How to Cover Presidents in Social Media’s Golden Age

"We can’t keep them from putting out their own message--nor should we--but we can point out when that message is inaccurate or self-serving."

Bill-PlanteWhen CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante, one of this year’s recipients of the the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, addresses Missouri School of Journalism students in a master class on Oct. 26, he’ll be sourcing material from a career that spans over four decades. During that time he has covered every corner of executive branch politics, including four presidential administrations, the State Department and almost five decades of presidential campaigns.

In addition to covering politics, Plante reported in Vietnam during the Vietnam war, an experience he counts among his most memorable. The other is Selma.  “It was hard to remain completely neutral, especially for a white guy from the North who grew up schooled in social justice. I won’t deny that,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview on the 50th anniversary of the attack on civil rights workers in Selma known as Bloody Sunday.

FishbowlDC caught up with Plante to discuss the intricacies of covering presidents and politicians and the role of journalists in this age of tight-lipped administrations with large social media followings.

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FBDC: As part of the distinguished service in journalism award, you’re expected to give a master class. Do you have any plans yet for the class?
Bill Plante: [The plan is to] discuss how news coverage has changed and evolved over my fifty one years at CBS News, the role of journalists in a media-saturated society and discuss topics and issues raised by the students.

FBDC:  You were an anchor of CBS Sunday Night News for eight years. How does anchoring compare to reporting?
Plante: Anchors can write and/or edit their copy, which gives them control over style.  But anchors don’t have control over the material that’s made available to them, which can be frustrating.

FBDC: You’ve been reporting on politics since 1968. The natural inclination is to see what has changed since you’ve started, but I’m curious about what hasn’t.
Plante: White House coverage in any administration is a battle between reporters who want to know the day-to-day details of what’s going on–who’s on top, what policy changes are being considered–and an administration which hopes to hold information close, doling it out as it suits the purposes of the President.

FBDC:  You’ve discussed the growing opacity of presidential administrations and how the accessibility of social media has allowed this current administration to control and promote its own narrative. Is this something you feel will continue with subsequent administrations as a by-product of this digital age, and if so, what do journalists need to change about how they cover the White House in response?
Plante: This will absolutely continue – administrations will use the tools technology provides to get their own message out.  Journalists have to point out what the White House is doing. We can’t keep them from putting out their own message–nor should we–but we can point out when that message is inaccurate or self-serving.

FBDC:  How significant a time are administrative transitions from a reporting perspective? Are there opportunities when a new administration comes for the White House press corps to set its own tone or way of working with the administration, or does the new administration exert its stamp right away?
Plante: Transitions are a time when reporters who have been covering the winning campaign are in a position to find out what the winner’s plans are–and to report on them.  They are a time when friendships forged on the campaign trail can pay off for reporters.  During the transition, the winners will talk about how open and transparent their new administration is going to be. It’s an opportunity for reporters to ask for commitments to open coverage.

FBDC: In an interview with Loyola University Chicago Alumni magazine Compass, you mentioned that presidents “rarely drop their public personas.” How do you handle that as a journalist, especially when trying to get beyond the story the politician wants you to see?
Plante: Being on the campaign over a period of months gives reporters insight into a candidate. But once the politician gets into office – particularly if that office is the presidency – there’s almost no day-to-day contact. So you can only watch carefully and attempt to read the person based on their public performance.