Mara Liasson, National Political Correspondent for NPR, has reported on White House press briefings for three administrations. She tells us about the role of the Press Secretary, and how the job has changed from president to president.
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Nick Capodice: [00:00:35] I'm Nick Capodice
Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:37] And I'm Hannah McCarrthy
Nick Capodice: [00:00:37] and this is Civics 101 the podcast refresher course on the basics of our democracy. Today the White House press secretary.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:44] I'm really excited for this one.
Nick Capodice: [00:00:46] Our guest has been through myriad press secretaries. It is Mara Liasson national political correspondent for NPR.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:53] This is going to be great. Let's do it. All right. Well Mara thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to Civics 101.
Mara Liasson: [00:00:59] Thanks for having me.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:00] So I guess let's start with the very brass tacks. What is the job of the press secretary.
Mara Liasson: [00:01:07] The job of the press secretary is to communicate the president's agenda to answer questions from the press. And beyond that every press secretary has defined the job a little bit differently.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:19] Have you reported for several different press secretaries?
Mara Liasson: [00:01:22] I have covered three White Houses; Bill Clinton Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. I was the national political correspondent during George W. Bush. So I wasn't at the White House every day or I wasn't part of the White House rotation.
Mara Liasson: [00:01:39] But for those other three presidents I was and every one of the press secretaries for those presidents had a slightly different approach to the job. Mike McCurry who was Bill Clinton's press secretary was famous for saying his job was to be as truthful as possible and as helpful as possible to the press while also trying to communicate his boss's agenda and put it in the best possible light. Other press secretaries have seen their job as more as a combatant as pushing back against the press, demonizing the press, kind of using the press as a foil. And the communication part, the explaining the administration's agenda has been secondary to those press secretaries. So it just depends on the president and the administration.
Nick Capodice: [00:02:27] One thing I'm curious about is if you could describe sort of the scene when you step into a White House press conference because you've been to a couple of these. What's it like when you're sitting around waiting for a while?
Mara Liasson: [00:02:37] Are you talking about a presidential press conference or or just the regular press briefing?
Nick Capodice: [00:02:42] Both. What's the difference between the two of them?
Mara Liasson: [00:02:45] Well there's a couple there's a couple, there's many different ways that the president and the press secretary communicate with the press. The most famous is a presidential press conference where it's formal. The president stands there and takes questions from reporters. Most presidents did a lot of those. Donald Trump has only done one in February of 2017. One formal stand alone solo press conference. However Donald Trump does interact with the press a lot.
Mara Liasson: [00:03:13] He answers questions at what we call pool sprays we're a small group of reporters is ushered into the Cabinet Room or the Oval Office and he's meeting with someone or he's signing something and he answers a few questions on the fly. Or he's going out to the helicopter or he's coming out of Air Force One. So he interacts with the press that way. Then there's the foreign leader press conference which under Trump has become what's known as Two and Two. Each leader takes two questions from their own press corps. So the president answers two questions from American reporters and then the foreign leader calls on two of the traveling press corps that has come with him from his country. Then there's the press briefing which happens every day. That's Sarah Sanders standing in the briefing room. We've had many different press secretaries use the briefing in different ways in past administrations. They stood there until all the questions were finished sometimes it could be as long as an hour. Sarah Sanders keeps it very brief. Sometimes she eats up a lot of time at the top by reading from prepared remarks, making some announcements. But the biggest I guess the biggest sea change for me was when the daily press briefing was televised. There were many press secretaries who have come to regret that because it does lead to grandstanding by some reporters. And it's less useful and more of a confrontation.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:42] And in those daily briefings how does the press secretary choose who they're going to call on?
Mara Liasson: [00:04:48] In the press briefing the press secretary can call on whoever she wants. Same thing in the press in a press conference with the president.
