I just looked this up. I can hardly believe it. President Biden’s new press secretary, Jen Psaki, only has 280 days to go as of this writing before she passes the tenure chalked up by three of the four press secretaries who served ex-president Donald Trump.
That to me is remarkable, and not in a good way. Famously mercurial, overly skilled at opening his mouth before his brain was engaged, Trump proved a handful for anyone who landed in the role as his press secretary. But here’s the thing: Doing the job meant that at some point, or many points, or even daily, you were put in a position to spin his lies, deceptions and misleading statements.
Depending on whom you believe, The Lincoln Project or the Washington Post respectively, Trump either delivered 30,534+ or 30,573 lies and misleading statements. His all-time daily record was more than 500. Doing the math, I come up with one lie or mistruth every 69 minutes of his presidency. I’d double check this with Fox News, Newsmax, or One America News Network. But I came up empty handed.
Here’s how long the press secretaries lasted:
Sean Spicer: 182 days
Sarah Sanders: 1 year, 345 days
Stephanie Grisham: 281 days
Kayleigh McEnany: 288 days
Now as to what they all are doing, or plan to do, let’s cut to the chase so far as my column and Qwoted are concerned: Do they deserve to have any position in the media world from here on out? If so, what might that be? Or, as press secretaries to a president who stridently, repeatedly, proudly called the press “the enemy of the people,” did they in some essential way betray their obligations to the Fourth Estate? And their ethics? That is, if they had any?
Here’s my by-the-seat-of-my-journalist-khakis-scorecard on all four.
Press On! The Press-idential Secretary Report Cards
a.k.a. “Two Right Feet”
In a nutshell: The former as Republican National Committee communications director and chief strategist, Spicer will always be remembered instead for defending the size of Trump’s penis–oh sorry, inaugural crowd–in one of his first official duties as press secretary. (Think about the Harris-Pence VP debate: All we’ll remember is the fly on Pence’s head.)
Making history: Spicer’s falsehoods at the behest of Trump, silly as they were, moved Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway to coin the phrase “alternative facts,” thus extending the monologue shelf life of grateful comedians everywhere.
Remember when?: In apparent show of gratitude, former President Trump lobbied on Twitter for Spicer to advance in his appearance on “Dancing With the Stars.” It didn’t work. Maybe it was the Day-Glo, green feather top he wore, certainly more befitting a former press secretary for … I don’t know … Madonna? Quoth New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas: “He’s as stiff and two-dimensional as a sheet of cardboard.”
Did you know?: His 2018 book “The Briefing: Politics, The Press, and The President” had 41% more pages (256) than he served days in office. It also notably lacked a full chapter explaining his motivations, planning and justifications for “Inauguralgate.”
Quotable: “The crowd at the 2017 inauguration was not the largest ever measured on the national mall. Sorry, it wasn’t. We’re not going to lie to you: that was untrue.” Tucker Carlson, Fox News
Grade: F. Lying to the press is one thing. Lying about the size of an inaugural crowd, complete with aerial photos, is laughable. If one of my Intro to Reporting and Writing students tried this at Loyola University Chicago, the department chair would have a freak out if I didn’t fail him for the course. Ditto for those teaching media relations.
Best media position going forward: Crowd control for press conventions. It will teach him how to do a head count. Or at least an honest head count.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders
a.k.a. “Killer Bee”
In a nutshell: Sanders earned a reputation as Trump’s Pit Bull in Chief, aggressively responding to select media queries at press conferences with toughness that at times bordered on bullying. She shut down daily briefings and was frequently accused of making false statements.
Making history: Labeled by Roll Call as “one of the most criticized officials to hold the office.” While interviewed by the Mueller Special Counsel investigation, she admitted to investigators that she had made false statements to the public as press secretary.
Did you know?: When questioned in mid-2018 about Trump’s family separation policy that ripped parents from children at the Mexican border, Sanders (a Christian college graduate) replied that the policy “is very biblical.” Praise God!
Grade: F-. At least Spicer was a tad goofy in his defenses of the president. Sanders was an unrepentant press secretary doing a great impersonation of a Soviet TASS rep.
