It’s never been easy to cover the White House the beat is notorious for its control-freak public relations operatives, stretches of bureaucratic boredom and sudden scrambles to chase massive news under huge pressure but the Trump White House, says Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev, has “forced new efficiencies.”
“You have to report faster, write faster, think faster, sleep faster,” says Talev, who has covered the White House for a decade. Sleep faster? “I’m trying to get 6½ hours of sleep in 4½ hours,” she says. “That’s my current project.”
Talev is joking—I think!—but it’s hard to tell these days. Every year, POLITICO’s Media Issue drills into the realities of the White House beat, looking at what it’s like to cover the presidency and how that shapes what we know about the most powerful office in the world. But it has never been quite like this, and “what we know” has never been quite so unreliable.
Reporters, often the biggest names at their news organizations, find themselves having to bend to the whims of an early rising 71-year-old who starts making news by blasting out aggrieved and, at times, outrageous tweets before the end of “Fox & Friends.” What was once one of the most prestigious gigs in journalism has become a daily slog. Craggy veterans crank out stories at odd hours as they scramble to report out the mercurial musings of a president who, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, believes as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Major news organizations, including the New York Times and theWashington Post, rotate reporters each week to ensure that someone is up for the tweetstorms at dawn, and are hiring new correspondents to help with the expanded workload. Where presidential news once arrived on a fairly predictable schedule, the Times’ Peter Baker says the on-duty reporter now might have to knock out two stories before getting out of his or her pajamas.
“There’s no question that we’re all exhausted,” says Baker, who has covered the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama White Houses. But, he continues, you “have to stop and remember this is an extraordinary story and is something we’re going to be talking to our kids and grandkids about.” Other top White House reporters I spoke to felt the same way—bone-tired, but still infused with the sense that they’re on a historic mission covering a norm-busting presidency. “I think we all want to say in 50 years we covered Donald Trump’s White House,” says the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey.
But White House reporters still have to get through the latest controversy even as the next one peeks around the corner. “You can look away for four hours, and you’ve missed two entire news cycles,” Dawsey laments. “I went away to my honeymoon and four people had been fired or resigned,” says Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the “PBS NewsHour.” For TV journalists like Alcindor, each day requires determining which among the many issues percolating at the White House should make the cut for the evening broadcast. “It’s tough to be focused on hour-, two-hour stories while preparing for this show and thinking of the smartest way to cover this for our viewers,” she notes. The relentless pace works for reporters who “don’t want to be bored.” But she acknowledges those wanting to put down their phone at 7 p.m. and read a book may be out of luck.
Journalism has always been an erratic business, with deadlines putting a strain on family and friends. And new technology has steadily upped the metabolism reporters need to compete. Past administrations, however, had lulls—a luxury that hasn’t been present for any sustained period over the past 15 months. “There’s no question it’s more intense than anything we’ve ever seen,” Baker says, “more intense than any administration I’ve covered.” (That’s saying a lot; Baker has covered White Houses coping with impeachment, war and financial crisis.) While previous White Houses eventually developed a rhythm, he says, this one is “utterly unpredictable.”