ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Sept. 29, 2021) – Just minutes after reporting live about a potential government shutdown during the “NBC Nightly News” with Lester Holt on Sept. 23, chief White House correspondent Peter Alexander gave supporters of the Poynter Institute an exclusive, virtual tour of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room from behind the camera of his cellphone.
More than 200 people registered for the online, all-access pass to covering Washington with Alexander through Poynter’s Speaker Series, presented by the Frank E. Duckwall Foundation and the Tampa Bay Trust Company. These conversations connect citizens to the journalists who report the biggest issues of the day.
Angie Drobnic Holan, editor-in-chief of Poynter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact, introduced Alexander and moderator Joie Chen, Poynter senior adviser and faculty member, from PolitiFact’s new headquarters blocks from the White House. While guests may have recognized Chen as a former White House correspondent for CBS News, from her decade as a prime-time news anchor for CNN, or as an anchor for Al Jazeera America, Alexander knows her best as a mentor since his college days at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
“Joie has been a terrific mentor over the years,” he said standing on “Pebble Beach,” a familiar television backdrop on the White House lawn where major news networks broadcast their reports.
Alexander walked guests up the drive to the West Wing, past the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and into the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.
“Looks big on camera, but as you can see there’s only roughly seven rows, maybe 50 people,” he said before showing his seat in the front left, just steps away from the Oval Office. “There’s only so far we reporters can go. It gives you a sense of the proximity to power and the opportunity to press those folks for questions and behind-the-scenes information.”
Alexander moved down a short hallway to the reporters’ lair past the desks of the photographers from Reuters, The Associated Press and Getty Images and small offices of networks like ABC and CBS News. He ended the cellphone tour in NBC News’ tiny studio in the back corner. The program resumed on a desktop in the station’s audio booth where Alexander shared a glimpse into his day-to-day life.
“The day can be long depending on the shifts,” he said. “On some of the busiest days, I’ll get to the White House around 6 o’clock in the morning. Often, some of the first words I say out loud in the morning are to a national audience. The pressure begins right as soon as the day starts.”
The conversation continued with questions from students, educators and journalists seeking advice and guidance.
“You need to be curious as a function of doing this,” Alexander said. “You need to know a lot more than you get to share with the audience. Talk to people. Do your homework. Know what you’re talking about. Sometimes the best questions are the ones where you simply don’t know the answer. Those can be most revealing.”
He encouraged reporters to carry themselves in a manner that reflects journalism’s critical role in democracy.
“I view myself as being on the side of the facts,” Alexander said. “My job is to serve on behalf of you, the American people, and hold those in power to account. I’m the conduit to you who gets to ask the questions. That’s my priority. This is not about me.”
Alexander also shared the inside scoop on some of his most memorable interviews, from when former professional basketball player Yao Ming directed him to “just look up” to find him for an interview at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing to when President Joe Biden told him Facebook is “killing people” with the amount of COVID-19 misinformation on the platform.
“I could literally smell the breath mint in his mouth,” Alexander said.
As questions poured in throughout the evening, one from Alexander’s 6-year-old daughter, Emma, captured Chen’s attention.
It read, “Hi, dad. It’s Emma. What do you do for fun?”
“Emma and Ava, it’s 8:08 p.m. You need to be going to bed soon,” he said. “They and my wife are everything I’ve got for which I’m so grateful. Clearly, my favorite thing to do is be with them. Those moments, I try to be more present. I try to put my phone down. This morning, I was holding Emma by the feet as we were doing a wheelbarrow throughout the house. Those are some of the best experiences I have.”
Emma wasn’t the only family member who made an appearance in Thursday’s conversation with Alexander.
His sister Rebecca, who is regularly featured in his deeply personal reports of her rare genetic disorder, Usher syndrome, said, “I am so proud of my big brother. He really is as wonderful a brother as he is a journalist.”
Thank you to everyone who made this Speaker Series possible, including Peter Alexander, NBC News, the Frank E. Duckwall Foundation, the Tampa Bay Trust Company and those who made a donation to attend. Proceeds support Poynter’s nonprofit work to defend, preserve and advance journalism in a free society. To make a donation, visit poynter.org/support. Bookmark poynter.org/events to learn who is coming to Poynter next.