If the early days of the Trump administration are anything to go by, Margaret Talev will at some point be accused of deceit, a lack of patriotism, working for a “failing” media organization and, yes, the latest epithet, “cosmopolitan bias.”
None will be deserved.
“Margaret Talev personifies the old-fashioned virtues of journalism, fair and fully devoted to the public’s right to know and to hold public officials accountable,” says Al Hunt Jr, former executive editor of Bloomberg News and now a Bloomberg View columnist. “She’s also tough and will not be bullied by Trump White House.”
In that case, her timing is perfect: She’s the new president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
The position rotates every year and now goes to Talev, Bloomberg’s senior White House correspondent. She’s a University of Maryland graduate who’s worked for McClatchy Newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, The Sacramento Bee and The Tampa Tribune. She covered Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign after a full two terms of the Obama administration.
It’s not easy to juggle your day job with the association duties, especially as Trump follows a succession of presidents who seek to control the White House press, limit access and skirt transparency. The Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama records were uninspired. Now comes outright disdain of a president who simultaneously craves media attention.
It means regular struggles about issues big and small, including getting a vaguely comprehensive schedule of Trump’s day, inclusion of cameras at briefings and straight responses to important questions. The Trump communications operation got off to a dismal start in defending his claims of the Inauguration Day crowd and has been erratic since, with the exits of Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci emblematic of minor-league disarray.
Talev’s first two weeks have been eventful and included the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t tenure of Scaramucci. All 10 days. But she did wedge in some initial thoughts on the new gig.
How did you wind up with this position six months into the Trump administration, replete with the regular press bashing and weird tweets? Did you lose a bet? Is this a covert CIA test to see how much pain you can tolerate? Do you want to see if the president will start using the term “the failing Bloomberg News?”
No way! I asked for this role, and I love the work. It’s a privilege to represent the White House press corps and to serve with a team of great fellow board members. It’s my ninth year on the beat and my sixth and final year on the board — a long time to get to know the people and the issues.
When I joined the board in 2012, Barack Obama was running for a second term. His signature domestic accomplishment was the Affordable Care Act. The big unknown was whether former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican whose health policies had actually inspired “Obamacare,” would defeat Obama. We can all agree the political terrain has become less predictable since then, but the fundamentals of good journalism are the same.
Seriously, what is the job heading the association like? You now have to multitask something fierce, given your day job. But what are the primary responsibilities?
We represent journalists covering the White House — and by extension, we serve the public, which counts on news coverage for information about the presidency and the U.S. government. We advocate for the ability of an independent and sometimes adversarial press to cover the president and the institution of the presidency, in keeping with the principles of the First Amendment.
Lofty stuff, right, but a lot of our day-to-day work involves things like helping a journalist who needs clearance through the White House gates to connect with an aide who can help, or organizing pool coverage when the full press corps can’t be accommodated. It’s our job to hear members’ concerns and connect them with the right people at the White House, to advocate for briefings and news conferences, to get cameras and microphones and pens and pads into the room when the president signs bills or meets with lawmakers or business executives or foreign leaders. And, at pivotal times, it’s our job to convene big-picture discussions.
For those outside the media echo chamber, who perhaps don’t follow the back-and-forth between the association and the administration, what appear to be your biggest challenges in this post in dealing with the Trump White House?
Staying focused on the day-to-day imperatives of news coverage while recognizing that some moments call for speaking as one voice about the legitimacy and value of news reporting. The president’s unorthodox, aggressive and often-negative public treatment of the media has been at times worrisome, disorienting and frustrating. We’ve all had to learn to adjust while staying focused on the news and respectful of the office. But it’s also true that the press has appreciated President Trump’s appetite for interviews and near daily engagement and that his staff has worked behind the scenes with journalists to build a dialogue to work out a level of coverage that the public has come to expect.
I was originally going to ask you, “Is there any early sign that the departure of Sean Spicer, and the arrival of Anthony Scaramucci, will alter the basic relationship?” Oops. So now I ask: Is there any post-Scaramucci sign that the basic relationship will be altered?
Even as tensions have flared publicly, the lines of communication are open and the relationship has been evolving. You may have read about Anthony Scaramucci’s view of an upside to improving and reshaping press relations, and to differentiating between how the president and his team engage the press. Starting under Sean’s tenure, the White House increasingly has brought cabinet officials to take questions about policy.
That’s a positive step. Other positive signs are continuing after Anthony’s tenure. The regular on-camera press briefings appear to be back under Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Her recent public statements about the role and obligations of the White House press secretary have been seen as a positive development by many of our members.
How would you very roughly compare the record so far of this administration in dealing with the White House press corps with that of the Obama administration? The latter’s record was not necessarily inspiring, including on various issues related to transparency.
You’re right to flag concerns about the Obama administration’s record on seeking to monitor or subpoena reporters to try to reveal sources. At the same time, there were some practices worth noting that were aimed at transparency and accountability that the last administration observed.
These include releasing the president’s taxes and physical evaluations; creating a visitor log that while cumbersome and incomplete did offer insights about who is seeking to influence the White House; and allowing partial pool coverage at the start of the president’s fundraising events to report his remarks and observe the crowd. These are steps that can build public faith in government.
If you’re asking about the presidents themselves, a lot of this is self-evident, from their style to their Twitter habits. President Trump favors short, frequent bursts of public engagement with the press and cultivates a public perception of fighting with reporters more than President Obama ever did. President Obama tended to favor more subtle digs balanced by expressions of respect for the principles of journalism and less frequent but longer, more policy-heavy discussions with journalists about issues. Both have used foreign trips on Air Force One as a time to talk with and take the pulse of journalists; President Trump has been more willing than President Obama was to make some of those conversations on the record.
Since you’ve covered the White House, what are the changes in American media that have impacted the association? Is it the rise of lots of new organizations seeking a seat at the table, or I should probably say a seat in the briefing room that perhaps has long been the province of a declining print industry? Or is it other stuff?
Our ranks have swelled over the past year thanks to an increased interest in White House coverage and to the entry of many new outlets. Twitter and other social media and advancements in online and mobile technology have turned everyone, to varying degrees, into wire writers, photographers, broadcasters and bloggers. In turn that’s created new challenges and opportunities.
Personally, what’s your biggest goal as you start off?
To be accessible, listen, and help our members get the tools they need to cover the White House and the president.
Oh, finally, the association dinner next year. It’s about nine or so months away. The president conspicuously didn’t show this year. First, is that subject on your agenda? Second, any extended members of your family try to hit you up for tickets yet?
The dinner honors the First Amendment, the best work of journalists who cover the White House and scholarship recipients we hope will go on to cover the White House. WHCA will celebrate its 104th anniversary next April and it’s been a proud tradition of ours — one we intend to continue — to welcome U.S. presidents as our guests to break bread with us in recognition of the principles being honored.
You forgot something: What about family requests for dinner tickets?
Ha! Yes, actually, I’ve had several!