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An End To Kerfuffles And Questions: Former Press Secretary Reflects


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. It's probably fair to say that Jay Carney is a little less stressed than he was a week ago. That's when he left his post as White House Press Secretary, a position he held for three years. Before going to work for the Obama administration, Carney had been a reporter - a longtime Washington bureau chief for Time magazine. Now as he enters private life again, he's reflecting on his time behind the White House podium.

JAY CARNEY: If I could convey to people around the country one thing about what it's like inside this White House is that, you know, it's a human enterprise. And the people who come to help a president make a decision generally come for the right reasons.

CORNISH: Still, cynicism goes with the territory. And now his successor, Josh Earnest, is taking it on. When we reached Jay Carney today in San Francisco, we asked him to react to Earnest's sparring with reporters on his first day.


ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: That's not true.

JOSH EARNEST: I'm sorry?

SIMENDINGER: You got asked earlier.

EARNEST: Well, Alexis you don't have to get all exercised about this. But what you can do...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: She's not getting exercised.

SIMENDINGER: We asked you a question, you should answer the question.

CARNEY: You know, that's just part of the job. And I think that it's really important to contextualize all of this because people tend to, you know, view their own experiences as exceptional. But it is just a fact that over the 20 years I've been in Washington, covering White Houses and then working for them, that there has always been tension between the White House press corps and the White House. And if a press secretary walks out there and goes to the podium and everything goes smoothly and every exchange is pleasant and everyone is just super satisfied with all the information they got, I would really worry for our democracy.

CORNISH: Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, has been quoted as saying the modern presidency is defined by the manipulation of the news flow, 24 hours a day - true or false in your experience?

CARNEY: Well, I love Mike and he's one of my mentors and a model for me as press secretary. I think that that way overstates the ability of the White House - at least in this era, to manipulate the media. I guess when people suggest that that's what we've done.

CORNISH: Well, he's saying manipulate the news flow, not the media itself and that is a different thing.

CARNEY: Well, I think you can try to do that. What presidents try to do is focus on a policy issue that the president wants to advance. And what every day is like working for a president on the communications side is - is trying to advance that agenda against the resistance of a whole world of news and events and opinions that want to take you in a different place generally. And despite the, you know, amazing platform that a president has, and all the advantages that he or she has, it's very hard to - to do that, especially in today's environment - today's media environment, today's news environment, the fragmented nature of the way that people in this country and around the world get their information.

CORNISH: As you've described, your time is marked by this rise of social media in the news business. The flipside has been that the White House has been criticized for bypassing the press altogether. For example, limiting coverage of certain events and then putting out photography and video, or the way it targets interviews to certain organizations. In this day and age, does the White House need the White House press corps?

CARNEY: Absolutely. But it would be absolute malpractice for President Obama's team not to take advantage of the social media that's out there that everybody else is taking advantage of and to reach people where they are. If folks aren't watching the evening news in the numbers they used to watch it, which is definitively true, and they're getting their information in different ways, you know, you need to reach them there. And that's what we tried to do.

CORNISH: But to get back to this - this other point also - this idea of the White House being accused of bypassing the press altogether, the idea of releasing your own materials and how that undermines the ability of the press to give independent monitoring and coverage of the president's activities.

CARNEY: Well, I would say a couple of things. The president's chief photographer's pieces - he was also photographer for President Reagan. There is nothing that we do, or we did, that is different from what the Reagan White House, save for the means of distribution.

CORNISH: But the limiting of coverage as well? I mean, that is the complaint.

CARNEY: Well, I'm just - I just - you know, I obviously - it was the case when I was a White House reporter, and will always be the case that there's a demand for more coverage, more access. And, you know, I don't think that's any different now than it was in the past. What's different is in the old days when the photo office would want to put a photo from the White House, they would distribute it to the news organizations and they decided whether or not the American people got to see it.

CORNISH: Finally, what's next for you? Are you getting back into journalism? We know you also have played in a band.

CARNEY: (Laughing) My family would be destitute if I ever relied on my band for income. But I'm not going to go back into journalism in the way that I used to practice it. I don't think that would work, and it's not what I would want to do. But I think I'll try to continue to be part of the conversation.

CORNISH: Jay Carney, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CARNEY: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Jay Carney, he left his post as White House press secretary last week. We reached him today in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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