives of the Russian and Chinese media in the briefing room asking me questions that were directed by their government.
So, we see that from time to time in the briefing room, not every single day at all, but I have a responsibility to the public to make sure they’re getting accurate information. And the premises of questions that are propaganda pushing are not giving them inaccurate information.
Brian: I’m not sure #psakibombs are “good for the country.”
Psaki: I “have a responsibility not to allow the briefing room to become a forum for propaganda.”
— Tommy moderna-vaX-Topher (@tommyxtopher) June 6, 2021
Of course, I cheered, because I’ve yet to see a #PsakiBomb go off on someone who didn’t deserve it — and that includes Brian Stelter in this exact interview. But that doesn’t mean the phenomenon doesn’t merit examination.
In Stelter’s case, he pulled the pin not by asking a question in bad faith — as the pair made clear in the interview, they’re former CNN colleagues with high regard for each other — but by getting a little too cute right at the end.
During an exchange about President Joe Biden’s availability to the press — Stelter pointed out he’s only conducted one solo formal press conference, Psaki parried by telling him that “In the first 100 days of this President’s presidency, he took questions from the press [on] 77 days” — Stelter said “On Friday, a reporter shouted a question, it was answered. But the setting for a formal press conference, that demands the country’s attention, you all have chosen not to go that route. He doesn’t get many interviews either. Is that part of an attempt to lower the temperature, be less visible…”
So far, a legitimate question, but then Stelter added “…[to] be boring?”
Tick, tick, tick. Psaki zeroed in on that characterization.
Brian meets the #PsakiBomb
“Getting the pandemic under control, going on our first foreign trip, putting millions of Americans back to work, I don’t know what version of that is boring.” pic.twitter.com/4zPobVzCjz
— Tommy moderna-vaX-Topher (@tommyxtopher) June 6, 2021
Certainly not. I don’t think anything we’re doing around here is boring. Getting the pandemic under control, going on our first foreign trip, putting millions of Americans back to work. I don’t know what version of that is boring.
But I will tell you that there’s an opportunity several times a week for the President to have an engagement and answer questions from reporters. I understand there’s questions about a formal press conference, but that may be driven more by the media than it is by the American public, Brian.
It’s never a great sign when Psaki rolls out your name in an answer.
This is where the #PsakiBomb question gets interesting, because this is a case in which Psaki wasn’t smacking down Peter Doocy or some back-row troll from OAN, she was deploying ordnance on a mainstream reporter.
And Psaki wasn’t correcting a factual lie or mischaracterization, she was pushing back on a dopey narrative that’s the sort of thing “normal” reporters cook up over drinks in the back bar of the Old Ebbitt Grill.
One of the underrated features of the #PsakiBomb is just how often the calmly-delivered explosives are used not on denizens of the right-wing media, but on mainstream reporters. There’s an entire subgenre of the phenomenon in which reporters of every sort ask Psaki to respond to unidentified “people” making some preposterous criticism, only to then be interrogated by Psaki as to the identity of the mysterious critic or critics.
What’s the theory of the case that #PsakiBombs are “dangerous,” or bad for the country? Some have falsely equated it to the prior administration’s unhinged and relentless hostility toward the press. I don’t think Stelter, whose network was on the receiving end of the pipe bomb attacks that were inspired by the Former Guy, is making that argument.
He seems to be arguing that Psaki’s exchanges are bad for the country because they’re too much like “cable news,” which is an odd thing for a cable news host to say — especially a host on a network that literally paid this exact person to commentate in this exact fashion until a few months ago.
But there’s a key difference, because Jen Psaki doesn’t invite reporters to the briefing room to cook up hot takes for her to knock down in search of eyeballs, there’s no booker arming guests with a rundown, nobody is asking them to, for example, obsess about right-wing framing of the border situation as a “crisis.”
On the other hand, the tactic can allow Psaki to sidetrack a legitimate question, or at least a question with some arguably legitimate basis. Take Stelter’s question, which, aside from the dopey “boring” framing, had some journalistic merit, and probably defied a simple, snappy answer.
In theory, if this happens enough times to enough reporters, you would expect the reporters to get better, to stop citing non-specific “people” who are “saying,” to stop trying to generate sound bites by misrepresenting or promoting lies or, as Stelter did, just trying to be cute. But that won’t happen, because that’s not the assignment. And Psaki’s crime isn’t that she understands the assignment and acts accordingly, it’s that she understands it better than they do.
Now, before you start going off on Stelter as some sort of closet MAGAt, it’s worth noting that the balance of the interview was extremely friendly, and he repeatedly called out the “craziness” from Republicans, which has him fearing for his kids. He’s on the right side.
As for Psaki, whatever she’s doing appear to be working. To the consternation of Kayleigh McEnany, Psaki has scored an upcoming magazine feature, which Stelter also asked her about.
“So, Annie Leibovitz was spotted at the White House taking your photo for a portrait for a magazine feature. Has it all gone to your head a little bit? Is there ever a moment where you feel like it has?” Stelter asked.
“I certainly hope not,” Psaki answered. “My mother, my husband, my children, and my friends from my college life would certainly smack me back down if that did. Look, at the end of the day, I’m hugely honored to be here. And I know being the White House Press Secretary means you’re front and center in an administration.”
“It’s not about me, it’s about this administration, about repairing a lot of the challenges that were built up over the last four years,” Psaki continued, adding that “when I go home from work, Brian, and you’ll get this, too, I get on the floor with my kids and play trains or princess or whatever it may be. And that’s who we all are when we’re not on camera.”
Watch the full 15-minute interview above via CNN.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.