What’s it like to cover the most untraditional presidential administration in modern times?
The panel “Beyond the Briefing Room: Tales From the White House Beat” saw reporters who cover President Donald Trump break down the nuances of covering his presidency. Hallie Jackson, chief White House correspondent, NBC News; Steven Portnoy, White House correspondent, CBS News; Cecilia Vega, senior White House correspondent, ABC News; and Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent, “PBS NewsHour,” comprised the panel.
“This is gonna be fun,” said moderator Gordon Smith, NAB president and CEO, as the session kicked off.
The correspondents talked about the 24/7 challenge of covering President Trump, a task Vega likened to drinking from a fire hose. Alcindor said she’d long resisted acquiring an Apple Watch but uses one to wake her up when the president tweets or makes news after hours.
The participants discussed the president’s frequent dismissal of the press corps as creators of fake news or even an enemy of the American people. Portnoy provided historical context, saying President Woodrow Wilson complained about “fake” news over a hundred years ago. Alcindor said some U.S. communities have been skeptical of media long before Trump began questioning it.
Journalists must meet a high standard to prove naysayers wrong, the correspondents said. “We cannot give them that, that argument — that we’ve screwed it up,” Vega said. She drew applause when she described the president’s enemy of the people phrase as “very dangerous language.”
Jackson said reporters must make sure that their tone as well as their words are appropriate. “So much of what people in the media say viewers take offense to is tone,” she said. “If you say it in a kind of nasty way, that does undermine your credibility.”
Sometimes reporters become the story, perhaps when the president lights into them after a tough question. Most on the stage had been through that and none relished it. “We have become the story unwillingly,” said Vega.
They stressed the importance of sticking with a line of questioning amidst such an attack. “If I get in the mud, I don’t think I’m going to get my question answered,” said Vega. They also spoke of following up another reporter’s question if that person has been shot down by the president.
The correspondents lamented a lack of daily briefings at the White House but described Press Secretary Sarah Sanders as accessible.
Gordon Smith brought up the Mueller report and asked what news might come next about that investigation. “We’ll all be diving into the report when it comes out,” said Portnoy. Vega referred to this as “a defining moment” of the Trump presidency, adding, “I think the jury is still out.”
While many in the public may hold media in low esteem, Smith noted that young people are clamoring to get into journalism. Vega picked up on that theme: “In my lifetime, there’s never been a better time to be a journalist,” she said, citing “Watergate-level” work from the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post. “I hope it is inspiring people to get into this business.”
Jackson offered advice for students in journalism school. “Do it, do it hard and do it well,” she advised.
When asked what might happen on Election Day 2020, none of the panelists would bust out a crystal ball. But Alcindor did offer a plug for local journalism. “I implore people to support their local news,” she said. “It’s so integral to understand what’s going on in the country.” That prompted hearty applause from the audience.