Covering the White House: From Eisenhower to Trump

Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication President Jennifer D. Greer (U of Alabama) moderated the keynote session tonight in Washington, D.C., with panelists John Cochran, former chief Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News and chief NBC White House correspondent; Christi Parsons, former White House correspondent and current Atlantic senior editor; and Kristen Welker, NBC News White House correspondent.

The White House reporters shared their experiences and insights regarding press-president relationships, particularly what has changed and what remains the same. Here are some highlights.

  • Cochran recounted an incident early in his career when he discovered the then-president had lied to the public about an issue he was covering. This subterfuge really bothered him, partially because he was “naïve,” but also because the lie was told in the interest of national security. This was an eye-opener for him, and an example of the practical and ideological difficulties journalists face when covering the White House.

  • It’s a myth that “the media” is full of liberals, or that the press goes easier on Democrat administrations. The relationship between the press and president can be tense, no matter who is in charge. The Obama Administration (2009-2017) so skillfully controlled its messages, it was difficult to get past official explanations. According to Cochran, the Carter Administration (1977-1981) was “horrible” in terms of transparency, despite promises early on to be otherwise.

  • A reporter is supposed to avoid anonymous sources, and when using them, explain to the public why that source was granted anonymity. However, when a correspondent is working with the same sources day in and day out – to the point of finding them predictable – and trusts what they say will come true, it's easy to become complacent. However, avoid this. Explain your reasoning to your audience; be as transparent as possible. According to Welker, there is "no room for error."

  • ... that being said, when you’re wrong, say you’re wrong right away and correct the mistake. (It’s a “when,” not an “if.” You WILL make mistakes.)

  • Stick to your fundamentals: Report. Ask solid questions. Give context. Be curious and dogged, Parsons said. Be “old school.”