The White House press office has long been a reliable path to a TV news career. There are currently five hosts who have previously worked there, and President Biden’s former press secretary, Jen Psaki, joins their ranks Sunday when her weekly hour-long show debuts on MSNBC at 9 a.m. Pacific.
Psaki, who previously worked for former President Obama and John Kerry when he served as secretary of State, has logged enough hours in front of the camera to be a familiar face to news viewers. But “Inside With Jen Psaki” will still be something of an introduction.
“She gets to really speak for herself for the first time in her career,” said Rebecca Kutler, senior vice president of content strategy for MSNBC. “It will be a great opportunity for the audience to get to know Jen.”
“Inside With Jen Psaki” will go beyond the traditional TV platform. It will be available to stream on Peacock after running on MSNBC, along with a second edition running exclusively on the service. Psaki will also take over MSNBC’s flagship newsletter on Saturdays and later this year will have an additional show on YouTube.
In a recent interview, Psaki, 44, shared some thoughts about her career and its next phase.
MSNBC caters to a politically progressive audience. But a lot of people who still sit down in front of the television set are looking for more of a straight-ahead discussion about the news. Are you going to think of it as an opinion show or a more down-the-middle news show?
I think of it more as I’m going to choose Option C, which is an informed show. I’ve worked for Democratic politicians, including two Democratic presidents, for 20 years. I’m not going to pretend that I have not worked on those campaigns and not sat in the situation room or on the campaign bus. That wouldn’t be very useful to viewers. I’m also not going to pretend that I think that I haven’t long supported a woman’s right to choose, or the ability of people to marry who they want, or be who they want, because that wouldn’t be authentic.
But I also think we have at times gone away from what I would consider healthy discussions and debates about a range of issues. And I will certainly invite a range of Republicans on the show to have discussions with them. If they say something that’s false or inaccurate, I will call that out. But also I think my experience in government is about having those discussions as a healthy part of the debate.
What were the politics like in the Stamford, Conn., home where you grew up?
I grew up in kind of a split household, where my mom would vote for every Democrat, no matter who they were. My dad was a northeastern Republican, not on social issues, more on fiscal issues. He is a born-again progressive. He’s 80 now, so in his late 50s or early 60s, he became a Democrat. But growing up, one of my first political memories was my dad saying to my mom, “You’re the only person in the country who voted for Walter Mondale.” And I was, like, 6 or 5 at the time, and I thought, “Mom, man, like, you’re the only person?”
In your previous job, you were known for being a calm and steady presence in the White House briefing room. Is there anything in your habits that keeps you that way? Is it yoga? Diet? Jesus Christ?
My sister is an ordained Unitarian minister, so I wish I could say it was my connection to my faith, which I need to work on more. But I would say that when people are freaking out and there’s complete chaos around me, my instinctual reaction is to be calm, because I don’t want to dive into the chaos.
There are a lot of universities and colleges in D.C. So if I would run into college students in the street, they’d ask me, “What are you thinking in your mind when so-and-so is asking you a crazy question?” And I would say, “Sometimes I’m thinking that I am an orderly in an insane asylum. And if I talk slowly and calmly, everybody will calm down.” I have a little Irish temper in me at times, so that comes out. But I also think in that job, that one of the first conversations I had with the president was about the need to return calm and stability.
I was told by a friend of yours — a seasoned veteran of the media business — that you might be too “normal” to be on TV. She said you’re not needy. Not a self-promoter. Not self-absorbed. Is she right?
Well, that is an enormous compliment, and my mother, if she reads this story, which she will, would like that most of everything that’s in there. My mother is a family therapist who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and always says that everything originates in Queens. She says, “That’s where you get your spunk and your character,” even though I didn’t grow up there. It didn’t matter what job I ever had, if she ever saw me getting too big for my britches, or down-talking to people, or not treating people with value and respect — that is the thing that would most deeply disappoint her. She would not care if I had a big job. I always think: “What would my mother think?” about whatever is going on, and that is a big grounder for me.
Do you think President Biden got punished for not being entertaining enough as president? Did Donald Trump distort the public’s perception of what the performance skills for a president should be?
There were people — never on the record — who would say, “It’s boring,” or “Ugh, so much policy, and paper, and briefing calls.” And my response to that was always a little bit like, “Well, if you’re not interested in briefing papers and background calls and the policies that are going to impact people’s lives, you may need to cover something different.” But the truth is, the vast majority of the White House reporters loved the return to policy.
Your exchanges with Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy were legendary. Do you stay in touch?
I like Peter a great deal. We had a good relationship. We had lots of fun back-and-forths, and at times heated back-and-forths in the briefing room. That is healthy in democracy. Peter and I also had lots of conversations in my office about a range of issues. I always found him to be professional.
Well, what are your thoughts about what we’ve seen at Fox News in the last few weeks in the court documents for the Dominion Voting Systems defamation suit against the network? There was a lot of internal talk about helping Republican candidates. Will it affect the way Democrats deal with Fox News going forward?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer. The challenge, at least for this moment, is that that doesn’t hurt [Fox News] that much. If Democrats don’t appear on their air, what do they care? That’s not a big part of their business model, as far as I can tell. At the same time, Fox has huge viewership, including a number of Democrats. I appeared on “Fox News Sunday” more than any other Sunday show when I was at the White House as press secretary because I felt it was important to have a voice there. There are people like Pete Buttigieg and certainly others who were quite effective on Fox. And I don’t know that saying no one should do that anymore is exactly the right thing. You’re giving up a huge landscape.
So who came up with the name of the show? And what does it tell the viewer?
It was a group effort. I wanted it to say something beyond my name about what we were trying to do. I think the hope is that what we’re going to do is bring people kind of inside the room by having people I know in government, or have known in the past, to really talk about and go deep on what the issues are, to bring people inside the lives of politicians and people you see in public and show a different side. That’s what people will take away from the show.
What do you bring to this role that we don’t already know about you?
An enormous curiosity about a lot of things happening in the world — whether it is what the heck is happening in China, to how exactly the war in Ukraine’s going to end, how are all of these Senate races going to land, to who’s going to be the Republican nominee? And even things that people don’t know about me. I’m a mom, obviously. I’m also obsessed with the Olympics. I’m a Cincinnati Bengals fan. So I’m curious about a million things.
The best advice I’ve gotten has been to make it a conversation. And also the second part of it that’s maybe even more important is to listen to what people are saying and respond to that and not be so stuck in what your plan is for the show that you don’t take the conversation to the most interesting place.
You’re a Bengals fan. I am feeling a Joe Burrow booking may be in the offing.
Oh, my God, that’s the dream. My in-laws said that if he if he ever came on this show that they would all come to the interview, so I said that’s fine.
It’s already been discussed?
Yeah, he has an open invitation to come. Or we’ll come to him.