Mara Liasson: [00:04:54] But Sarah Sanders generally, not always but generally, does what passed press secretaries have done which is starts with the front row. The wire services sit in the front row. And so do the representatives of the major television networks and cable outlets. I sit in the second row. So the first row is NBC ABC CNN FOX Reuters AP. In the second row is the Washington Post The New York Times NPR Bloomberg CBS radio etc.. So so generally she starts with the first ro but then she calls on whoever she wants.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:05:33] And in terms of that seating is that something that the press secretary decides on
Mara Liasson: [00:05:36] No the seating is determined by the White House Correspondents Association. We actually have assigned seats. My seat has a metal plaque on it that says NPR. And I am not. Let's see. I'm not exactly sure how those decisions get made but I can tell you that NPR used to have a seat farther back, way over on the left.
Nick Capodice: [00:06:01] Congratulations
Mara Liasson: [00:06:01] Yeah but during Clinton somehow or other they moved me up to the second row right in the middle.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:06:06] Not bad.
Mara Liasson: [00:06:07] Not quite sure how that happened. You know sometimes news, news organizations go out of business they lose their seat in the briefing room things get shuffled around.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:06:16] Does the press secretary play favorites at all in terms of who they're doling information out to or who they're calling on?
Mara Liasson: [00:06:22] Well first of all they're doling out information to everybody we're all sitting there it's carried live on TV. But in terms of who they call on yes there's no doubt that sometimes press secretaries will go to what they consider to be a friendly reporter just for some relief, or a reporter who's marginal or is guaranteed to ask a question totally off topic.
Mara Liasson: [00:06:43] Sure there's a strategy to this but don't forget, the press briefing even though it's the most public way that the press secretary and the and the White House interacts with the press because it's televised, is not the most important way that journalists get information from the White House because we're spending all day trying to ask questions of administration officials on background, off the record, away from the cameras.
Nick Capodice: [00:07:10] In terms of the job what kind of qualifications is good for someone to become a press secretary?
Mara Liasson: [00:07:16] An iron stomach. And a thick skin. Somebody who's unflappable. Generally someone who has a pretty even demeanor. I don't think especially for television which rewards cool over hot a hot headed press secretary would do very well. But Sarah Sanders actually has a very good personality to be the press secretary. She's very even.
Nick Capodice: [00:07:50] It seems sometimes the press secretary has a unique role that's kind of getting it from both sides. You know they have to. They're getting it from the press but also from the president. I just was watching the video of Nixon shoving his press secretary of Air Force One.
Mara Liasson: [00:08:04] Well there's no there's no doubt that the press secretary serves to mask. No well there's no doubt that some press secretaries see themselves as serving two masters. Mike McCurry certainly did. He thought he needed to serve the press and serve the president and try mightily never to lie to the press. During the Trump administration, it's a little bit different. The press secretary more or less has an audience of one. That's true of any Trump administration official who goes on television, they're communicating or performing for the president. And the president likes it when the press is excoriated or when the press secretary pushes back against the press. I think the most famous instance of this of course was Sean Spicer's very first press conference where the president literally sent him out to the briefing room to insist that his inauguration was the most heavily attended inauguration in history. Which turns out not to be true. It's important even in this post truth era that we're in with Donald Trump, it is important for the press secretary to retain their credibility and to try as much as possible to be accurate and tell the truth. That's why you hear press secretaries including Sarah Sanders often say, this to the best of my knowledge. Here's this piece of information. Or I haven't spoken to the president about that or you know I haven't asked him that question. I haven't discussed this with him. So better to be ignorant than inaccurate.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:31] Yeah. On that does do members of the White House staff ever lie to you or withhold information from the press secretary so that they can be ignorant and don't have to lie to the press about something?
Mara Liasson: [00:09:43] Sure. That's called plausible deniability. Absolutely. Better to be out of the loop than to be saying something that turns out to be false. Why. You know there's so much discussion now. The truth doesn't matter any more objective facts don't matter. That Trump believes that he can pretty much say whatever he wants and it won't matter. But credibility does matter. What happens when the president is asking Americans to sacrifice because of something that he has decided is important to do, he has to have credibility for that. What happens when the president is asking U.S. allies to follow the U.S. in some kind of endeavor or or military action. You know credibility is important and if you are cavalier with the facts there will come a time when nobody will believe you and you'll need them to.
