The Rise and Fall of the Star White House Reporter
Washington reporters have long considered the role of White House correspondent to be the crown jewel of American political journalism. It has launched high-profile television careers, scored countless reporters book deals and been bestowed on media veterans for years of ink-drenched work.
But during the age of Biden, a perch inside the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room has become something altogether different. It’s become a bore.
Some of those covering the most powerful office on the planet say that the storylines, while important, and substantive, can lack flair or be hard to get viewer attention. There is industry-wide acknowledgment that viewership is down. Television outlets have been quick to turn their attention to other stories and bolster other units. There is a sense that the main saga of American politics is taking place outside the confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and that the journalists covering it — Donald Trump and the future of democracy — may reap the career rewards.
The Obama press room launched a whole cohort of journalists into media stardom. The Trump press room launched another. The Biden press room?
“I can’t think of any [stars],” said a well-known television news executive. “I don’t really watch the briefings.”
The dulling down of the White House beat is not due to a lack of reportorial talent in the room. Nor has it meant that the work being done hasn’t been important: major stories are being broken regularly on everything from the Covid fight, to the war in Ukraine, to inflation, immigration and legislative battles over the social safety net. Rather, what is happening is the fulfillment of a central Biden promise. Running for office against Donald Trump — the most theatrical, attention-seeking, Beltway-panic-inducing president in living memory — he pledged to make Washington news boring again.
And, well, mission accomplished sir.
“Jen [Psaki] is very good at her job, which is unfortunate,” one reporter who has covered the past two administrations from the room said. “And the work is a lot less rewarding, because you’re no longer saving democracy from Sean Spicer and his Men’s Wearhouse suit. Jawing with Jen just makes you look like an asshole.”
Gone are the Tweets that sent newsrooms scrambling. So long to the five alarm Friday news dumps that had editors frantically rearranging weekend plans. Bye-bye to the massive TV budgets for White House specials and the firehose of publishing deals for books about the administration. NPD BookScan, which tracks book sales in the U.S., said that prominent books about Trump released in his first two years of office outsold Biden books during his first year and a half by, what an official there said was, “essentially 10:1.” A newly released biography about Jill Biden, by two well-respected Associated Press journalists, sold just 250 units in its first week, according to the company.
For the vast majority of Americans, and even plenty of people in Washington, it’s all been a relief — the minute-by-minute churn of presidential politics is no longer so omnipresent and existential in their lives.
“It’s not such a bad thing that there’s a new sense of sobriety in the White House briefing room,” said Eric Schultz, a former deputy press secretary under Obama. “The histrionics probably got out of control. It is serious business… It’s probably good for democracy for this to be less personality based and more about the work.”
But for the White House scribes, the ones shaking out their tuxedos and cocktail dresses to gather for the White House Correspondents’ dinner on Saturday, it’s been an adjustment at best and deflating at worst.
“It’s a boring and difficult job. It’s tough to be a White House correspondent if you want to break news, they’re so airtight,” another reporter who covered both the Trump and Biden White Houses from the briefing room. “There’s no Maggie [Haberman]. Who’s the Maggie of the Biden administration? It doesn’t exist.”
The White House has always been covered by the press. But the concept of the White House correspondent began hardening in the late 1800s and early 1900s when presidents started holding regular meetings with reporters. Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to actually give reporters a place to work in the White House after taking pity on a group huddled in the rain outside the gates.
An actual association of those reporters came into place in 1914, when those covering the White House grew alarmed, either that the Congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents would get to choose who covered Woodrow Wilson’s press conferences or that Wilson would simply cancel the press conference altogether. The result was the forming of the White House Correspondents’ Association, an institution explicitly devised to protect and promote the interests of those reporting on the president.
It didn’t initially work. Wilson ended up doing away with those press conferences. But Warren G. Harding revived them several years later. And in the decades following, the role of the White House correspondent continued to expand. Franklin Delano Roosevelt held a record number of press conferences, occasionally charming and butting heads with reporters. He expanded access in his final year of office, accredited the first Black reporter to attend White House press briefings, but also barred specific reporters that he did not like.
After the introduction of cameras in the briefing room in the 1950s, and President John F. Kennedy’s decision to hold frequent televised press conferences, it became clear that being at the White House as a reporter granted one a certain level of professional stature and fame.
