WHCA President: ‘Forced Reset’ of Correspondents Dinner Puts Focus on First Amendment

Margaret Talev
Lori Hoffman/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will once again skip the White House Correspondents Association dinner. Compared to the years when Barack Obama was president, there will be fewer stars in the crowd of the Washington Hilton ballroom. Other events surrounding the weekend have been scaled back.

The result? There’s actually more focus on the purpose of the dinner, which is to present awards and raise money for scholarships, and on the mission of the WHCA, which is to advocate for access to the president and the White House and a strong free press.

“This kind of forced reset has helped us return to what our mission always has been and really should be, which is a moment to raise awareness about the work that we are doing and to remind people of why the news matters and why all Americans benefit from the First Amendment,” says Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents Association and senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg.

She also points to events that the WHCA has held at presidential libraries outside of D.C., like the Harry Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, as a way of connecting with an audience beyond the Beltway.

She recently sat down with Variety to talk about covering the White House in the Trump era, planning for this year’s dinner, and what is most misunderstood about the role of the White House correspondent.

How is everyone managing what seems to be an unrelenting news cycle?

I think we have just been managing by just having to run at a sprint pace through a marathon. And I would say for some of the really large, well-staffed outlets, it is just a matter of scheduling, adding extra people to the team and everybody working longer hours and more weekends and that kind of thing. But I think for our members it has been most challenging for the smaller outlets that have one White House correspondent or maybe one Washington correspondent, who juggles the White House and Congress. Those are really the warriors from a journalism perspective because they don’t really have a lot of other people to distribute the workload.

Overall, how do you think members have responded to the president’s attacks on the media?

For most reporters the instinct is to say, ‘That rhetoric should not affect how we do our jobs. We do our jobs the same as we would any president.’

Do you think it has made their jobs more difficult?

In some ways I think it does. In some ways it has helped to galvanize journalists, when somebody questions the validity of your work or challenges, even rhetorically, your freedom to do the work. It makes everyone double down and say, ‘Well, we have to be more committed than ever to doing it.’ On the other hand, it creates a public friction, and in some parts of American society it exacerbates an underlying distrust. That has highlighted some of the hurdles we face in regaining trust, particularly in some geographic communities across the United States among some readers.

Some reporters have reported getting threats, particularly on social media. How has the WHCA responded?

WHCA added to our committee structure a new committee this year on reporter security. That is not something we have had before. It was meant as a resource for our members if anyone did receive threats whether it was on social media, in person, phone calls or emails, that if they weren’t sure how to contact the Secret Service, the FBI, local authorities, if they didn’t have an in-house lawyer, if they needed help in getting private security, that we could try to help connect them to those resources. We created a voluntary in-house database so that if members pursue those kind of threats and wanted to share it with us, we could kind of keep track internally the kind of issues our members were having. We made it clear from the start it was not a replacement for reporting it to authorities.

I don’t want to overstate how voluminous a problem this became. For the most part it has been just an exacerbation of really inappropriate and occasionally violent wishes on social media. That is most of what it is, but for a few members there actually have been interactions that I would say are unquestionably threats, where they need to get authorities involved. That is very worrisome and troubling.

President Trump has held only one official, full-fledged news conference, but he does a lot more impromptu availabilities.

They tend to occur in a less planned format and a more rushed format, and so they tend to be more confrontational or kind of heated.

There is a value in the more planned format, particularly when he is purposeful to call on a variety of outlets. What you are showing the American voter is a command of the issues, a consistency of narrative and a carefully shaped message. That can provide a sense of confidence and stability and depth to the message. There are an awful lot of reporters in that briefing room who are primarily policy reporters, who understand the role of politics and policy. There’s a real desire to cover policy, and the longer former news conferences would help.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has complained about the focus on palace intrigue, rather than the policy.

I think reporters by and large are responding to the need to balance the news of the day with the longer term story. That direction starts at the top. There is a lot of drama and unscripted moments and change in tack, and the internal dynamics of this White House, that requires coverage. It is not my favorite kind of coverage. It is not what actually got me interested in White House coverage. I am interested in foreign policy. If I could spend two thirds of every day just covering North Korea and Syria and Iran and Russia policy, I’d be really happy.

What are some of the big misconceptions of a White House correspondent?

One misconception is that the briefing is the only time that people ask questions. It is a piece and a small piece at that. There is a tremendous amount of reporting from other sources, inside and outside the White House.

[In a recent poll of news consumers] The thing that blew me away is that some readers believe that when a source is cited as an anonymous source, that the reporters don’t know who they are talking to. Because we are in the business, we take for granted that everyone knows that anonymous sources mean that we know who it is but they don’t want their names used publicly. But it is true — everybody doesn’t know that. There are many Americans that believe that when we cite an anonymous source, speaking on condition of anonymity, that person didn’t tell us who they were. I would be very wary of anything I read if the person who wrote it didn’t know who they are talking to.

Every news outlet has a series of rules and guidelines about how they handle anonymous sources. For the most part it is that you want at least two sources…that the editor knows who the person is, that you have tried to pretty carefully vet, how does this person know this, what is this person’s agenda for telling you this, why can’t they be on the record. That is incredibly important to a news organization to understand before they quote someone anonymously what that person’s agenda is and what their basic knowledge is.

What are some of the bigger challenges in covering Trump?

To cover him on Tuesday is not always the same to what he is thinking on Thursday. That presents a real challenge — do you write it as, ‘this is the stance’? Or do you write it as, ‘this was the stance this week.’

What is it like to interview him one-on-one?

I have found him to be very engaging, for him to have an instinct to make a connection to whoever he is talking to, and generally speaking for him to be cordial to the press in these one-on-one interactions. He will shake your hand, look you in the eye, and ask you if you are feeling good or feeling comfortable. You can toss any question at him, almost any question at him. If you ask a question without an edge, just out of curiosity, he will also entertain an answer. He really likes the engagement with reporters.

That is different for me than my experiences covering President Obama where his interactions with reporters were pretty measured, and much less frequent on a day-to-day basis. For Trump, you always have to have fresh batteries in your recorder. You always have to be on your game and prepared for anything and everything.

Trump is different to the press in private than he is in public.

His relationship to the press is more complicated than you see on TV.

When you have an American president say, ‘Don’t believe the facts, if it is critical it is not true,’ there is a segment of the public that will listen to that. They will begin to doubt themselves and their own instincts. Belief in facts and embrace of political critique and dissent, and exchange of different views, that is the core of American democracy, the core of the First Amendment. It doesn’t just affect the news business, it affects individual Americans right to question their government, to hold their leaders to account, to ask questions. I worry about that being shaken or undercut.

My dad escaped from Bulgaria in the 1960s and eventually got asylum in the United States and became a citizen. Political dissent, political debate, questioning of authority — I was taught that those were some of the most patriotic things that you can do. My dad ran away from where he was from, and left his parents and his family so that he could come to a place where he could speak freely.

How did you decide on Michelle Wolf to entertain at this year’s dinner?

I liked the idea of someone who is not known as a political comedian, someone who is known more as a cultural comedian. Her brand traditionally has not been American politics. Many of her jokes are about the differences between men and women, but as you might have noticed, 2017 was a pretty important year to raise awareness and questions about the standing of American women in society, and in the media as well as politics and Wall Street and entertainment. I think she is an interesting person, too. She had all of these other careers before she fell into comedy.