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Multiple spokespeople in the Biden administration seemed to be frustrated with journalists last week for the high crime of asking questions. And worse, the officials acted as if skepticism directed at the U.S. government somehow equates to trust in Russia or the Islamic State.
This friction with reporters who were simply doing their jobs bubbled over last Thursday with an exchange between White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe about the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. According to President Joe Biden, al-Quarayshi detonated a suicide bomb during a raid from U.S. special forces in Syria and killed his wife and two children in the process. Rascoe asked if the administration has evidence to support this, noting that some people might have skepticism about how the events unfolded.
“Skeptical of the U.S. military’s assessment when they went and took out the leader of ISIS? That they are not providing accurate information and ISIS is providing accurate information?” Psaki asked Rascoe with an incredulous and almost accusatory tone.
This same tone was also on display Thursday at a U.S. State Department briefing. Associated Press correspondent Matt Lee asked spokesman Ned Price if the U.S. government has evidence to back up its claim that Russia has been planning to create a false pretense for invading Ukraine.
“If you doubt the credibility of the U.S. government, of the British government, of other governments and want to, you know, find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that’s for you to do,” Price told Lee.
We don’t have to go far back in history to find evidence of the U.S. government sharing incorrect or misleading information with the public. Just a few months ago, the Pentagon admitted that a drone strike in Afghanistan initially called a “righteous strike” against ISIS-K fighters actually killed 10 civilians. And, let’s not forget the matter of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
As Rascoe responded to Psaki Thursday, “The U.S. has not always been straightforward about what happens with civilians. And, I mean, that is a fact.”
Hostility and frustration in response to press scrutiny is nothing new, unfortunately. But that doesn’t excuse the reaction. Last week’s tone from the Biden administration was reminiscent of a moment (and a trend, really) from the Vietnam era. Decades ago, Associated Press war correspondent Malcom Browne once drew the ire of a U.S. official due to his repeated questioning.
“Browne, why don’t you get on the team?” the official memorably asked.
At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, journalists are on a team with the public. Our loyalties are to the truth, not to a single administration. It’s not un-American to be asking for proof of something that might launch the country into war or involves civilian casualties. This is the First Amendment at work. The ability of the free press to scrutinize claims made by the U.S. government is actually one of the things that separates us from the rising tide of autocracy around the world.
You know who doesn’t suffer media scrutiny? Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Islamic State. The Chinese Communist Party. Just look at what is happening in China surrounding the Olympics.
A dismissive, defensive and accusatory tone from spokespeople is a far cry from the press crackdowns seen elsewhere. Let’s be clear about that. But it is awfully rich for the Biden administration to respond this way to fairly straightforward calls for more evidence and information, and to imply that journalists are embracing propaganda from Putin or others in the process.
U.S. officials would do well to stop sounding a tiny bit like the autocratic governments they’re accusing the press of siding with, simply for asking questions.