Carney reflects on the modern White House press secretary role

LinkedIn executive editor Dan Roth interviewed former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on the eve of the social network's CommsConnect event in San Francisco. Steve Barrett picks out the highlights.

Jay Carney
Jay Carney

Jay Carney’s tenure at the White House was unusual in that he was the only former journalist to take on the job apart from Jerald terHorst, who was Gerald Ford’s press secretary, but only for the first month of the 38th president’s term in office, as terHorst resigned in protest at Ford pardoning Richard Nixon.

And, unlike in those days, when the White House press team clocked off at 5:45pm and shared a cocktail while watching the evening news on TV, the job has become a 24/7/365 undertaking. Carney said he never watched the evening news in his three-and-a-half years in the role.

Carney described the mammoth task of dealing with the voracious appetites of the modern media, explaining that he carried around a folder with 50 different tabs describing talking points on issues the press team thought the media would ask about, and that they would still end up surprising him.

But he warned against venturing a guess at an issue or thinking you know the answer when you’re not sure: "It’s the riskiest thing you can do, and there are enormous consequences to getting it wrong, domestically, but especially internationally."

He admitted he "almost threw up" before his first daily press briefing performance at the White House, and that he remained a "little nervous" every time, although less so as time went on.

"You’re walking a tightrope and you can’t screw up," he says. "It’s particularly crucial for foreign affairs and the national security of the country."  He also believes the daily briefing has become theater that is not very edifying for the US public and is frustrating for everyone involved, but that anyone who tries to do away with it is accused of attacking the freedom of, especially, the video and TV media.

A typical day in DC for press secretary Carney involved getting to work at 7:30 am, then being constantly busy until about 8:30 pm, when he would aim to hurry back home and see his young family before they went to bed, before logging back on via his BlackBerry.

He made his bones in a two-year spell as communications director for Vice President Joe Biden, where he says he "learned so much" that would be useful in the top role, while also noting "there’s only one podium job."

"I thought I knew a lot about communications [before I became press secretary]," he said. "Comms is essential to governing, policymaking, and politics – communications is policy."

Carney explained to Roth that most press secretaries came up through the party ranks, while his background was a 20-year award-winning career as a journalist at Time, during which he was on the other side of the fence as someone who covered politics and the White House.

"You make a lot of assumptions when you cover it that you discover are misguided," he says. "The easy decisions don’t get to the president – he only makes the hard ones."

He describes the White House press team – in any era – as a group of "imperfect people" trying to figure out the right thing to do, generally with the right motivations based on their specific beliefs. "Sometimes you get things wrong," he admitted to Roth. "But there is a huge price to be paid for admitting fault," which he says isn’t necessarily healthy for democracy.

But he also noted that it is important to take some risks, highlighting things like the president’s Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, becoming an influencer on LinkedIn, and engaging in tweet-ups with the general public.

Roth asked Carney about former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s statement earlier this year that Obama’s presidency represented the "most secretive White House" she had covered. Carney defended his erstwhile boss, suggesting that Obama spent more time answering questions than the last two presidents, while conceding that he was "better at long-form interviews than the two-minute ‘sound bite’ press conference" favored by George W. Bush.

He also pointed out that, like brands and corporations, the White House has become a media owner in its own right, publishing pictures on Flickr ahead of the press. He said the in-house photographers – some of his favorite people – have always produced a lot of material but that, in days gone by, they would deliver hard-copy pictures to the likes of the Associated Press and New York Times, who would then make the decision on what was published. "Pictures are being published that wouldn’t have been seen for 20 years, but now they can be seen in real time," Carney told Roth.

Asked about the low points of his time as press secretary, Carney cited the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings in December 2012: "We all felt so utterly helpless… I’ve never seen the president so upset."

Apart from that, it was the furor about the botched launch of the government’s HealthCare.gov health insurance marketplace. "We owned it and it was our fault," he said. "The thing was a disaster and the implications were huge."

It perfectly highlighted the huge stakes of a crisis communications situation in the White House and the "expectation for an instant fix," despite not having time to establish all the facts and that the technical teams had assured everyone the project was on track.

Carney’s high point was when the tech teams told him everything was going to be OK, and he noted with irony the release of a recent report that 7.3 million people who had picked health plans through the new insurance exchanges had now paid their premiums. "Of course [my successor as press secretary] Josh Earnest got zero questions about that," he added wryly.

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