Five questions about the new White House press secretary

In a Q&A, Barbie Zelizer of the Annenberg School for Communication discusses Jennifer Psaki’s first weeks on the job, plus what a shift back to a traditional press briefing means for journalism during the Biden presidency.

Person in a bright blue top standing at a podium with microphones, smiling.
Jennifer Psaki is the first White House press secretary for the Biden Administration.

Jennifer Psaki has been the White House press secretary for just 20 days, and yet she seems to have already become a household name. This is perhaps as much for what she hasn’t done as for what she has, says Barbie Zelizer, who runs the Annenberg School for Communication’s Center for Media at Risk at Penn.

“She is in lock-step with the traditional way of conducting a press briefing,” Zelizer says. “Everything she’s doing is very normal, predictable, usual, and in keeping with how press briefings have tended always to go. The contrast was Trump. It’s really important to emphasize that she is taking us back to a long-standing history.”

Press secretaries for former President Trump—Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for example—made news themselves for behavior that not only strayed from that of their predecessors but created an antagonistic relationship with the media. In her first briefing, Psaki seemed to take pains to return to custom.

Penn Today spoke with Zelizer about the new press secretary and what this shift back to tradition means for journalism during the Biden presidency. 

Customarily, what’s the function of the White House press briefing?

It has always reflected or emblematized a well-functioning relationship between the government and the media, not that the media follow and print everything the government says, but that there is a functioning mechanism for sharing of opinions, for back and forth around contested issues. That’s not to say that all governments are 100% honest—far from it—but at least they rely on the conventions at hand for everybody to go about their business.

And what about the press secretary?

The role of a press secretary is clearly to represent and explain the policies, investments, efforts being made by the president, by the White House. Jen Psaki was asked that very question: Is she a spokesperson for Joe Biden or for the American people? She said, “Joe Biden serves the American people, and so do I.” That was a smooth answer.

Press agents and press secretaries go back to the beginning of the 1900s. These are people with an objective, an aim. That said, taking them out of the picture, as was the situation under Trump, creates an abyss. If you don’t have a reliable, repeated, predictable venue, then you have to develop a whole different form of journalism. It really changes the picture of how government and media connect.

Beyond what made the news itself, how were the briefings and the press secretaries of the past four years different?

In the past, news organizations knew there was a daily briefing and planned around it. They knew if they had questions, they could get answers at the briefing. That’s not to say other ways of information-gathering weren’t going on, too. The whole of the relationship shouldn’t boil down to the White House press briefing, but to not have it throws out these scrutinized ways and conventions of doing things in the media.

I would argue that not having had it for the years that Trump was in office, the media never really gained their footing; they never figured out what to do in place of their rather commonplace reliance on a press briefing that not only was no longer doing its bit but also became a source of insult and outrage, ridicule, and assault.

Psaki has already been lauded for a job she’s held less than a month. Why is that?

There is praise for Jen Psaki for what she isn’t. She is ordinary and normal and obviously competent. This is a display of competence that brings us back to a long-standing tradition. She’s done well in signaling a regard for truth and accuracy and transparency and accountability. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean we’re always going to get only truth and accountability and transparency, but at least there is the gesturing toward it, and that’s a big deal because we haven’t had it for so long. 

Every administration has its signature way of interacting with the media. Some presidents are upfront about having more press conferences, even coming into the press conference themselves. Some do informal chats in the Oval Office. There are many ways in which an administration creates its own style. I think the shock of normalcy—which isn’t something you usually associate with normalcy—has a lot of staying power. The threat of the kind of administration Trump led, whether under Trump or someone else, is still very much with us and will remain with us. We’re not the same country, and the sooner we realize it, the better off we’ll be.

Can you explain what you mean when you say this country has changed?

The media aren’t the same media. Politicians aren’t the same politicians. There’s no question that the four years under Trump have changed us. Everybody wants to act as if we’ve gone back and at some level, that’s a sign of how desperate we are, that we really do need this normalcy. The wounds of these past four years are far deeper than what we’re allowing in right now and reasonably so. It’s going to take some time before the Biden administration and the U.S. media actually settle into whatever relationship will be emblematic of this particular White House.

Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania.