Karine Jean-Pierre’s appointment as the new White House press secretary is historic and shouldn’t be understated.
Jean-Pierre will be the first Black person and first openly LGBTQ person in the role, which has taken on significant attention since Donald Trump appointed a string of shameless liars to the role during his presidency. Ironically, Trump’s press secretaries underscored the importance to have a White House that respects the role the media plays in democracy.
Through daily press briefings and other public press events, Trump’s time in office brought right-wing, conspiratorial outlets like One America News into the fold while castigating more established press organizations. He gave their writers and hosts a platform and gave the outlets stature in the conservative movement. He also welcomed far-right trolls and purveyors of disinformation to exclusive events at the White House, lending his ear to their causes. Those actions poisoned public dialogue and elevated an array of untrustworthy characters — but Jean-Pierre and the Biden administration will have an opportunity to do the opposite. She could host summits for diverse media at the White House, encircling underrepresented and neglected voices in our national political discussion. And because she’ll hold the reins at press briefings ahead, she could ensure these groups’ concerns are given ample time on the national stage.
Press secretaries have the power to shape a presidential agenda. Internally, they help draft an administration’s messaging before it reaches the public. But they can also shape public perception by centering or marginalizing certain issues.
We’re just weeks removed from the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where the first two Black women given White House press credentials were honored with posthumous lifetime achievement awards. Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne are the trailblazing namesakes behind the newly developed Dunnigan-Payne Prize, which will be awarded on occasion at the discretion of the White House Correspondents' Association's board.
The two women joined the White House press corps around 1950 and were repeatedly ignored during President Dwight Eisenhower’s press conferences because they asked questions about civil rights.
Writing for Nieman Reports, journalist Simeon Booker said Eisenhower "called on Dunnigan, the first black female reporter accredited to the White House, five times in 1953, his first year in office, but only twice in 1954, and then years passed before he gave her a nod, finally ignoring her from 1958 until he left office in 1961."
Eisenhower called on Payne "until her questions, too, always regarding civil rights issues, irritated him," according to Booker. She ultimately boycotted the press conferences rather than attending only to be passed over.
All of this just speaks to the inarguable power and importance of the White House press briefing. And as the leader of the ship, Jean-Pierre can lead with more care, and leave an impact on politics we may have yet to fully realize.