Walking into the grounds of the White House, at least through the press entrance on the west side, feels like crossing into some kind of hostile territory.
Security is accusatory. There is no exchange between staffers going to and fro and members of the press who may pass by. Politesse, when called for, is minimal, if at all. Frankly, it’s surprisingly unwelcoming for a residence also known as “The People’s House,” something it hasn’t been called in a few years now. Coincidence? Nevertheless, it’s the core of renewed fascination in — or obsession with — the presidency and interest in the media that thrives off of President Trump and his executive antics.
Enter NBC’s team of White House correspondents who, with their network’s singular makeup of a 24-hour cable channel (MSNBC), network news shows (“Meet the Press,” “Nightly News,” “The Today Show”) and online presence, make up some of the most omnipresent political reporters in the country. Together the network shows and MSNBC reach around 13 million viewers a day and the main web site gets about 32 million unique views a month.
“It’s never been more important [to cover the White House] and it’s never been more challenging, arguably,” said Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News. “If nothing else, simply the pace of news being made is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
So the network staffed up post-election. There’s the core White House team of 10, split evenly between correspondents and producers and then another 40-plus reporters covering all aspects of the administration. “We’ve got more journalists on the ground than at any other time in our history,” Oppenheim said.
All of whom are dealing to some degree with a White House that is openly adversarial and antagonistic of the press.
“This obviously feels like the dynamic between the White House press corps and this administration is unique, certainly different than what the dynamic was during the Obama administration and the Bush administration,” Oppenheim added. “My colleagues who have greater historical perspective will tell you that there’s always been a somewhat adversarial relationship between the press corps and the White House and it has heated up or cooled down in a cyclical fashion, depending on the circumstances.”
Today’s circumstances, with a president who’s dubbed most political reporters the “enemy of the people” and is now demanding a government boycott of the White House Correspondents dinner on Saturday seem to undeniably lean toward the “hot” curve of this purported cycle. One need not go beyond the White House briefing room — a lot smaller than it looks on TV, by the way — to see the current stalemate. A couple of camera guys, sound engineers and a reporter or two slumped in their seats, staring at their phones, all lights off, waiting for a briefing that will never come. It’s been a record 45 days without any kind of briefing.
In spite of all this, the gang of correspondents and producers, even those sitting in the 6-by-11-foot NBC booth at the White House, comes off as a rather merry band. They smile and joke, there’s an ease. They don’t have the surly or drawn countenance of some staffers spotted outside the West Wing. Maybe because the President was inside that early afternoon, maybe taking his meeting with Jack Dorsey, founder and chief executive officer of Twitter, which made headlines the next day for the President complaining of a declining follower count.
Sitting on a walkway outside the White House along the line of semipermanent network camera operations known as “Pebble Beach” for the gravel that used to be there, NBC White House correspondents Kristen Welker, Peter Alexander and Hallie Jackson all agreed that covering this particular beat at this particular time was no more or less than an honor.
“I feel very lucky that we have a front row seat to history like this, literally, it’s amazing,” Jackson said.
Kelly O’Donnell, speaking from Atlanta where she was on assignment, said even with all of the scrutiny of the media right now, led by Trump’s criticisms, “I’m grateful every day.”
“I’m the granddaughter of immigrants and I get to walk into the White House everyday — it’s a tremendous privilege,” added O’Donnell, who’s celebrating 25 years with NBC this week.
“We all recognize that, for whatever else we accomplish in the course of our professional lives, our experiences will be defined by what we’re doing right now,” Alexander noted.
Chuck Todd, who covered the beat for six years before becoming host of “Meet the Press,” said he’d “never have been prepared to do the job I do today” without that experience. He noted there’s “no more grueling beat and no more historically important,” which makes it “intoxicating for a journalist.”
Singular, privileged experience though it may be covering this White House, its unprecedented nature, in so many ways, has posed some challenges.
Stacey Klein, NBC’s senior White House producer, said the team has grown to 10 from four in response to the style of the Trump presidency.
“I covered a foreign trip when President Obama went to Jamaica and it was just me and a tiny little camera, no correspondent,” Klein recalled. “Now we send up to four correspondents [on every trip], four to five producers, a person from digital, six crew and our managing politics editor has come on the last three trips. It’s insane.”
Part of this expansion is the fact that Trump or something from the administration tends to lead all of NBC’s news shows and the team is doing “hits” or appearances every hour on MSNBC, along with feeding NBCnews.com. “Every single hour of our day, there’s always a desire and need for content,” Klein added. “That’s a dramatic shift from covering White Houses past.”
In the words of Ken Strickland, who’s been with NBC since 1995 and is now its Washington bureau chief: “One year of President Trump’s administration equals three or four years covering Clinton or Bush.”
Alexander used the word “relentless.” Welker, Jackson and fellow correspondent Geoff Bennett, the most recent addition to the very diverse team — one that’s mostly women and represents many people of color — all individually compared it to some version of “drinking out of a firehose,” especially in the beginning of the Trump presidency.
“The enterprise of journalism, we’re trying to figure out in real time how to adapt to the administration — the firehose of news, but also holding him to account,” Bennett said. “He’s figured out how to use shamelessness as a political tool.”
“Our days for that first at least six months would start at 6 a.m. and we would be going nonstop until 11 o’clock at night, at least,” Welker recalled. “What’s allowed us to break out of that intensive rhythm — well, it’s still incredibly intense — but we have this robust team and frankly, we function like a well-oiled machine at this point.”
“Who used that phrase?” Alexander chimed in, ironically snapping his fingers to remember, before whispering: “Oh yeah, the President.
“As the President once told a source of mine who was up in the West Wing, he held up a copy of The New York Times and said: ‘Can you believe this? I used to never get into the Times and now I’m in that story and that story and that story…’” Alexander went on. “He is all-consuming in terms of his appetite for media and in terms of the way he inserts himself into everything.”
About that appetite. This is something else that has taken getting used to for the team. For all of Trump’s negative tweets about media coverage and non-Fox reporters and pundits, attempts by him and his administration to take down this or that report, he talks to the media a lot. But rarely is it scheduled or expected.
“You have to be essentially ready to interview the President every day that you walk in, at any moment,” Welker said.
She gave the recent Easter Egg Roll at the White House as an example, saying Trump came close enough to the reporters for them to shout some questions, which he answered. Jackson recalled Trump, in the Oval Office for a photo op with the Chinese Delegation on Trade, suddenly deciding to take questions “on everything” for at least 40 minutes. The correspondents share a running list of questions for the President, an attempt to be prepared in such an unstructured environment, with a President who seems to enjoy rattling a cage when possible.
Alexander remembered covering Trump during an official vacation in Bedminster, N.J., and he suddenly opened up to questions. “We asked him a couple related to the news of the day and then he kept taking questions and kept taking questions,” Alexander said. “After like 15 minutes, he literally said, ‘Peter? Peter anything else? Peter?’ And I started looking down at my phone thinking, ‘Please, God somebody have a question; what am I missing?’ And all of a sudden, ding, ding, Hallie, Kristen, Kelly with, ‘How about this and this.’ And he answered all of them — that’s remarkable in terms of access.”
O’Donnell, who has covered the administrations of Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and, to a lesser degree, Clinton, said having to be on such a “heightened state of awareness ’round the clock” is different than any other White House, as is the President himself doing so much of the talking with the media. Previous administrations delegated much more to top officials.
“If you look at his career in business and then in politics, he has long been his own communications director and he enjoys engaging with the press, despite his rhetorical war with the press,” O’Donnell said. “He doesn’t take questions he doesn’t want to answer, but he’s willing to engage, to spar and he believes he can affect the news in terms of creating events and he has done that.”
So what of the criticisms that the media is too easily distracted by some moments or issues that are apparently manufactured by the President to take attention away from this or that? Or the idea that the media writ large benefits hugely from dragging out coverage of some issues — daily presidential tweets, the Mueller investigation — at the expense of others — climate change policy, Trump’s empty promises to the middle class and poor?
“He is a newsmaker by definition and we have to cover what he says and what his policies are, what his actions are,” O’Donnell said. “It’s never our role to ridicule or lecture the President.”
“Look, with the Mueller Report specifically, a special counsel was appointed to investigate whether a sitting president of the U.S. collaborated with a foreign power to disrupt our election,” Oppenheim said. “I can’t imagine a bigger, more high-stakes question and I think that warranted the level of coverage that we gave it.”
It paid off on the business side. NBC News was first across all of TV in the core age demographic of 25 to 54 last Thursday, when the redacted version of the Mueller Report was released. Beyond the report coverage, “Meet the Press” has been number one in the same age demo for 63 straight weeks in the Nielsen category of Sunday Affairs programming and number one in overall viewers for that day the last 10 weeks. “Today” hit number one this week, too, with average daily viewers hitting just over 4 million. MSNBC had its best year ever in 2018, beating three previous consecutive years of growth coinciding with a new strategy to focus on breaking news throughout the day, bringing in an average of 1.2 million viewers a day for the first quarter of 2019.
But there is a chicken and egg question here in wondering whether the media is covering genuine news moments and feeding a public appetite or creating both, for its own benefit. Everyone agreed that there is heightened interest in what Trump and his administration are doing, but Bennett admitted to thinking there were indeed two sides of the onslaught.
“We have an administration that’s making news on myriad fronts — there was at one point three Russia investigations, then you have the cult of personality of Trump and the fact that he was the first person to get elected with no relevant experience,” Bennett said. “When you have all of that, it’s almost like a tinderbox that’s created all of this attention.”
Klein, the senior producer, has no doubt that there is an increase in events and moments and issues coming out of the White House that need to be covered, so much that it’s putting real demands on a network of NBC’s size.
“There have been moments where I’ve thought ‘Do we really need to cover that?’ and then I think ‘Yes’ because this president is so unique for so many different reasons, regardless of your politics, there is always news,” she said. “I’ve never felt that we were looking for stories or overdoing it or making something out of nothing.”
Something that likely has been created is an entirely new way of being president and covering one as a reporter. Welker tried to put a positive view of the changes ushered in by Trump, wondering hopefully if a future president, whether one comes in 2021 or 2025, will say “‘Hey, there’s actually value in answering questions from the press when I’m about to get on Marine One,’ or think about being more engaged in their own messaging.” Almost nonexistent briefings is something she hopes doesn’t stick.
But Jackson and Alexander, talking in a broader sense of whether Trump has fundamentally changed the presidency in any way, don’t see old presidential norms coming back, for better or worse.
“There’s no more old normal,” Jackson said. “I just don’t see it. This administration has fundamentally changed a lot of things.”
“There’s no going back,” Alexander agreed. “We don’t know what it’ll look like going forward, but it’s all going to be framed through the lens of what this experience was. There’s going to be a pre-Trump and a post-Trump way that we conduct our jobs.”
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