Q&A: Margaret Talev on the evolving role of the White House Correspondents’ Association

Margaret Talev ran for president of the White House Correspondents’ Association in 2015, long before Donald Trump became a serious contender for the Oval Office. But for her, it didn’t matter who the president was. “I just knew I wanted to continue to serve the board and lead the organization, and that’s still true,” she says. “But who the president is and who the administration is certainly has an impact on the day-to-day working relationship with the press corps.” Talev, the senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg, took over from her predecessor, Jeff Mason of Reuters, two weeks ago; the position rotates every year.

So far, the relationship between the press and the Trump White House has been rough, from the on-again, off-again decision on cameras in press briefings to the heated exchanges between administration staff and reporters (most recently, Stephen Miller and CNN’s Jim Acosta). And, of course, the president continues to lob insults at journalists, routinely framing them as purveyors of “fake news.

“When someone gives a speech and they tell the American public they shouldn’t trust the press, that’s not only very frustrating for reporters doing a good job, but it’s always worrisome in terms of undermining people’s trust in a pillar of society,” Talev says.

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It’s a new dynamic, and Talev is still learning how to navigate it. It’s raised questions about the role of the association in this political climate. Some journalists have criticized the WHCA for failing to fight back hard enough against the Trump administration’s attempts at delegitimizing the press. For Talev, the story isn’t about journalists. “When there are tensions, of course, there’s an instinct to fight, but that’s not our job,” she says. “Our job is to report.”

Talev spoke with CJR about working the White House beat, Trump’s attitudes toward the press, and what it all means moving forward. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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When Trump was elected in November, you knew you’d be taking over as president of WHCA later in the year. What were your initial thoughts about how you would approach the role?

We knew some of the challenges were going to be to advocate as we normally do for access, day-to-day, writ large while taking into account that candidate Trump and, at that time, President-Elect Trump’s public criticism of the press was such a signature part of his campaign. The obvious question was: When he transitions from candidate to governing, how will that impact the way we cover the White House? There are so many lofty topics you think about when you think about covering the White House: the First Amendment, freedom of the press, independent news organizations, the ability to do fair and critical coverage. But day-to-day what the correspondents’ association does is to make sure stuff works. Is there access to a bill signing? Are we working with the travel office to get the visas we need for a foreign trip? That’s a completely different thing, but actually one of the most important things operationally in terms of the system working. It’s a lot of corralling people.
Considering candidate Trump’s attitudes towards the press, was there a moment when you thought, “I don’t want this role anymore,” or did it not matter who the president was?

I never had that moment. I thought I’m really glad to be part of this, and to have the team in place that we do. We have a number of members who have covered the White House for many years, and they understand the in’s and out’s of the big principles at stake here.
How has the role of the press corps shifted in this administration?

I think the purpose is the same as it’s always been, which is to inform people about what the president’s doing, what the government’s doing, to cover the news as it happens but to also go beyond it and talk a little bit about context. There are two factors that are special to this time, one specific to the Trump administration, one specific to media and technology. Social media has meant that there are new news organization covering the White House, and that everybody is producing news all the time. That was going on before November 8 and would’ve taken place regardless of who the president was. But this president’s instinct to tweet and to get news out there himself adds something new to the whole thing.

Then there have been the challenges of navigating his rhetorical message to his base while keeping the eyes on the prize of what we do. One thing that’s been interesting to me is the Correspondents’ Association, for many years, was a largely behind-the-scenes organization that the public didn’t think about except for the dinner. Since the election, a lot more members of the public seem to be interested in the association and what it does. I think that’s great, but among some camps, there’s been a real call for the WHCA to be making statements all the time, making demands all the time. But the group is really a combination of public education [and a] member organization. That’s a dual track mission to figure out: What are the moments when it’s important to call out the principle? What are the moments to keep the channels of communication open and make sure they’re working?

 

What has been one of those moments where you had to call out the principle?

The membership, individually and collectively, feels very strongly that it’s important for people to know critical coverage doesn’t mean the coverage is inaccurate, it just means it’s critical. But I also think sometimes the important thing to do is just to work and let the work speak for itself.

 

Some members of the White House press corps (like April Ryan or John Gizzi) have gone viral. What do you think it means for the press corps to become more visible outside the briefing room?

