National Press Club

Reporting on the turbulent Trump administration

April 19, 2017 | By Tierney Plumb | tierney.plumb@gmail.com

Journalists are facing a gamut of unprecedented challenges during President Donald Trump's administration: denied access, outright falsehoods, and lack of available information, to name a few.

On Wednesday, the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the Club’s professional training affiliate, joined forces with another non-profit dedicated to journalism education, the National Press Foundation, to host a half-day symposium on covering politics in the era of "fake news".

“The best defense against the charge of fake news is to make every effort to make sure your news isn’t fake,” said Chris Isham, CBS bureau chief. “Resist the temptation to take the bait. Our job is to cover the news, not become the news.”

Two panels consisting of beat reporters, editors and industry leaders—across radio, print, TV and radio—weighed in.

Denied Access to the Top

Caitlin Emma, Politico Pro education reporter, said a “common complaint” among reporters across her beat is that “a lot of questions” that would have been easily addressed under the Obama administration “are going unanswered”.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has tight security and has yet to agree to do an interview with a national policy education reporter like herself, she noted.

According to Travis Tritten, Washington Examiner and Military Reporters and Editors association VP, “access hasn’t been great” in reaching Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose first Pentagon press conference was last week.

“The good news is we haven’t seen any hard evidence of this ‘war on the press’ moving over the Pentagon. Defense is Trump’s chosen enterprise. He’s giving military a longer leash to operate and do its own thing,” Tritten said.

Lies

Margaret Talev, who covers the White House for Bloomberg Politics, said she opts to shy away from the word “lie” in her news coverage.

“If you stay away from loaded words, the story tells itself,” she said. “The easiest thing in the world you can do is say the president said this, but in fact, the statistics say the opposite.”

She’s noticed that fact checking is required at a higher level of intensity than in past administrations.

“In a two-minute interaction with the president you can walk away with a pile to sift through,” she said, referring to Trump's short speeches packing in all kinds of information that needs checking, from Chicago murder rates to job figures.

Coral Davenport, who covers energy and environment policy for the New York Times, said she needs to debunk scientifically inaccurate claims quickly, and she’s called upon colleagues at her outlet to shoot over the latest infographics to help communicate the truth. “I need to always be on my toes. It’s a healthy workout,” she said.

For George Condon, White House Correspondent for the National Journal, this is the ninth presidential administration he’s covered, and he said lying seems almost “second nature” this time around. “They lie about the silliest things,” he said, giving the example of the administration saying the president is at a golf course for “important meetings” and “not to golf.”

“Hello, everyone has cell phone cameras—there he is, golfing,” he said.

Sources

In the age of surveillance and “cyber-insecurity,” said Davenport, “we are just really, really careful what we put digitally in any email.”

Her nervous sources at the Environmental Protection Agency are preferring phone calls as the means of communication, she said.

According to Matt Lee, AP correspondent and president of the State Department Correspondent Association, a “good rule of thumb” is to forget about using encrypted apps like WhatsApp to reach sources and go back to the basics, of meeting people in person. “Preferably off campus and as far away as you can get is the safest way,” he said.

Others including editors and bureau chiefs offered insight on the state of political coverage in times like these. Here are some snippets:

Terry Murphy, C-SPAN: “Our programs involve calls, and we find if we let the public come in and ask questions, they challenge. They know when people are saying things false or misleading. We let our viewers make decisions and challenge guests on the talk show.”

David Lauter, LA Times bureau chief said that as a print journalist, he has the advantage of more time to produce content than a network journalist, but these days “that amount of extra time is smaller than what it used to be. We are doing a lot more real-time posting.”

Rachel Smolkin, CNN digital executive editor of politics: “Our job is to ask tough questions of anyone in power, Democrat or Republican.” Also, “it can become easy in an environment where we are constantly labeled as fake news to become numb. But our job is to continue to listen.” When the administration is complaining about coverage, her job is to hear them out, she said, adding if “we think they have a point, we need to think about how we can reflect that moving forward.”

Mark Memmott, NPR standards editor: “We need to double down on accuracy, fairness, honesty, respect—all the core principles in everyone’s ethics handbook. Continuing to do our jobs is our best defense. If we continue to do that eventually we will win back some trust.”

Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico: Being accused of fake news means the “onus is on us to make sure we are even more careful than we have ever been because the spotlight is on us.”

That means putting tougher requirements on anonymous sourcing and remembering the rules of journalism 101 still always apply, she said. She wants to keep Politico a non-partisan newsroom, and as a result, she “loathes” when reporters voice their opinions in 140 characters or less via Twitter. “I don’t care what you think. I care what your reporting shows.”