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Not a mere mouthpiece

Apr 04,2019
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Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Last June, the White House submitted a list of annual salaries of its 374 employees to Congress. Among them, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, stood out. Her annual salary of $179,700 topped the list along with 21 other White House staffers, including National Security Adviser John Bolton. Making that much money at the age of 36 signifies how important Sanders’ role is for U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Above all, Sanders has to deal with the U.S. media. Not only the United States but the entire world focuses on each and every word uttered by the White House press secretary. One could only imagine how much stress a person might feel under such circumstances. No wonder there’s a saying that a White House press secretary used to receive body armor as their inauguration present.

What attracts my attention is that the White House press secretary position was rarely given to active journalists. Since Ron Nessen, an NBC News reporter, was picked as press secretary for President Gerald Ford in 1974, there have been only two such instances over the subsequent 45 years: Tony Snow, who worked under President George W. Bush from 2006 to 2007, and Jay Carney, who served under President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2014.

Most other U.S. presidents gave the position to seasoned PR specialists who built solid careers on promoting politics and policies. That’s because they had a superb sense of state affairs and policies. A U.S. president has a wide pool of candidates to choose from, including those who have polished their skills in Congress, at lobbying firms or on presidential campaign teams. It is tough for political reporters to match their expertise.

Another reason is the well-defined division of roles between the media and authorities. As seen in previous U.S. administrations, there are very few reporters — if any — who can claim a relationship close enough to an incumbent president to publicly claim themselves to be the president’s mouthpiece. Reporters that have such a close relationship with a president often don’t mention their closeness. Distance is widely seen as the right way to go for journalists in the United States.

Former Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom — who was a journalist for the left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper — left a bad mark because he failed to follow the right path. As a high-level government official, he tried to do something he couldn’t while working in media. If he really wanted to own a house through an investment in real estate, he should have moved to a well-paying private company instead of entering public service. He played in the gray zone between a high-level government official and a private citizen. He also tried to give a lesson to Blue House correspondents when his job was actually to inform them. Instead of serving the country, he relished the privileges that came with his job. And when he had to take responsibility, he tried to shift it to someone else. His farewell speech shows it well.

In a text message to Blue House correspondents, Kim wrote: “I wanted to squarely refute the logic made by the conservative media […] When you receive orders [from your news directors], question them for once. When you write articles, think once more and then write. Your seniors have stiff heads, so it’s difficult for them to change their thoughts. But you are young, right?”

To the public, Kim said his real estate investment was made solely by his wife who had not consulted him before the decision. When he learned about it, it was too late to reverse it, he explained.

Let’s compare Kim’s farewell message to that of Josh Earnest, who was chosen to serve as press secretary for the Obama administration at age 40 and bowed out of the White House nearly two years ago at the end of Obama’s term.

In his final press briefing, Earnest told White House correspondents that if they did not play their part in U.S. democracy, people would all notice: “Your passion for your work and its centrality to the success of our democracy is a uniquely American feature of our government. It has made President Obama a better president and a better public servant,” he said. “And it’s because you persevere and you never go easy on us.” On his wife Natalie, Earnest said she contributed to his success more than anyone else, and that she extended to him more support and understanding than he could ever have asked for. “When I missed the mark up here, she didn’t hesitate to tell me about it. And when I got it right the next day, it was usually because I followed her advice.” Earnest went on, “So thank you sweetheart, for your patience, your loyalty, your counsel and your love. Without it, I would not be standing here.”

The class of a presidential press officer mirrors the class of the president they work for. Let’s hope the next Blue House press officer is fully aware of that.