Life As A White House Correspondent, In Trump Times


What’s it like to cover the Trump administration from the White House for a network TV correspondent?

Three women and one man shared all of the details in a 2019 NAB Show Main Stage Q&A session with association President/CEO Gordon Smith on Tuesday morning in Las Vegas.

Make no mistake: This was not an attack on the President, or a critique of his time in office by a group of individuals that Mr. Trump has mocked — and continues to do — when the cameras are on or his constituents are within earshot.

Rather, the four White House Correspondents who chatted with Smith shared what it is like to cover Trump and the presidency since he succeeded President Obama in January 2017.

Two years in, how they manage it was the first question from Smith. CBS News White House Correspondent Steven Portnoy was the first to respond, noting that he flew to Las Vegas on Air Force One ahead of the NAB Show as Trump delivered an address to a Republican Jewish organization supported by Las Vegas Review-Journal owner Sheldon Adelstein.

As he drank a $6 aloe water at a Las Vegas resort hotel on Sunday at 2pm, Portnoy learned of President Trump’s “firing” of Kirstjen Nielsen, who formally resigned as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Trump confirmed of her departure via Twitter.

The use of Twitter by the President was a major focus of the conversation, as Cecilia Vega of ABC News noted that the bar “is set so high” in an environment where an opportunity to call her and colleagues’ work “fake news” is more heightened than ever.

Vega, the network’s Senior White House Correspondent, received applause from NAB attendees when noting how threats to her and her colleagues’ work are threats to Democracy.

This came after Portnoy noted that there was no such thing as independent free journalists when the Declaration of Independence was written — hence the First Amendment, and how journalists are privileged to stay objective as “passionate observers” and hold people accountable for their actions. “As long as we keep doing that, we’ll be fine.”

In a Twitter-fueled news world, keeping up with the White House is tougher than ever. Portnoy said, “He can make news as late as 11 at night, and he can make news as early as 6 in the morning. It really is a 24/7 endeavor to cover the White House.”

At NBC News, where Chief White House Correspondent Hallie Jackson is aware that “snark sells” and hitting the right tone is essential for keeping one’s credibility, “people know what’s in store” from the President. “You will be working Friday night and Saturday morning and Saturday night and any time in between,” she says. That’s why NBC News staffed up, to handle the flow.

While working the White House still requires much patience as a journalist, things have slowed down in Vega’s view from the “crying days” — the very beginning of the Trump administration, when 20-hour-plus days were regular. Vega said, “The nonstop treadmill running has slowed down, but pace is just still insane.”

Yamiche Alcindor, White House Correspondent for the PBS News Hour, was asked by Smith if Twitter shapes her day. “I would need to be physically buzzed awake,” she admits.

Still, Alcindor says covering the White House comes with a sense of privilege, even in a time of political upheaval when the president’s tone and how he can address the press remains a topic of concern for many. “There’s a sense that there’s a hurricane,” says Alcindor, who at USA TODAY actually covered hurricanes and other severe weather events. Yet, she adds, “At the core there is still this idea that we are covering this historic president that is worth our time and worth our energies.”

But, it is governing via Twitter that has almost eliminated the need for a White House Press Secretary or Director of Communications.

For Jackson, covering the White House for the first time, “the defacto guy doing the job is sitting in Oval Office and that’s how it’s just going to be.”

Interestingly, “fake news” goes back more than 100 years, Portnoy pointed out. In the beginning years of Woodrow Wilson’s time in office, claims of false reporting were lodged against the press by the White House.

Fast-forward to today. In the California High Desert over the weekend, President Trump referred to the White House press corps as “the fakers,” pointing them out while addressing supporters.

Does President Trump care more about being in the news? “He wants to be the focus of attention but he wants positive press,” Portnoy said. “I don’t personally believe that one person is entitled to positive coverage in the free press.”

RBR+TVBR’s coverage of NAB 2019 includes reports from Adam R Jacobson in Miami and Ed Ryan and Deborah Parenti in Las Vegas.