Ksenija Pavlovic: The White House Press Corps’ Rebel With a Cause

LONDON AND WASHINGTON VIA EMAIL—On Wednesday July 19 when then White House assistant press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the White House press briefing was going to be yet again off camera, many of the press corps rolled their eyes and sighed. This had been going on since June 29 when Sean Spicer—remember him?—ordered that journalists could not film the session or broadcast the audio live. Though there was much rancour over the decision no one had dared break the ban until that Wednesday. That’s when Ksenija Pavlovic, the founder of news site Pavlovic Today and a former political science teaching fellow at Yale, used an app to stream the briefing live.

The Washington Post wrote that, “her act of rebellion marks a significant development in White House-media relations” and that reporters “have complied with the White House’s rules, despite carrying devices that can stream video or audio with a few taps of the thumb.” Though she did not get much attention at first for her streaming of the briefing (according to the same article less than four dozen listeners paid attention when it was live streaming), soon Ms. Pavlovic was receiving kudos from her fellow journalists and people keen for press freedom.

She later said that she was inspired to break the rules because having grown up in Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic, she had seen older seasoned journalist colleagues lose their lives fighting for the freedom of the press. “Given my experiences, I know the value of free speech,” she said at the time. “Freedom, as enshrined in the First Amendment, should never be taken for granted. America should be a beacon for the whole world.”

Ms. Pavlovic, who holds an MA from the London School of Economics and is on the editorial board of the Novak Djokovic Foundation, answered emailed questions from about why she finally decided to break the White House ban and what compelled her to set up Pavlovic Today. EXCERPTS:

BROWNELL: Why and when did you set up Pavlovic Today?
PAVLOVIC: I ventured into Pavlovic Today in the midst of the U.S. election, upon realizing that the forum on domestic and global politics run by people who are actually experts in their fields was missing. I also wanted to give a voice to young people and to my students. Youth are a very important part of the future of this country [and they] have strong opinions and fresh ideas about the political leadership and the role the U.S. should play in the world. These young people deeply care about issues, they are full of ideals and I wanted to give them an equal role in public discourse. If the politicians knew how to connect with them genuinely, instead of treating them as consumers of news and ideas, we would have better policies. We cover the White House on a daily basis and provide perspective on the topics that need a second look, or are underreported.

How did you go about getting accreditation—you are not a massive or well-known publication.
I wanted to be at the source, rather than consume already filtered information. I also realized that there was no indie media in the press corps. Corporate media dominates the U.S. media landscape and while in Hollywood you have the independent film [scene] that is equally important as the big productions, that trend is missing in journalism. While I had arrived at the end of Obama’s term, the difference was immediately evident. Under Obama, everything was polished and structured, there were no surprises in terms of what you have to cover. Trump, on the other hand, thrives in chaos and likes to keep the press corps on their toes. I think that it is good that the press corps is growing and that more outlets have gained access to the briefing room.

What is the atmosphere like in the room–does it feel convivial or more confrontational?
We are there every single day, and never know what the day will look like. In terms of the briefing schedule, it is not unusual that it has been pushed on short notice, so there is a great sense of uncertainty. It is not easy to cover this president, as they have developed a series of evasive answers: “I will get back to you” or “I have not had a chance to talk to the President about that yet”, and so on. That is why I think everyone is turning more and more to anonymous sources. This whole practice of working with anonymous sources can get messy and I can see a number of ways how it can backfire, so we [as a publication] only work with what is available in the public domain. The President himself differentiates between the press based on a popularity contest. He has his list of favorite reporters and is not shy from making that list known. It is not surprising since the people running his communications team, like Hope Hicks, come from  PR [background]. President Trump thinks that we are here to write positive stories, which is pure PR and completely opposite of the purpose of journalism.

There was a lot of controversy a few weeks back right before Thanksgiving when Sarah Huckabee Sanders requested that before asking a question, reporters had to say what they were thankful for. As a journalist, that really wound me up.
That [rule] was awkward. I wanted to ask a question in that briefing—if the President will consider talking to any other media outlet that is not FOX –but I was put off when I heard that we have to first list what we are grateful for [before asking a question]. I am not sure why the other reporters played along, especially some making the statement that they were grateful that she called on them. Zeke Miller from Time broke the chain and went on to directly pose a question. I respect him for that.

She has come under a lot of fire for being an unwavering mouthpiece for the administration and even questions the validity of sexual harassment claims made again President Trump and Roy Moore, the newly defeated Senate candidate from Alabama. Is that incredible to watch?
Her role is to be the spokesperson for the President, and that is why I do not expect from her to have any opinions that deviate from the official stand of this administration. Clearly, she is comfortable with her job and the statements she is making. That’s her choice.

You said partly what motivated you to live stream the briefing last summer was having witnessed first-hand life under a dictatorship.
The things I have survived in my life, protests, and clashes with the police cordons against Milosevic, living three months in shelters without food, electricity and running water, made me the person I am today. I do not break under pressure and I do not accept any kind of censorship. There’s zero chance that I will cave in, join the flock. I stand for press freedoms, that’s what I have been doing since the first protest against Milosevic’s suppression of free media I went to back in the [1990s]. That was dangerous and I lived in a system where the lives of people were on the line. That’s why I don’t break under pressure, and that’s why you will always find me on the front lines of defense of the First Amendment.

Isn’t it rather ironic that Melania Trump, who is also from former Yugoslavia, grew up during those times of nationalistic rhetoric that created ethnic and religious divisions that eventually split that country apart in a very violent way. If you could interview Melania is this something you would ask her?
Melania escaped former Yugoslavia in search of the better life. But the First Lady is by her choice silent and not at all political. I actually think due to the shared experience of living in former Yugoslavia, I could interview Melania in a way that could tell the real story about her. I think that she has the story to tell, the immigrant story, but that because of her husband’s hard stand on immigration she is not able to reveal her true self. I think that Melania has experienced a fair share of hardship [and] no one who emigrated to America had it easy.

Ana Brnabic, an openly gay woman, is currently Serbia’s prime minister. While some people hailed this as a progressive step for the country, others claimed she is just a puppet for hard-line President Aleksandar Vucic. Is she a positive role model not only for Serbian women but also for gay women across the globe?
On paper, Ana Brnabic is a positive role model, given that she is the first female PM in Serbia. However, I do not think that she is using her platform. She gives no voice to women [and] she gives no voice to important issues. She does not make any noise. Throughout history, Serbian presidents never wanted to have a strong PM, but rather someone who they can easily manage. I think that she is placed there for the purpose of the optics. There is nothing extraordinary about her. She is not a leader, but then, she was not placed in such role to be one.

Ginanne Brownell Mitic

Photos: 1) Ksenija Pavlovic (courtesy Ksenija Pavlovic); 2) Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Shutterstock; 3) Melania Trump, Shutterstock


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