The national media’s relationship with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has taken on a new tension over the last month, as journalists and news commentators have grown more and more personal in their hostility toward the Trump administration’s top spokeswoman.
Several high-profile columnists and writers have torn into Sanders over the last few weeks to mock her appearance, the way she talks, and most recently, an alleged disdain she showed the press by asking them at a briefing this week to say why they are thankful this holiday season.
“Sanders’s sudden shift from press secretary to minister’s daughter a few days before Thanksgiving coincides with her apparent image evolution from a woman unconcerned with vanity to a more polished version,” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote Tuesday. “One can almost hear the hive of consultants discussing how to imperceptibly adapt this no-frills yeoman to the shallower requirements of a visual medium.”
She added that Sanders was “everything a terrible person… could hope for in a public relations artist.”
During Monday’s briefing at the White House, Sanders began by saying she was “very thankful” for her family, faith, and the people serving in the armed forces.
She then said that reporters who wanted to ask her a question should first state what they’re thankful for, in light of the upcoming holiday. Every reporter called on played along, some more enthusiastically than others, like when the Associated Press White House reporter said he was thankful for “everything.”
But other observers in the media took offense.
The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen called the episode “degrading” and said Sanders was a “bully” who was mocking “democratic institutions, and the English language.”
John Kirby, a CNN national security analyst and former State Department spokesman in the Obama administration, wrote that Sanders’ “little stunt” was “cringe-worthy” and that it “made me embarrassed for the reporters and angry at Sanders and this White House for their arrogance and condescension.”
One reporter who regularly attends the briefings, however, said it wasn’t nearly so serious.
“Clearly, if you pay attention to what happened in the room, everyone participated,” the reporter, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told the Washington Examiner. “I just don’t see what’s so bad.”
Sanders, the daughter of former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, previously served as a deputy press secretary but was promoted in July after her predecessor, Sean Spicer, left the White House. Her performances at the briefings are often marked by sarcasm and prickly replies to questions that she sometimes dismisses as repetitive or needlessly antagonistic.
On the first day of the month, reporter April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks asked Sanders for the administration’s position on slavery, in light of the national debate over Confederate statues.
Sanders said she didn’t want to “re-litigate the Civil War” but when Ryan pressed her, Sanders replied, “Why do you ask it in a way that you’re apparently accusing me of being [racist]?”
She went on to say it was “disgusting and absurd” for anyone to suggest that the White House or its staff supported slavery.
But criticism of Sanders isn’t only limited to her composure at the briefings. Some in the media have scrutinized her in more personal terms.
“[S]he’s serving a function other than communication, which turns out not to be her forte,” liberal New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote on Nov. 3. “To listen to her pronounce “priorities” is akin to hearing the air seep out of a flat tire, and she leaves half of the consonants on the curb.”
Sanders did not return a request for comment Wednesday from the Examiner, but White House Communications Director Hope Hicks said Sanders is a "wonderful role model and representative" for the U.S.
"I saw this first hand on our recent trip to Asia where Sarah was sought out by so many people in every country we visited," Hicks said. "Countless strangers praised her strength and grace under pressure. I have seen first hand how everywhere we go Sarah seeks out our bravest men and women to thank them for their service and sacrifice, and yet she is always amazed when they say the same back to her. Those are the kind of personal comments that truly matter."
And it’s apparently possible for some in the media to go too far.
David Horsey, a columnist and cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times was forced to apologize after a column he wrote on Nov. 1 that said Sanders resembled a “slightly chunky soccer mom” and that she "does not look like the kind of woman Donald Trump would choose as his chief spokesperson.”
Those descriptions were later removed from his piece after they received widespread criticism, even from other reporters, who found the column sexist and gratuitously mean.
Despite the complaints from some, other reporters who deal with Sanders for their stories say she is generally helpful and responsive to their questions. One reporter described their relationship with Sanders as “professional.”
Another longtime Washington-based politics reporter said they prefer Sanders over her predecessor.
“For me, she's more responsive than Sean Spicer ever was,” the reporter said. “I think she tries to be helpful, but with this White House you always have to be concerned with how much she even knows. And I usually find you have to go deeper into the administration and on background to uncover the real story.”
Another reporter, who also attends the briefings, said Sanders does her job well "in so far as she’s only speaking when it makes a difference on the issues when they matter to the president."
The reporter added, "A lot of [the criticism] is just that she doesn’t feed our egos."