The nation’s biggest TV-news outlets have made it increasingly easy for top officials in the White House to have a presence in your house.
If White House press secretary Jen Psaki joins MSNBC as expected, she will be the second Biden official to land at the NBCUniversal-owned network in the space of less than a year. She will join Symone Sanders, a former campaign adviser to President Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, at MSNBC, where she is taking on a weekend show that will also have a streaming presence.
Psaki declined to discuss her negotiations with MSNBC Friday during a White House press briefing, but two people familiar with the matter say she has been weighing potential roles with both CNN and MSNBC and should surface at the latter by autumn.
She isn’t alone in her interest in TV news. Mick Mulvaney, the former Trump administration aide, was named a contributor to CBS News earlier this week, sparking some pushback by staffers and critics — including Stephen Colbert, who hosts the network’ signature late-night program. CBS News declined to comment. CBS also had a contributor relationship with Reince Preibus, the former White House chief of staff under President Trump.
White House staffers and political types have long found safe perches at news outlets, but “it has been accelerating in recent years as both politics and journalism have grown more partisan,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of the broadcast journalism department at the University of Maryland. “For the networks, these former officials bring knowledge, expertise —and spin. The downside is the predictably partisan nature of their talking points.”
But TV news has become less circumspect about showing bias. MSNBC has a broad roster of progressive opinion hosts, while Fox News Channel offers an equally large team of conservative ones. In the current business, White House officials aren’t just prized for their knowledge of how the Oval Office works, but for their ability to promote its agenda, and to lure viewers who may share their political leanings.
At Fox News Channel, some Trump administration officials are among the most popular personalities at the network. Dana Perino, a former White House Press Secretary under George W. Bush, is a panelist on the network’s top-rated show, “The Five,” as well as a co-anchor of its mid-morning news program. Larry Kudlow, the former Trump economic adviser, hosts the top-rated program on Fox Business Network, while former Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany is a co-host of “Outnumbered.”
One of MSNBC’s top personalities is Nicolle Wallace, the former George W. Bush White House communications director who has become a favorite of executives at the network and its corporate parent, even if her background is Republican, not Democrat.
There is also the danger of an official or politically aligned contributor wrangling to get back into politics while they are still on air, an obvious conflict of interest. Jon Meacham, the historian, had to give up a paid contributor role at NBC News and MSNBC after it was revealed he had helped craft President Biden’s acceptance speech. Karine Jean Pierre, currently a deputy press secretary in the Biden administration, left a contributor role at MSNBC to work on the Biden campaign. Fox News has parted ways with people like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee when they wanted to take up a run for office. And CNN bid farewell to regular contributors like former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who became Biden’s secretary of energy.
Other White House officials have gone on to take some of the top jobs in TV. Diane Sawyer, a former press aide in the Nixon administration, became one of TV’s best-known journalists, holding jobs at “60 Minutes,” “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight.” George Stephanopoulos, a top communications aide in the Clinton White House, is a co-anchor of ABC News’ “GMA” and its Sunday public affairs program, “The Week.”
“I think hiring these officials is somewhat journalistically lazy and that it’s generally better to avoid putting partisans on the payroll and instead hire objective journalists,” says Feldstein. “But cable TV news has 24 hours to fill seven days a week, so the temptation to hire a talking head who will be ready when needed is hard to resist.”