The Memo: Psaki’s rumored MSNBC move prompts controversy

White House press secretary Jen Psaki looks set to leave her job soon — but it’s her next move that’s causing controversy.

Psaki is expected to go to MSNBC, where it appears likely she will host a show, perhaps on the streaming platform Peacock.

The problem isn’t that someone with a high-profile political role is on the cusp of getting a cable news gig. That is a very well-trodden path.

What’s unusual about Psaki’s case is that she has seemingly been negotiating such a deal while still serving as White House press secretary. CNN was also widely reported to be trying to secure her services, but apparently lost out to MSNBC.

The episode creates bad optics all around.

At a minimum, it gives rise to the perception that Psaki has had an incentive to treat potential future employers favorably — and that CNN and MSNBC, both competing to land her, have had their own incentives to ingratiate themselves with her.

“It’s hard for the White House to have their chief spokesperson be on deck to be working with the people who are sitting at the briefing,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University who specializes in political communications. “And it’s bad for cable news, which already has a reputation for being overly partisan, overly biased.”

“She isn’t even out the door yet and she is one direct deposit away from starting a job at MSNBC,” Berkovitz added, “so it’s bad for both sides.”

To be sure, Psaki has stressed her adherence to all relevant ethics rules. She has also asserted her good intentions with regard to the White House press corps, among whom she is respected professionally and well-liked personally. And a White House official told CNN that Psaki has recused herself from any interviews on MSNBC or NBC News.

At a media briefing late last week, Psaki emphasized that she had “always gone over and above” the ethical expectations for anyone working in the White House. She had “received rigorous ethics counseling, including as it relates to any future employment,” she said.

As for her treatment of journalists, Psaki said: “I hope that I meet my own bar of treating everybody with fairness and being equitable.”

Some of the most rigorous questioning Psaki received on that occasion came from Kristen Welker of NBC News, the bigger, broadcast-news sibling of MSNBC.

“How is it ethical to have these conversations with media outlets while you continue to have a job standing behind that podium?” Welker asked Psaki.

But even if Psaki has indeed complied with all the rules — and even if journalists from the NBC family like Welker have pushed her hard — the situation for all concerned can be summed up in one word: Awkward.

The speed with which Psaki is expected to transition from one side of the government-media divide to the other only adds to the complications.

“Her relationship to the media is somewhat analogous to the relationship of a congressional staff member to a lobbying organization,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. “In that case, they have got a pause button you have to hit — and for good reason.”

When it comes to public perception, neither political figures nor the media have a reservoir of goodwill to draw upon.

A Gallup poll last fall found that only 36 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in newspapers, television and radio news reporting. It was the second lowest figure on record. 

By contrast, 29 percent of adults had “not very much” trust in the media, and a stark 34 percent had “none at all.”

The Psaki episode is not the only one that has roiled the media waters recently.

A decision by CBS News to hire Mick Mulvaney, who served in the Trump administration as an acting chief of staff and as head of the Office of Management and Budget, has also created blowback.

Critics complain about Mulvaney’s aggressive defenses of Trump, which included the suggestion that the media was exaggerating the COVID-19 pandemic to damage the then-president. 

A reported comment from CBS executive Neeraj Khemlani that the hire was in part intended to ensure “access to both sides of the aisle” further fanned the flames.

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan complained that such notions were self-defeating when, to her mind, “Mulvaney has been up to his neck in the very issues that have American democracy teetering on the brink.”

To be fair, CBS as a broadcast rather than cable news organization has a different remit to the likes of MSNBC and Fox News. 

Defenders of the Mulvaney decision say there is a need to have contributors who can speak with authority about the perspective of Trump and his supporters.

“CBS News is continuing to build up its roster of contributors on both sides of the aisle ahead of the midterms and the 2024 election,” a CBS spokesperson told The Hill. 

The dust from the Mulvaney hire appears to be settling. 

The Psaki-MSNBC furor will probably die down in due course too, even if she ends up behind an anchor desk rather than the White House lectern.

But the controversies eat away at the public’s remaining trust in the media — and that’s bad news for everyone.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.