I think it’s to some degree a reflection of the administration and a reflection of the times, of social media, and the rise of the personal brand. It’s our job to represent all of our members, including the people you’ve never heard of. We have about 350 regular members; there are a ton of people who cover the White House. There’s been a real uptick in interest because of this president but also because it’s a new administration and there’s always a wave of new interest. I don’t really have a judgment on whether more household names are a good thing or a bad thing. I just think it’s great when people can do fulsome reporting on the White House. We’re here to support their ability to do it, whether [they’re a] household name or not.

 

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There have been a lot of stories coming out of the White House in recent months, but what stories are the White House press corps missing?

There is a ton of gov[ernment] coverage happening at all levels, from reporters who work that beat day-to-day inside that building to reporters who don’t go to the building to cover the White House but who look into coverage at individual organizations. I’m not sure it’s a question of news that isn’t being covered. You might be asking about how much air time different news is getting. I think that’s a different question than what’s being produced, [which includes coverage of] everything from the effect of the administration’s policy on regulations to detailed stories on elements of foreign policy to what’s happening in public education during Trump administration. This is true of every administration. One or two stories take hold, and other stuff is there, but it’s a little bit harder to find.

 

In the last month, Sean Spicer resigned, Reince Priebus and Anthony Scaramucci got fired, and John Kelly was hired as chief of staff. How has the constant turnover of White House personnel affected the work you do?

We’re just working all the time. You have a press corps that’s really tired. I’m sleeping most nights less than five hours, trying to catch up on weekends. That’s not just me, that’s everybody. The coverage is literally nonstop. After the first 100 days, things usually ease up a bit. Not in this case. The changes have affected the pace at which people need to report, what they’re reporting on, and how to report it. But unquestionably it’s an interesting time to be covering the White House, and there’s no shortage of news.
There have also been a lot of tense moments in the White House briefings, most recently between Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller and Jim Acosta of CNN. Has that tension always been present or is that something new?

The press briefings are always criticized as [being] pure theater. It is true the dynamic you often see play out if you watch a televised briefing is a little bit different than the dynamic that plays out when the cameras are off and when you’re in a one-on-one or group setting instead of a room full of 100 people. I think there’s still a lot of value in those briefings. It’s a chance once a day or several times a week for journalists to ask the administration about the issues that are driving the news and issues Americans really care about. It’s the administration’s attempt to answer those questions. To look at the briefing and assume that’s what’s happening all the time is not to see a complete picture. It’s more nuanced than that. I think what you see in the briefing room is part of the dynamic that’s playing out day-to-day.

 

Everyone’s been talking about John Kelly’s appointment as the new chief of staff and what that will mean for the Trump administration. How do you think his appointment will affect the way the administration and the press interact moving forward?

It’s a great question and a question I don’t know the answer to yet. Several days [into] the job, it’s been about putting some order and rules of the road internally, whether it’s closing the door to the Oval Office, doing a couple of initial firings, sending signals about how he wants processes to work. My sense is that this is his first priority. I expect Sarah Huckabee Sanders to remain as press secretary. Some of what you’re asking may depend on who is put in place as communications director.

 

Since January, what moment or moments best capture the dynamic between the White House press corps and administration?

One was the second day of the administration and that infamous first briefing with Sean Spicer and the discussion of inaugural crowd sizes. The signal it sent was [that] the challenge for the press would be to manage the imperative of reporting against the rhetorical engagement of the administration.

Number two was actually having a sit-down interview with President Trump in which he was completely different than when you hear him at a large rally talking about the press or other things. He was cordial, welcoming, any question was on the table. I really got to see a different side of him, which was really interesting.

A while ago, the president stopped at the Boeing plant on the way down [to Mar-a-Lago] to give a speech about job creation, manufacturing. Then he was going to big rally in Orlando at an airport hangar. On his way to Orlando, towards the end of flight, he came to the back of the plane to say hi to the press corps. Many of us on the flight hadn’t covered the campaign so many of us hadn’t met him yet. So we introduced ourselves. He goes to the back of the plane, shakes our hands, says, “Nice to meet you.” We ask him, “Well, what are you going to talk about?” He says, “In the speech, I’m going to talk about how almost all of us are unified in the country with one exception.” We were like, “Okay great.” When he gave his speech, we realized we were the exception. He was setting us on fire, but 15 minutes before, he was in the back of the plane saying, “Great to meet you guys.”

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.