Reporters like Sarah McClendon and Helen Thomas, Sam Donaldson and Thomas DeFrank, became icons in the industry. And as television viewership grew, the trend became even more pronounced, with figures like CNN’s John King and David Gregory seeing their careers launched after tenures on the White House beat.
By the early years of the Barack Obama presidency, reporters were piling into the cramped briefing room, literally lining the aisles in hopes of lobbing questions at press secretary Robert Gibbs. Those who had front row seats included correspondents like CBS’s Chip Reid and Fox News’ Major Garrett. Others like Jake Tapper (then at ABC), and NBC’s Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie were already famous in their own right and on their way to network and cable prominence. Indeed, before Obama’s first term had ended, they all had found their way into anchor chairs.
The Trump presidency turned the reporter-to-celebrity conveyer belt up to an even higher speed. The 45th president practically worshiped his near-daily combat with the press. He used his Twitter feed and his jousting with reporters to explicitly drive specific news stories and, in the process, turned the press room itself into its own must-see drama. Many of the Trump administration’s primary adversaries in the briefing room, in turn, became the biggest beneficiaries of his attention.
CNN’s Jim Acosta — who seemed to overtly relish his role as a Trump sparring partner — got his credentials revoked by the president’s press office and needed security guards when he reported live from Trump rallies. It helped his standing at CNN, where he leveraged the notoriety into a weekend hosting position that he currently occupies. Yamiche Alcindor regularly pressed Trump in the briefing room early on in his administration, and was offered hosting duties and multiple television contracts with PBS. Similarly, one network source said then CNN president Jeff Zucker was impressed by Kaitlan Collins’ performance after seeing her on television during several briefings. She had come to CNN from the Daily Caller and was, for a time, in digital media obscurity. In short order, she became a prominent figure on the network and the go-to fill-in host for Tapper.
Biden, by contrast, has been a journalistic sedative. The 79-year-old president is not immune to political controversy or making news, having made several recent proclamations about his goals for the Russia-invasion of Ukraine that went far beyond his administration’s stated policy.
But attention isn’t his brand, the way it is with Trump, and his staff exerts far more control over his time and his media interactions, alongside their efforts to eliminate traces of palace intrigue from political coverage. The president does few interviews and his communications team has an informal policy of not engaging in gossip stories (whether they always stick to it is another question) and chide reporters who they don’t think focus enough on policy. Press secretary Jen Psaki rarely expresses emotion from the podium, where she speaks slowly and avoids lengthy confrontations with reporters.
“You haven’t gotten a Sam Donaldson or a Jake Tapper or a Kaitlan Collins,” one television industry executive said. “That does speak to the nature of this administration.” (Collins, notably, continues to cover the White House under Biden.)
The press has broken through on occasion, with stories about the dramatic botched pullout from Afghanistan, and high-level internal deliberations in the leadup and early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (some of which the administration actively leaked out). But, by and large, the West Wing staff, composed of a tight-knit group of Biden loyalists, has kept disagreements under wraps. When arguments between officials have spilled out, they’ve usually been of the in-the-weeds policy variety (wonky disputes about trade policy aren’t exactly a ratings boon).
As a result, the highest-profile organizations in the briefing room — the major networks and cable channels — are disinvesting in White House coverage. Multiple prominent television executives and industry experts told POLITICO that there are fewer White House correspondents on cable and network payrolls than there were during the previous administration, and the size of newly negotiated White House television contracts are smaller than they were during the 24-hour feeding frenzy of the Trump era.
Just over one year in, the people who seem to be benefiting most from the briefing room stage are the Biden administration officials themselves. Next week, Symone Sanders, Harris’ former press secretary, is set to begin her role as a host on MSNBC and NBC’s streaming service Peacock. Psaki is also set to depart the White House in the coming weeks for what is expected to be an MSNBC hosting gig that she’ll start in the fall.
Sanders said that there have been some stars in the briefing room, praising several of her NBC News colleagues like Kristen Welker, who made news recently for her intense grilling of Psaki, who seems likely to be Welker’s NBCU colleague in the near future.
But Sanders also conceded that the Biden communications strategy was designed to take the spotlight off of the reporters in the briefing room.
“The prior administration, their goal was to have an antagonistic relationship with the press corps,” she said. “The goal was to attack and antagonize, vilify the press. The Biden team didn’t enter into that White House setting up an adversarial relationship.”
