What’s it like to cover President Trump? White House correspondents tell all…

"Beyond the Briefing Room: Tales from the White House Beat" at NAB 2019 in Las Vegas. (Jason Rzucidlo/AmericaJR)

LAS VEGAS — Four White House correspondents from four different television networks addressed the 2019 NAB Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. They discussed covering President Trump and what makes him similar and/or different from other past presidents.

Some of the topics included: the unique challenges reporters face covering an unconventional White House, the evolution of what were once daily press briefings, pressures and strains related to a 24/7 news cycle, and how they deal with issues of credibility and journalistic integrity amid allegations of “fake news”.

The panel was made up of: Yamiche Alcindor, White House Correspondent for PBS News Hour; Hallie Jackson, Chief White House Correspondent for NBC News; Steven Portnoy, White House Correspondent for CBS News; and Cecilia Vega, Senior White House Correspondent for ABC News. It was moderated by Gordon H. Smith, President and CEO of the NAB.

President Trump uses Twitter to get his messages out to the media–and to the public. Some days, those Tweets are sent as late as 1 a.m. It can be difficult for White House correspondents because they might have to change their entire stories at the last minute.

Yamiche Alcindor: “Before I started covering the White House, I didn’t want to get an Apple Watch. Why do I physically want something on my body that’s technology? Then, I realized President Trump was waking people up with his tweets and that I needed to be buzzed awake at times to understand that the news was happening. I think this is an incredible time of upheaval. As much as we’re exhausted, there is a sense of privilege and that’s why I still do this. I feel privileged to walk into the White House and ask these questions to people who are in real positions of power. At it’s core, we are covering this historic president that is worth our time and our energy. The president is absolutely governing via Twitter.”

Cecilia Vega: “You would finish your script and write your story for the next morning’s show. And the [New York] Times or [Washington] Post would write something at 9 or 10 and you’re like, oh my god. Now, I’ve got to start from scratch all over again and you are chasing and calling sources late at night. You are writing these stories at midnight and you are up again at 4:30 or 5. Then, he tweets and everything else is out the window.”

Hallie Jackson: “In the beginning, after the transition, in the early days of 2017, boy there were nights that I went home and just cried. I was like, ‘I can’t do it.’ It was constant. We were run down, working 20 hours a day, 12 days in a row plus the travel and everything else. I think our bosses kind of realized, we’ve got to put more resources in place. This is the biggest story on the planet right now. We need to make sure folks on the ground are covering it.”

The Mueller Report was the federal government’s investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 Presidential Election. U.S. Attorney General William Barr released a four-page summary of that report to Congress on March 24. A week later, Congress voted to see the entire report. Barr just announced that a redacted version would be made available “within a week.”

Yamiche Alcindor: “I think it’s also important that as we wait to see what the Mueller Report actually says. I think there’s this idea that the Washington Post and the New York Times winning a Pulitzer Prize for their work on Russia is something that I think should be celebrated. I think there is so many times that we now read things a year or two later that we link back to a New York Times story from two years ago because some reporter figured out what the government is now just dribbling out for us to understand. There’s always going to be the need for self-reflection. I think there is a need to not beat ourselves up because we got this wrong because the president is not getting arrested. I think we really had a foreign government try to get at the Trump campaign and really try to influence the elections. I think we should continue to report on that. I think that’s something that is going to go into 2020 as we look at what foreign governments do and how they impact our elections going forward.”

President Trump has over and over again labeled journalists who disagree with his point of view as “fake news.” He has refused to take questions from certain reporters that he dislikes.

Steven Portnoy: “President Wilson in the 1913-14 era referred to some stories in the news as ‘fake’. The White House Correspondents Association was formed right around that time to sort of be a check on that. The idea that the correspondents should ban together and have their own self-governing rules. The White House decides who comes in and who can’t.”

President Trump has had more interactions with the press than President Obama or President George W. Bush. However, there have only been a handful of press briefings in the White House.

Portnoy: “Our friend Martha Kumar who runs the White House Transition Project actually keeps these statistics. She has found that, in the first 18 months of his presidency, Donald Trump was more prominent in his interactions with the press than his last two predecessors. Clinton has had significantly more interactions with the press in his first 18 months than Trump has. But it goes to the question about the briefings and why there hasn’t been any. In the last six months, I think there have only been four briefings. We’ve still had the opportunity to ask the president our questions. I asked the president two questions on Friday. He answered them indirectly. What we don’t have is the regular opportunity in a controlled setting to interact with the press secretary in a way that helps the public understand what’s happening. What we have now is this frenzy, free-wheeling chaotic exchange where we’re the ones who are forced to shout over the roar of the helicopter on the south lawn. The president might take our question or he might not. But it’s not in a controlled atmosphere where the public hears the question and also the answer.”

Vega: “It’s one thing to say that he’s more available than his predecessors. But these shouting matches often don’t lead to the most substantive news exchanges. I will say that people are often surprised when I say this. I covered the Clinton campaign and then I came into the Trump White House. The Trump team behind-the-scenes is significantly more accessible than Clinton’s ever was. Sarah [Sanders] is one of many people who’s available in the White House. She will make herself available by phone, by text or by e-mail. I think the problem a lot of us have is getting to the truth. You can talk to 10 different people on any given day in any moment in time and there are 10 different versions of what happened in a meeting. We wish there were briefings. There should be daily briefings. The American public should see the journalists who cover their president and being able to question them on a daily basis. That needs to come back.”

However, at the end of the day, these White House Correspondents agree that they love their jobs and they wouldn’t do anything else.

Cecilia Vega: “It’s an amazing opportunity that we have to question the president. I think we had to learn as an institution how to cover Donald Trump. He came out of nowhere in terms of personality and everything that he did was so different. I think, speaking broadly, we jumped every time he tweeted. Now, I think there is a little bit more breathing room. There’s some pause. What’s the intention behind this tweet? Should we cover immigration today or North Korea because he tweeted about it or an insult to Stormy Daniels? I think that we learned that it’s OK to pause when it comes to some of these tweets.”

Yamiche Alcindor: “The thing that I really appreciate is that people see you and can be inspired by your presence. There a level of representation that I never thought of. Local news is so important to understanding what’s going on in the country.”

Steven Portnoy: “We’re very fortunate to be on the cusp of the 100th anniversary of broadcasting. I won’t be the last CBS News correspondent. I just hope that young people adhere to the standards of objectivity. I’m encouraged and enthusiastic about the future. Not to invest too much attention to polls.”

Hallie Jackson: “We’re two years into this administration and people know what’s in store. That it is going to be a 24/7 news cycle and we’ll be working Friday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday mornings and everything in between. I think that all organizations, I can speak for mine, have staffed up in order to support that.”

NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith wrapped up the discussion by saying, “We hope your companies are helping to defend you in security. Local news is the place where people have the highest levels of trust.”

For more information about the NAB Show, visit https://www.nabshow.com/

Video by Jason Rzucidlo / AmericaJR.com

Yamiche Alcindor, White House Correspondent for PBS News Hour
Hallie Jackson, Chief White House Correspondent for NBC News
Steven Portnoy, White House Correspondent for CBS News
Cecilia Vega, Senior White House Correspondent for ABC News
“Beyond the Briefing Room: Tales from the White House Beat” at NAB 2019 in Las Vegas. (Jason Rzucidlo/AmericaJR)

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