White House Correspondents Discuss the Media’s Credibility in the Trump Era

'The bar for us is so high right now'

Hallie Jackson, Steven Portnoy, Cecilia Vega and Yamiche Alcindor talked about covering the White House.
Photography courtesy of Adam Shane

The White House Correspondents-focused panel at the NAB Show 2019 in Las Vegas was one of the conference’s most timely to date.

NBC News chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson, PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, CBS News Radio White House correspondent Steven Portnoy (who said he came to Las Vegas on Air Force One with President Trump) and ABC News White House correspondent Cecilia Vega spoke about the trials and tribulations of covering the Trump administration, which is stoking an anti-media sentiment.

Vega said her early experience covering Trump was “like drinking from a fire hose every day. … At the beginning, we jumped every time he tweeted. Now, I think there’s a little more breathing room. We have learned that’s OK to pause a little bit more when it comes to some of these tweets.”

"At the beginning, we jumped every time he tweeted. Now, I think there’s a little more breathing room."
-ABC News White House correspondent Cecilia Vega

Added Alcindor, “We are covering this historic president that’s worth our time and energy. He is governing by Twitter, and quite frankly, he is the administration’s director of communications.”

NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith, who moderated the panel, mentioned his past life as a two-term Republican congressman from Oregon. He told the room that he recently made a comment to a group of former supporters about the importance of a free press, the First Amendment and investigative journalism, deriding the notion of the “enemy of the people” and “the fake news.”

“A former supporter of mine, a prominent Republican, really chastised me afterwards,” said Smith, adding that the man told him, “You must know that there is an unmitigated kind of bias against Donald Trump.”

Continued Smith, “I’m not saying it’s true, but I know how deep the feeling is, and it’s setting into the American people. Some feel as though the media’s credibility is in question.”

The panelists discussed their own efforts to address that credibility conundrum.

“As someone who covered race for a long time, and as someone who went to African American neighborhoods, I had the feeling that media never covered those directly,” said Alcindor. “I had the feeling that if a shooting happened, the media would automatically believe that the police side and not listen to the community side.”

Alcindor added that because many have doubted the media for a long time, it’s a “privilege” to be a reporter. “Every time I write a story … I am trying to convince them that I as an individual have integrity, and I as an individual cannot wake up in the morning and write fake stories.”

"We cannot give them—whoever 'them' is—that argument that [we] screwed it up. … Every time we mess up, factually, it gives them ammunition to call us fake news."
-NBC News chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson

Meanwhile, Vega’s solution is “to not screw up,” she said: “To not get it wrong. To get it right. The bar for us is so high right now. We cannot give them—whoever ‘them’ is—that argument that [we] screwed it up. And it happens, and it will happen again. But, every time we mess up, factually, it gives them ammunition to call us fake news.”

She admitted there are days she’s scared to walk outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “I’m sure we all have looked both ways when I walk outside of the White House gates,” Vega said. “I’ve thought, ‘Who’s out there today? Who’s ticked off? Who really thinks we are the enemy of the American people?’ There is serious danger in that rhetoric, not just to the people doing the job, but to Democracy and the First Amendment … it’s very dangerous language.”