One of the most prominent things 2017 will be remembered for is the increasingly blurred line between reliable news and “fake” news.
Luckily, the three representatives from the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) who headlined the June 30, 2017 installment of the Alan K. Simpson-Norman Y. Mineta Leaders Series (SMLS) were dedicated purveyors of the former. The SMLS panel at TWC’s Residential and Academic Facility featured current WHCA President Jeff Mason of Reuters, incoming WHCA President Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News and WHCA President Emeritus Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal. Valuable light was shed on some of the most pressing issues surrounding the state of the press and the First Amendment in 2017, thanks to moderation by Steve Scully of C-SPAN and questions from curious students.
Mason began the discussion with a brief overview of the role of the White House Correspondents Association—namely, to serve as the representatives of the White House Press Corps in any squabbles or turf wars with the incumbent administration (represented in its dealings by the White House press secretary). And squabbles there have been. Though the three panelists did not shy away from criticizing President Obama’s “lecturing way” toward the press, as Lee put it, the more active opposition that the WHCA has had to voice against the press policy of the Trump administration (whether it be a shrunken travelling press pool or a penchant for off-camera briefings) was “not in our comfort zone,” Mason stated. Talev hastened to add that this is “a much more tense situation than with presidents of the last three-and-a-half decades.”
Exhaustive though the twenty-four hour news cycle may be for the average viewer, a similar feeling is not lost on reporters; constant tiredness was a recurring theme among all three individuals. Lee referenced her truncated sleeping schedule, and Talev went a step further and stated that she only gets 4.5 to 5 hours of sleep per night, often finding herself awakened by President Trump’s early morning tweets. Mason, meanwhile, mentioned that Reuters has begun staffing its offices before dawn in order to anticipate Trump’s activity.
Given how often presidential tweets target the journalistic profession, the three guests were unsurprisingly opinionated in their views on the matter. Mason acknowledged that Trump’s Twitter usage makes him “not the first president to find a way to bypass the press corps,” noting FDR’s and JFK’s harnessing of the radio and television airwaves, respectively. Talev, in turn, lamented the fact that Trump doesn’t always “understand the utility of the press corps.” While it can be turned into an effective piñata, that also denies a president the opportunity to “project his message” using the press as an ally rather than an foe.
Referencing the recent news highlighted by administration officials that CNN fired three of its reporters after having to retract an inaccurate story, Lee added that, through this very action, CNN was holding itself to a higher standard than “fake news” of the alt-right variety. “He calls us ‘fake news.’ But fake news doesn’t correct itself.” When asked if the president’s decision to treat the press as his rival has endangered the notion of a free press, Lee demurred, saying it “has breathed new life into the press” with both increased subscriptions and clicks.
The focus of the conversation then shifted to the oft-leveled critique that the press spends too much time treating the political process like a game. Talev likened the role of a White House correspondent to that of “an air-traffic controller: the confluence of politics and policy,” with each reporter having both generalized political and specific policy knowledge. To that end, Mason brought up that each viewer possesses the ability to locate more policy-driven sections of the news. As he told his own mother after she complained, “My morning show is too fluffy.” “Well, you can always change the channel!”
Turning to their personal backstories at the end of the conversation, all three reporters delighted in giving sage words of advice to any aspiring journalists in the crowd. Talev’s litany of local jobs held before she landed her first big role spoke to her willingness of taking on the smaller jobs. Mason recommended keeping one’s dream job firmly in mind, citing his own determination in asking for position after position, even if it seemed forbiddingly out of reach. Finally, Lee, after listing the many internships she fielded while still in school, offered a succinct morale-booster: “Never take no for an answer, because there’s a better answer.”
Prospective journalists and non-journalists alike were inspired by the panel’s performance. Courtney Beesch, a journalism major at Arizona State University, took heart in the fact that “with the unending realm of news coming at us, that means more jobs.” Emily Pingleton, a Florida State University undergraduate whose interest lies in international affairs, drew inspiration from the fact that, in an ink-stained profession that was once dominated by men, “two of the three panelists were women, and nobody thought that was anything other than normal.”