Before Being Obama Flack, Jay Carney Claims He Was 'Old-Fashioned Journalist' Who 'Didn't Take Sides'

Appearing on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman on Wednesday, former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney asserted that he had been a completely objective reporter for Time magazine before becoming a spin doctor for the Obama administration: "Right after the election in 2008, I was the Washington bureau chief for Time. And I was an old-fashioned journalist, not an advocate, didn't take sides in my job. But I was extremely excited personally about the Obama-Biden victory." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

In 1993, the "old-fashioned" Carney described then-First Lady Hillary Clinton as a "polite but passionate American citizen – strangely mesmerizing because of how she matched the poise and politics of her delivery with the power of her position." In contrast, during the 2000 presidential campaign, he slammed George W. Bush as a "pit bull let loose in a slaughterhouse."

Later in Wednesday's exchange, Letterman asked: "Were there people that just were irritating?...because of the intense focus now and 24-hour, 7-day-a-week coverage and social media, these guys can put on their own little show, if they want, in the press, right?"

Carney declared:

It's very interesting to see the difference between the briefing in the White House –  fully televised, carried live, online, tweeted about as it happens – and the off-camera but on-the-record briefings we would do for example, or I would do, on Air Force One with the traveling press corps on the plane. The difference is like night and day, in terms of the tenor. The seriousness of the questions is the same, in some cases more serious off-camera. But the kind of posing and histrionics and, you know, faux indignation that you get sometimes. Which is not to – look, I have a lot of respect for my former colleagues in the press, they're doing a good job, but I think when you're on TV you tend to play to the cameras.

Letterman agreed: "Putting on a show for the company and the folks back home."

Of course Carney never admitted to any "posing" or "faux indignation" on his part during those years at the White House podium pushing presidential propaganda.

Here are excerpts of the July 30 exchange, aired early on the morning of Thursday, July 31:

12:11 AM ET

(...)

DAVID LETTERMAN: You used to work for Time magazine. From there you were hired as – to work for Joe Biden, I believe. What did you do for the Vice President?

JAY CARNEY: Right after the election in 2008, I was the Washington bureau chief for Time. And I was an old-fashioned journalist, not an advocate, didn't take sides in my job. But I was extremely excited personally about the Obama-Biden victory. And a friend of mine in a garage band, who is also a foreign policy expert. He was working for-

LETTERMAN: Wait a minute.

[LAUGHTER]

CARNEY: True story.

LETTERMAN: A guy in a garage band, also a foreign policy expert?

CARNEY: Well, be worried, I guess, is the-

LETTERMAN: Good heavens.

CARNEY: So he called – we – I was congratulating him the day after the election and he mentioned that the vice – the incoming vice president would be looking for a communications director. And a few weeks later, suddenly I was leaving a 21-year career in journalism, 20 years at Time magazine, on this new adventure to work for the Vice President. And that's what I did for the first two years in the White House.

LETTERMAN: What sort of things as communication director do you do for the Vice President?

CARNEY: Well, that's a behind-the-scenes job, there's only one sort of public job, which is the press secretary. It's basically working with the broader White House on communications strategy, but specifically working to, you know, tell the Vice President's story. Make sure that folks-

LETTERMAN: What is his story? Now I know Joe Biden has become, and I'm not sure I endorse this wholeheartedly, but a figure of fun.

CARNEY: Sure.

LETTERMAN: I'm not sure it's deserved. It's not like Gerald Ford, who was always hitting his head and falling down. But the impression of Joe Biden is that, "Oh, any time he opens his mouth he puts his foot in it." Now, is that accurate, is it fair?

CARNEY: It's not accurate, but it had become the narrative. And that was something we had to work to address because what was important about this relationship was that incoming President Obama was going to make Joe Biden a real partner because they complemented each other.

Two totally different individuals, completely different backgrounds, different generations, but the Vice President had a great deal of experience in foreign policy. He had 35-6 years experience in the Senate and understood how the Senate worked in a way that obviously then-Senator Obama didn't, having only been in for a few years. And what was so important is that in those first few years in office, President Obama asked Vice President Biden to do some really serious things.

LETTERMAN: So he needed to be taken seriously?

CARNEY: And I think that it – that, that – we had to make clear – and it really wouldn't have worked without it being true, which is what you find out in the communications world. When you're trying to get a story out, it's a lot easier to get it out when it's true.

(...)

12:21 AM

LETTERMAN: And criticism – I think this comes with the job – that the White House is not accessible, that the president is not accessible and that transparency is not what it ought to be. That's just – that's boilerplate isn't it?

CARNEY: Well, I think that certainly in the post-Watergate era it has become an adversarial relationship, and it should be. And I started covering presidents in 1993, covering President Clinton, I covered President George W. Bush, and then I worked for President Obama. And in my experience, there has always been this tension.

And in fact, the most tension between a White House press corps and a White House was in 1993 in the early months of the Clinton administration for a variety of reasons. So it's not to say that there aren't press complaints and demands for more access and frustrations, but they have always been that way. So people who write that story or talk about it as if it were new, really don't know their history.

LETTERMAN: It's not new. And I think you're right, I think you have to have that little rub. It has to be there to keep both sides working the way they do.

CARNEY: I think as a democracy we would rightfully be concerned if there weren't that tension. If the White House press corps was just happy with what they got every day and they weren't working to get more, then they wouldn't really be doing their jobs.

(...)

LETTERMAN: Can you, to some extent, principally for your own comfort, control the information by who you choose in a press conference?

CARNEY: Essentially, no, with some sort of control on the margins. It's your responsibility to get as many people questions as you can. It's also your responsibility, I feel, as press secretary to make sure that the major news organizations that invest a lot of resources in covering our president, our White House, and our government, are given their due. And they tend to sit in the front two rows. They tend to be the TVs, cables and networks, as well as the wires. And they tend to be the most agitated, especially when the briefing is televised. But you can't avoid them because that would become a story. If I only called on people in the back and the German press and the online press or something, there would be-

LETTERMAN: Were there people that just were irritating?

CARNEY [SARCASTIC]: Oh, no, no.

LETTERMAN: No, nobody irritating. But because of the intense focus now and 24-hour, 7-day-a-week coverage and social media, these guys can put on their own little show, if they want, in the press, right?

CARNEY: It's very interesting to see the difference between the briefing in the White House –  fully televised, carried live, online, tweeted about as it happens – and the off-camera but on-the-record briefings we would do for example, or I would do, on Air Force One with the traveling press corps on the plane. The difference is like night and day, in terms of the tenor. The seriousness of the questions is the same, in some cases more serious off-camera. But the kind of posing and histrionics and, you know, faux indignation that you get sometimes. Which is not to – look, I have a lot of respect for my former colleagues in the press, they're doing a good job, but I think when you're on TV you tend to play to the cameras.

LETTERMAN: Putting on a show for the company and the folks back home.

(...)

— Kyle Drennen is News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.