State Department vs. Bill O’Reilly — Volleys Fired But Nothing to Do With Foreign Policy!

Domani Spero
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Apparently, there is a war going on between the State Department and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and it has nothing to do with foreign policy or Benghazi! It all started with the following segment of the O’Reilly Factor. At the 2:04 mark, Bill O’Reilly says this:

“With all due respect, and you don’t have to comment on this,” O’Reilly told Rosen. “That woman looks way out of her depth over there. Just the way she delivers … it doesn’t look like she has the gravitas for that job.”

 

That did not sit well with Marie Harf, the deputy spokeswoman of the State Department, who fired a verbal projectile via Twitter:

 

On September 4, Ms. Harf also said this from the podium (mark 3:16 on this video clip):

“I think that when the anchor of a leading cable news show uses quite frankly sexist, personally offensive language that I actually don’t think they would ever use about a man, against the person that shares this podium with me, I think I have an obligation and I think it’s important to step up and say that’s not OK.”

 

We are not a devotee of Mr. O’Reilly, but when the deputy spox picks a fight with the the most watched cable news program in the United States, we’ve got to ask — what was she thinking?  The deputy spokeswoman of the oldest executive agency ever, cannot have a disclaimer saying “tweets are my own.” What she says from the podium and what she tweets are as official as it gets. So this verbal tussle with Mr. O’Reilly is not between her and the cable anchor. None of the headlines says Marie Harf vs. Bill O’Reilly.  It is officially between the State Department and the cable anchor.  Some people may even infer that this is a fight that the Secretary of State signed on. Whether that is true or not, we don’t know. What we know is if it’s from the podium, it represents the official view of the agency and the U.S. government.

And because the other person in the ring is a cable anchor, this is what you get. Watch starting at mark 1:13

 

Mr. O’Reilly called the WH spox, Mr. Earnest “befuddled,” saying “he doesn’t have a lot of credibility.” Mr. O’Reilly, of course, did not say “that man looks uncertain to me.”  We hope Mr. Earnest doesn’t take it upon himself to fire his own objectiles from the White House podium.

Meanwhile, WaPo’s Erik Wemple makes an important point:

“As a housekeeping measure, let’s toss the “personally offensive” claim right in the trash heap. In slighting Psaki, O’Reilly stuck strictly to her performance as a professional, something that is well within his ambit as a cable news anchor. If a SPOKESWOMAN cannot be evaluated on the basis of how she presents herself to the public, then nothing is fair game.”

 

Mr. O’Reilly did used the term “that woman” as opposed to saying , Ms. Psaki “looks way out of her depth over there.That Woman” is the title of the book on Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, one of the most vilified women in the 20th century. It is the title of a comedy drama movies in 1966 and in 2012.  “That woman” reminds us of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,“in the 1998 chapter of presidential history.  We can understand why that phrase may be objectionable, but the professional person at the podium does not have the luxury of becoming personally upset in public.

One commenter over in WaPo makes a lot of sense:

[N]o State Department spokesperson should wade into a verbal conflict with an American opinion show host (O’Reilly is NOT a “Fox News anchor”) …not on Twitter, and certainly not from the SD press room podium. […] Had Ms. Harf not tweeted and her initial comments about his opinions had been in response to a press briefing question (unlikely), she could have just said, “We at State do not concern ourselves with the comments of an opinion show host. We have more important matters to attend to.” End of story; Harf looks like a pro. At this point, she looks like a teenage girl in a Facebook cat fight, and that reflects poorly on the State Department, the Obama Administration and our nation.

Ouch!

The official spokeswoman, Jen Psaki and her deputy Marie Harf came to the State Department from the Obama campaign.  Previously, Ms. Psaki was the deputy press secretary for John Kerry‘s 2004 presidential campaign and press secretary for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.  Ms. Harf also worked on the 2012 Obama campaign.

People on the inside know that access means a great deal. It is not a given that assistant secretaries of public affairs and/or spokespersons see the secretaries they serve as often as they want.  The most notable exception may be Margaret Tutwiler who was Secretary Baker’s spokesperson and was famously quoted as saying, “If you’re a Ph.D. and have 17 degrees, the press doesn’t care,” she says. “They like to know that you have a fair idea of the person on whose behalf you are speaking. And I do know this President and this Secretary of State very well.”

Ms. Tutwiler later contributed to ADST’s Oral History project and here is part of what she said (pdf):

“I have said before, and I firmly believe it, that podium was not my podium, I was not elected to anything, I am staff and serve at the President’s pleasure as a political appointee and the Secretary of State. …. I believed that part of the spokesman’s job is how you come through that TV screen. If you don’t look convincing and are just mouthing words, then you are not doing your job.”

 

We understand that there are folks in the building who yearn for “spokesmen and [spokes]women that used to be — the class acts that they were” — presumably, an assistant secretary-rank spokesperson speaking on behalf of the United States. Some of Ms. Psaki’s predecessors include Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Philip J. Crowley, FSO Sean McCormack , Ambassador Richard Boucher , James Rubin, and Margaret D. Tutwiler. We do recognize that a spokesperson is only as good as his/her access to the Secretary.  What good is an ambassador or AS-rank spokesman or spokeswoman if the Secretary does not trust him or her?   Secretary Kerry picked these individuals as his spokespersons, that’s his prerogative.  But they also represent the voice of the State Department and the U.S. Government, and sometimes, we fell like the spoxes never got off the campaign trail.

For instance, last year, Ms. Psaki was caught in a lie and had to release another statement acknowledging that her boss “was briefly on his boat.”  (see It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Not Superman On a Nantucket Boat Or How to Make a Non-News Into Big News). Asked where Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power was at one point, she was unable to answer a very simple question.  The point is, even on topics, where we, the public expect a straight-forward answer, the podium is unable to do so. Did Egypt had a coup?  Transparency, anyone?  Just a very brief one on the QDDR at the top of your head?  Folks, over in YouTube, the Jen Psaki Greatest Hits is now on Episode 24. It is not/not fun to watch.

We’d like to think that they’re doing the best they can at these jobs.  Whether we approve of their performance or not, we imagine this can’t be easy work; some days it’s a tour of the world’s ever growing hotspots and spitholes of miseries.  The reporters will push to get their stories, that’s their job; and hey, that’s expected, no need to accuse them of “buying into Russian propaganda.” Of course, the spokespersons will not always have the answers that the press want.  But that’s an old story.  Perhaps, the most important point worth noting here is no matter how shitty the days may be, the official spokesperson or deputy spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State cannot, and should not be the story of the day.

Why?

If nobody is listening to them because people are talking about them, then the spoxes are not doing their real jobs, which is spoxplaining the administration’s policies.

Well … okay then, back to watching the lighthouse. Here’s Johnny Nash’s Sun-Shiny day:

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