May 31, 2022

The White House Press Secretary is All of Us

By: Emily Schroen

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer had an agenda.

After President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Sean Spicer made a statement in front of the White House press corps saying, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” 

The photos told a different story. Images of sparse crowds and low metro ridership only made Spicer double down. Trump was popular, good, and the media was out to get him.

Whether he was lying or simply misguided, Spicer was doing his main job, defending the president. We can call him incompetent or a liar, but our minds work in a similar way when we rationalize new information against what we instinctively believe. Confirmation bias, which the press secretary embodies, is part of being human. Acknowledging that bias is the key to understanding politics and ourselves.

The Press Secretary has two jobs: telling the press what the government is doing, and presenting the president’s positions in a way that advances his agenda. Ari Fleisher, the White House Press Secretary to President George W. Bush, called it a “balancing act that requires careful judgment in service to two masters.” 

The question is, who is the most powerful master? For the Press Secretary, it’s the President’s agenda. For us, it’s what we already believe or want to believe that rules how we find and interpret information.

Consider this example. A woman named Andrea is a supporter of gun control and the Black Lives Matter movement. She sees on the news that a white man shot and killed a black man at a race protest, and is immediately disgusted. She finds information that supports this belief and ignores information that doesn’t. Later on, the man is acquitted of murder charges in court and Andrea is furious. She tells herself that the jury must have been racist to reach that verdict.

This example showcases confirmation bias, aka, the inner press secretary. Andrea started with the belief that the shooter was guilty and found data that supported her claim. She could be right that the jury was racist, but Andrea is wrong if she thinks she evenly weighed all the facts. When faced with a contradiction, that the shooter was innocent, she reasoned around the verdict in a way that confirmed her original belief. Andrea’s instinct that the man was guilty, like a president’s agenda, urged her inner secretary to find an answer that supported her belief.

Confirmatory thought, a “one-sided attempt to rationalize a particular point of view,” is one of two kinds of careful reasoning. The other is exploratory thought, which involves an “evenhanded consideration of alternative points of view.” Since every human being has bias, exploratory thought is a spectrum and requires more mental effort than confirmatory thinking.

Imagine that in 2017 Sean Spicer looked at photos of Trump’s inauguration and presented all the facts and opinions evenly. He probably would have painted a bad picture of Trump’s support, which would have gotten Spicer fired. Instead, he deflected questions he didn’t want to answer, redirected to what he wanted to talk about, and relied on weak data that supported his claim.

Andrea could have come to a different conclusion if she researched and thought about the murder case evenly, but her core belief was powerful. Andrea’s initial instinct that the shooter was guilty was tied to her moral beliefs about gun control and racial inequality. Making concessions on this case could have felt like she was denying her values or not siding with her liberal “team.” Her job likely wasn’t at stake, but her unconscious motivations felt just as compelling.

You may be thinking, “That may be true for a lot of people, but not for me. I’m well educated and know how to weigh the facts.” I have bad news for you. Many cognitive studies show that smart people are actually more prone to confirmation bias. It’s even easier for them to rationalize their own thinking and find information to support their belief. 

Knowing about your inner press secretary may feel discouraging, but acknowledging bias is a powerful tool. For a member of the press corps, the key to reporting on the press secretary is understanding where his or her bias comes from; the president. Reporters know to confirm facts, challenge inconsistencies, and use the briefing to understand the president’s motives rather than learn objective truth. 

For ourselves, it’s okay to have beliefs and to let them motivate our political ideas, but we need to rule our inner secretaries instead of them ruling us. the simple task of asking “why do I believe this?” or “how does this belief benefit me?” can highlight our biases. From there we can approach issues humbly, better understand others’ perspectives, and be cautious of facts that immediately support our views.

Whether you’re Sean Spicer, Joe Biden, or a regular citizen, we all have a little Press Secretary bias within us. The Press Secretary job may be a balancing act of two masters, but the president’s agenda tips the scale. For ourselves, the fight is making our press secretary to rationalize facts with reliable data and acknowledging its limitations. Sean Spicer may disagree, but truth should always be part of the equation.