Jen Psaki, Once the Voice of Biden, Moves to an Anchor Chair
Rachel Maddow is teaching her to use a TelePrompTer, so far with mixed results. Mika Brzezinski offered tips on pinning down squirrelly guests. Nicolle Wallace invited her to editorial meetings and Andrea Mitchell is tutoring her on interviewing techniques.
Jen Psaki spent the last two decades jousting with journalists. She’s about to find out what it’s like on the other side of the anchor desk.
Less than a year removed from her perch as President Biden’s press secretary, Ms. Psaki will become the host of a weekly MSNBC talk show on March 19, the network said on Tuesday. “Inside With Jen Psaki” will air Sundays at noon, vying for the same weekend clout as political mainstays like “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation.”
It’s a quick transition to full-time anchor for Ms. Psaki, 44, whose deft defenses of the Biden administration — and feisty tête-à-têtes with Fox News’s Peter Doocy — made her a cult figure of sorts among liberals. She spawned the TikTok hashtag #psakibomb and was gently parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
Now she’ll take charge of an hourlong program on a Biden-friendly network, mixing policy and political discussions with lighter fare like human-interest profiles of politicians, celebrities and athletes. (One of her dream guests: Joe Burrow, the quarterback of her husband’s hometown Cincinnati Bengals.)
Ms. Psaki, who began appearing on MSNBC as an analyst in September, is the latest in a line of White House communicators — including George Stephanopoulos, Diane Sawyer, and Dana Perino — who have left government for the more glamorous and better remunerated world of TV news.
Ms. Psaki during a press briefing in the White House last year.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times
Such arrangements raise sticky questions about journalistic ethics: When the Trump-era press secretaries Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kayleigh McEnany joined Fox News, liberals cried foul about a “revolving door” and claimed the Murdoch-owned network was an extension of the Trump White House. Those voices have said little about Ms. Psaki’s migration to MSNBC, nor that of another Biden White House alumna, Symone D. Sanders, who also hosts a weekend show on the channel.
For her part, Ms. Psaki said MSNBC viewers can expect to see her authentic self — and that “I am not going on television to be a mouthpiece.”
“I’m very conscious of the fact that people know who I am because I was standing behind a podium speaking on behalf of Joe Biden,” she said in an interview from her new office in NBC’s Washington bureau, where a framed New York Times crossword (“___ Psaki, White House communications director under Obama”) followed her from the West Wing.
“I am not going to gratuitously attack him, nor am I going to gratuitously applaud him,” she said. “If he deserves applause, I will applaud him. If he deserves critique, I will critique him.”
MSNBC is undergoing its own transitional moment. The network achieved record audiences in the Trump era, fueled by did-he-really-do-that? monologues from the likes of Ms. Maddow and Ms. Wallace. But Ms. Maddow has since cut her appearances to once a week; her 9 p.m. replacement, Alex Wagner, has struggled to find an audience; Brian Williams left; and ratings across the board have fallen. Anchors and executives are hopeful that the familiar face of Ms. Psaki can lure some viewers back.
“She had them at ‘Sit down, Peter Doocy!’” Ms. Wallace said in an interview, laughing at the memory of Ms. Psaki’s well-chronicled exchanges with the Fox News White House correspondent.
“She’s already got a bond with our viewers,” said Ms. Wallace, who served as communications director to former President George W. Bush before embarking on a TV career. “She’s got a huge fan base and we’re lucky to bring that here.”
NBC is betting big on the Psaki brand. In addition to “Inside,” Ms. Psaki will soon host a show on Peacock, the streaming network, and write a regular column for MSNBC’s email newsletter. And the network has pursued more of her former colleagues in the White House: Ron Klain, who just stepped down as Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, said in an interview that NBC reached out to him about a potential on-air role, but that he was not interested in pursuing a career in television. (Mr. Klain also praised Ms. Psaki as “a superb explainer”who “is very effective in the TV medium.”)
Ms. Psaki said she hoped to invite Republicans onto her program, and NBC representatives, seeking to emphasize her independence, pointed to her occasional on-air quibbles with the Biden administration. In September, she said on “Meet the Press” that Democrats “will lose” the 2022 elections if voters perceived the midterms as “a referendum on the president.”
In the interview, Ms. Psaki was asked to offer a sample critique of Mr. Biden. “I certainly was critical of the way things were handled around the sharing of information about the documents,” she said, referring to the White House’s decision to keep the public in the dark for weeks about classified documents found at Mr. Biden’s residence.
But Press Secretary Psaki quickly returned. “At the same time, there can be a tendency to make it into a five-alarm fire — like, everything is a disaster! My tendency is to provide context when needed.”
MSNBC viewers may not care either way. In this tribal moment in media and politics, Americans tend to flock to news sources that reaffirm their beliefs. When George Stephanopoulos moved from Bill Clinton’s White House to ABC News in 1996, it set off alarm bells among media ethicists. That was a less partisan era.
“As an analyst, the thing I told myself was, ‘How do you maintain your integrity and do your job?’” Mr. Stephanopoulos said in an interview, reflecting on his transition into TV. “For me it was, it was appropriate to say on the air what I would say in a meeting. Sometimes that could be critical: If the president took an action that I would have argued against in the meeting, I’d have no problem making that point.”
Mr. Psaki reached out to Mr. Stephanopoulos for advice shortly after leaving the White House. “The balancing act is, how are you consistent with your past work and your past beliefs, and still constructive for the audience,” Mr. Stephanopoulos recalled telling her. “That’s applicable then, today, and tomorrow.”
Ms. Psaki, who took a few months off over the summer traveling with family, said the debut of “Inside” meant that her political career was officially over. “I am not joining a re-elect ever again,” she said. “Nor do I have any plans to go back to government. Ever.”
How about running for office?
“God forbid,” Ms. Psaki said. “That’s my worst nightmare.”