Panelists discuss White House media relations

By Maddie Biertempfel, Penn State University

Five panelists with experience covering the White House discussed the positives and negatives of covering President Donald J. Trump’s administration compared with past administrations to about 50 people at the ASNE/APME/APPM conference.

Moderated by Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, the panelists began by discussing how journalists should address accusations of “fake news,” and being referred to as an “enemy of the people.”

Major Garrett, chief White House correspondent for CBS, said journalists shouldn’t be emotionally invested in being labeled enemies of the people but should stay committed to the values underpinning their work.

“We have a professional and constitutional set of responsibilities and privileges,” he said. “Our job is to devote ourselves to those privileges and those responsibilities and nothing else.”

Jeff Ballou, news editor for the Al Jazeera Media Network and president of the National Press Club, echoed a similar sentiment, adding that name calling has provided the opportunity to remind the public of the vital role journalists play.

“We’ve played civics teacher… for almost the past 10 months now to remind everybody, ‘No, we’re not an enemy, we’re in the First Amendment,’” Ballou said.

Although the panelists stressed the important role of journalists in a time of eroding trust in the news media, several said there have been positive changes in the new administration, notably an increase in access to cabinet secretaries.

“I’ll take access to a cabinet secretary over a press secretary every day of the week and twice on Sunday,” Garrett said.

Garrett, who has covered six presidential campaigns and five White Houses, said Trump is also more comfortable with “the daily interaction of beat reporters” during chance encounters.

From a photojournalist’s perspective, the “access to him visually is actually better than it’s been for previous administrations,” said J. David Ake, deputy chief of bureau for visual journalism at the Associated Press in Washington.

“They do several photo ops a day usually. They add them at the last minute if the president is rested or something comes up,” Ake said.

But some of the challenges with the new administration, including what Garrett called the divide between the president’s narrative and the underlying facts, have required journalists to adapt, for better or worse.

“I think there’s a lot more fatigue, a lot more short tempers, and a lot more people have been performing remarkably at least for the first 10 months, said Steve Herman, White House bureau chief for Voice of America.

Greg Korte, White House correspondent for USA Today, agreed that the challenges have improved the way journalists work.

“We are faster, we’re working harder, we’ve had to figure out new and better ways of doing things. I think the ultimate test is, is the public better served?”

A question-and-answer segment followed, during which the panelists fielded questions about the use of anonymous sources, Trump’s Twitter feeds and how to regain public trust from those who deem factual stories “fake news.”

Maddie Biertempfel is a sophomore at Penn State University.

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