Nick Capodice: [00:10:30] Are there any particularly memorable moments from those briefings in your in your tenure of reporting on them that you would like to share?
Mara Liasson: [00:10:39] Oh boy oh boy. I mean you could you could you could use the most current examples where you know the press secretary denied that the president knew about the payments to Stormy Daniels because because the president himself had denied them. I mean and then those those turned out not to be operative but I can't think of anything really off the top of my head a lot of times these press briefings are soporific and boring. And sometimes that's the goal. Not to make news.
Nick Capodice: [00:11:07] And when you're in there these are these are people with whom you've worked for a long time are you just chit chatting beforehand?
Nick Capodice: [00:11:12] Oh you mean my colleagues from different news organizations? Yes of course. Yes. And we all get along really well. And sometimes the press doesn't do a good job of following up and reinforcing each other's questions. But we try.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:11:24] And how often is the press contradicting what the press secretary is presenting as fact? Does that happen pretty regularly?
Mara Liasson: [00:11:32] Sure. Yes absolutely. It happens all the time. More and more during the Trump administration than than before. When the president says three million people voted illegally and there's no evidence for that? Sure. We will mention that to the press secretary and then he'll she'll generally say something like "Well this is what he believes". She'll find. She'll find some kind of safe lilypad to alight on where she can say something that's technically accurate, because no press secretary wants to flat out lie to the press.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:12:00] And who is giving the press secretary their information. Who briefs them before they brief you?
Mara Liasson: [00:12:05] Oh they go, they go around and they have they have a pre-briefing meeting they go around to different officials in the administration and in the White House to get the best information they can so they can transmit it. That's why it's often the press briefing is late because they're scrambling to put their talking points together.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:12:22] Yeah I think we sort of touched on, I was very curious as to whether or not being a member of the White House press corps was exciting or tended more toward the boring side of things compared to your .
Mara Liasson: [00:12:32] Well you know I used to say I used to say that the exciting part of the job starts when you walk in the gates off of Pennsylvania Avenue and the and it ends when you walk in the door to the White House because a lot of times the the life of a White House correspondent is like an animal in the zoo. You're in a cage and you can't really go anywhere you want to walk around. Occasionally they open the door and they throw in a piece of red meat, a little bit of news they shut the door and then they run like the zookeeper.
Mara Liasson: [00:13:00] But covering the White House is a peculiar kind of beat because you can't roam the halls like you do in Congress. It's more restricted and especially in this White House where they really do see themselves as at war with the press.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:13:14] How easy would it be for the president to revoke a White House press corps reporter's credentials?
Mara Liasson: [00:13:21] Well they certainly could do that. Well what they can do is they can revoke the hard pass that allows you to come into the compound. You can still cover the White House without having access to the briefings or or access to the physical space in the White House. In other words you can't stop someone from covering the White House. There are many reporters who write stories about Donald Trump and never set foot in the briefing room. What he's talking about it sounds like trying to exert some control over reporters who cover the White House and I think that would be difficult. Physically they could do that. They could definitely they could kick the entire press corps out of the West Wing and they've often talked about that in the past kind of moving us over to the Old Executive Office Building across west across Executive Drive. But getting rid of credentials that doesn't mean that the press won't continue to do its job.
Nick Capodice: [00:14:13] That was Mara Liasson. She's the national political correspondent for NPR and she's got the brass plate on the chair in the second row.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:19] This episode was produced by Nick Capdoice and Ben Henry. Executive producer is Erica Janik and our team includes Jimmy Gutierrez Justine Paradis and Taylor Quimby. Our music is by Asura.
Nick Capodice: [00:14:31] And you don't have to be a national political correspondent to know what's what when it comes to how American government works we are casting our net far and wide for civics teachers across the country to be guests on our episodes. So if you know a really great teacher or you or the teacher give us a call and tell us what kind of topic you'd like to do with us the numbers 2 0 2 7 9 8 6 8 6 5. Tell us your name where you teach and what kind of topics you'd like to do. Chances are we'll be right back to you.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:57] I'm Hannah McCarthy.
Nick Capodice: [00:14:57] I'm Nick Capodice.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:57] Civics 101 is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio