Four national TV and radio correspondents who cover Donald Trump’s White House sized up the many challenges of doing so during a lively panel at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. One of the biggest is the fact that he lately has preferred interacting with TV reporters under the whirring blades of Marine One rather than a controlled setting of an official indoor briefing.
While the topics have been covered in some fashion elsewhere, the conversation benefited from its moderator being former Gordon Smith, formerly a moderate Republican senator from Oregon and now CEO of the NAB. Smith, who said he has only shaken Trump’s hand once and still marvels at the rightward political turn of his home state, spoke with Cecilia Vega of ABC; Yamiche Alcindor of PBS, Steven Portnoy of CBS and Hallie Jackson of NBC.
All four correspondents decried Trump’s intensifying efforts to label the press as not just “fake news” but “the enemy of the people.” They also lodged familiar complaints about the infrequency of official press briefings. Portnoy noted that there have been just four in the past six months.
At the same time, Portnoy said one research study of the president’s first 18 months in office found him to be more accessible than Barack Obama or George W. Bush had been at the same point in their first terms. The nature of that access is the crux of the matter, however. “You still have the opportunity to ask the president questions,” Portnoy said. “What we don’t have is the regular opportunity to interact with the press secretary in a controlled way that allows the American people to understand what’s happening. What we have now is this frenzied, freewheeling, seemingly chaotic exchange where we’re the ones who are forced to shout over the roar of the helicopter on the South Lawn. And the president might take our question.”
Vega agreed. “These shouting matches are not the most substantive exchanges,” she said. Having covered Hillary Clinton’s campaign, though, she noted how much more accessible the Trump campaign was in 2015 and 2016 than was Clinton’s.
Jackson “pulled back the curtain,” in her words, on the logistics of covering Trump. Outside the West Wing, where each broadcast media outlet has tents set up for live shots, Trump communications staffers tend to go to Fox News but skip the other outlets, leaving some three dozen other reporters and crews to create a “funnel” formation in order to snag a couple of sound bites as the staffers walk the 50 feet from the tents to the White House. These “driveway stakeouts,” as she called them, are quite different from the briefings. “We have seats and a comfortable podium for you!”
The helicopter on the South Lawn is an increasingly crucial nexus of interactions, the foursome observed. During the Obama administration, Jackson said, “maybe one, if it was a nice day and they wanted to get some sun” would follow Obama to the chopper. “President Obama didn’t stop to talk. He would walk across the lawn, get in the chopper and go. Literally nothing would happen.”
Now, 60 reporters and crew members “have these stations, where we line up in rows” to shout questions at Trump, Jackson continued. “The rotors are going and you”re screaming at the top of your lungs, which is not a respectful way to talk to anybody, much less a president of the United States,” she said.
“It’s difficult to get a follow-up question in. … Because of the noise factor, there have been times when three of my colleagues have been shouting at him about a controversial topic, the most recent being the security clearance” that Trump reportedly secured for his son-in-law Jared Kushner, allegedly bypassing usual protocols. “I don’t know if the president heard it or not. But I thought it was audible and my colleagues thought it was audible and he went on to take questions from reporters at a similar level of audibleness.”
At a press conference, by contrast, “you cannot dodge the question. You’re forced to answer the question and be accountable.”