Best media position going forward: Governor of Arkansas. There, lies are accepted as facts of life. Like this one made when she announced her candidacy this week: “I took on the media, the radical left and their cancel culture, and I won.” Just like Donald Trump won against Biden?
a.k.a. “Grisham the Ghost”
In a nutshell: A college dropout — imagine having that on your resume when applying to work for the president — she still had the right bona fides to succeed her predecessors. She was fired from AAA Arizona in 2007 after being accused of cheating on expense reports. For an encore, she copied AAA material verbatim for her client at the Mindspace ad agency, which got her canned.
Making history: Grisham did not hold any formal White House press briefings.
Did you know?: Stephanie’s father was a pig farmer. This strikes me as a pitch-perfect qualification for keeping certain presidents in line as they defend white supremacists, Korean dictators and Russian despots.
Grade: D-. Grisham at least served nobly as a press coordinator for Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia and worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. As Romney is a prominent critic of Trump’s lies and the Capitol insurrection, maybe he can talk some sense into her.
Best media position going forward: Front for future surreptitious Tweets from Trump. Suits her invisibility.
a.k.a. “Legally Dumb”
In a nutshell: There is a weird resemblance to McEnany the Harvard Law School grad (who back-doored it by transferring from another school) and Reese Witherspoon’s Harvard Law character in “Legally Blonde.” Witherspoon’s character was smarter than she looked; McEnany is more an imbecile than she seems. She prepared rigorously for press briefings, but used them to defend Trump’s torrent of verifiable lies and mistruths. So smart, in other words, that she’s dumb.
Making history: Remember how in her first press conference, McEnany promised to never lie? After two months on the job, the Associated Press wrote that McEnany “has made clear from her first briefing that she’s willing to defend her boss’s view of himself as well as his most flagrant misstatements.”
Did you know?: From the Washington Post on Jan. 27: “According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, McEnany wrote in her termination financial disclosure that she had an ’employment agreement’ with Fox News, ‘starting work in January.’ Asked about that claim, Fox News issued this statement: ‘Kayleigh McEnany is not currently an employee or contributor at Fox News.’”
Grade: F. Should be forced to repeat second grade. Pop quiz for day one: “Imagine you are the president’s press secretary. Explain why you would defend his move to forcibly remove peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors with smoke canisters, pepper balls, riot shields, batons, officers on horseback and rubber bullets — so he can pose with an upside-down Bible in front of a church.”
Best media position going forward: Fox News commentator. But of course! Lying about her status at Fox puts her in good company to join the ranks. Especially now. Rupert Murdoch is grumbling about the ratings being down, and backlash from viewers who couldn’t take the network calling Arizona for President Biden in the November election. So he wants the network to skew far right again. Fair and balanced indeed!
The Press and the Public: We Deserve a Break Today
At one point in his storied career in media relations, Chuck Ebeling ranked as one of the most powerful people at McDonald’s Corp. He served as a vice president there, rising up to chief spokesperson for the brand and company. I am lucky to call him my friend and sometime advisor. And having arguably served as on of the world’s most prestigious media intermediaries, he taught me this:
“Anybody with no real training or experience can call themselves a PR person [or in this case press secretary]. But there really is a body or knowledge, protocols, ethics and processes for dealing effectively with the media. Some people spend their entire professional lives perfecting this craft.”
Then you have Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House Communications Director who lasted all of 11 days.
And yet, this former private client investment banker proved a more worthy ex-employee that any of Trump’s press secretaries. Why? Because his dismissal caused him to think things over, consider the truth — truth we can verify through fact checks and public record — and tilt strongly in that direction.
Though he remains a Republican, “The Mooch” explained his 2019 decision to stop supporting Trump as due to his disgust with the former president’s conduct while visiting mass shooting sites in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. He also objected to Trump’s attacks against women of color as “racist and unacceptable.”
Sean Spicer resigned the day Scaramucci’s appointment was announced. In retrospect, this speaks volumes.
This is simple, folks. As defined by generations of outstanding press secretaries, Left and Right, these ambassadors of presidential communication should handle the media with fairness. Openness. Honesty. Strength, when called for. It’s perfectly fine to push back. But they should not spread falsehoods or elevate spin and deception to an über alles altar. They should not lob baseless accusations. They should not repeat dictatorship-level labels like “enemy of the people.”
Though I can think of a few enemies of the people discussed in this story.
You’re a smart reader.
You figure it out.
Featured image credit: DonkeyHotey
February 14, 2023