“The reason you have not seen these huge clashes that have resulted in the media stars, if you will, is that’s not the goal of the people when you walk into that building.”
Against this backdrop, one personality on the White House beat has emerged — though not for his scoops so much as the semi-regular drama he brings to the briefing room.
Fox News White House anchor Peter Doocy said he had largely approached his job the same since taking on the Biden beat in 2019 when the then-former vice president launched his campaign. But once he got his foot inside the briefing room, he took a decidedly different approach than many of his colleagues in the front row. He’s regularly kept his focus on topics that make for good Fox News fodder: Crimes at the Southern border and in big cities, the president’s son Hunter Biden, and gas prices and U.S. energy policy. He’s also impossible to miss. Sitting in the front row, he’s taller and blonder than many of his White House press room colleagues.
The role, he said, has increasingly gotten him attention offscreen. He is regularly stopped on the street and recognized, particularly after Biden called him a “stupid son of a b—-” for asking if inflation was hurting his party’s chances in the looming midterm elections.
Since then, he’s been written about in the tabloids, and become a punching bag for late-night comedians like Stephen Colbert, who joked that the president should take a page out of Will Smith’s playbook and slap the Fox News White House correspondent.
“I’m somebody that grew up watching presidents, watching late-night TV. So if I hear one of them referring to me in any way it is surreal,” Doocy told Politico in an interview.
But if Doocy is the closest thing the Biden White House has to a high-profile antagonist, even his back-and-forths with the administration don’t come close to the animosity on display between Trump and the assembled press corps, or the attention it generated. Doocy told Politico he has good relationships with the Biden communications office, who he talks to multiple times a day. He insists that he does not relish the chance to beef with the press secretary.
Earlier this month, Psaki was asked by former Obama communications official and current Pod Save America host Dan Pfeiffer whether Doocy really was a “stupid son of a b—-, or just plays one on TV?”
Psaki replied by saying that Doocy “works for a network that provides people with questions that, nothing personal to any individual, including Peter Doocy, but might make anyone sound like a stupid son of a b—-.”
The exchange set off anger, including among Fox News personalities and executives, who said her comments were inappropriate. But they didn’t seem to bother the Fox News correspondent himself. Doocy said that he had a private conversation with Psaki about her comments after the event, and told Politico that they were not mean-spirited.
“I think that’s a classic example of how stuff can be taken a little out of context,” he said.
While Doocy may be the most high-profile of all the reporters currently covering the White House, he also concedes he’s in no hurry to cash in on it. He told Politico that he plans on seeing the Biden White House through, noting that he was there on the first day of the campaign, and wants to be there at the end. Asked if he was interested in following in the footsteps of other White House correspondents and hosting a show, Doocy took a second to reply.
“Someday,” he said. “But right now I’m having too much fun doing this.”
Those who have covered the White House note that the reporters who tend to succeed often are reflections of the presidents they cover. That’s because each president has decades of history with the media and an individual style that favors certain personalities.
Under Obama, the standouts were, like the president himself, cerebral magazine types, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, David Remnick, Steve Kroft and Steve Inskeep.
Many of the reporters who broke stories during the Trump presidency — at least the print reporters — had backgrounds that ran parallel to Trump’s. Maggie Haberman at the Times, Josh Dawsey (Politico, then The Washington Post), and Jonathan Lemire (AP and now at Politico) had careers forged by the same raucous New York tabloid news culture that fueled Trump’s rise.
By the same token, reporters who have had success covering Biden seem to reflect his values as well — none more so than Mike Memoli, an affable, decidedly unflashy, reporter with NBC News who can reasonably claim the title as the dean of the Biden beat.
Memoli has been covering Biden essentially since he was tapped by Obama during the 2008 campaign as his vice presidential running mate. Biden’s ascension to the White House has been a gift for Memoli as well, who often breaks news about the administration, and has become a regular part of the networks’ television promotions.
Memoli said he recognized that the White House correspondent job was different and more low key than the previous administration. Unlike the Trump White House, where reporters often broke stories by playing the jealousies and rivalries of staff off each other, the NBC News White House correspondent said he’s had more success breaking stories by playing the long game.
“Maybe part of it is just that they see me as somebody who comes with that level of context, and has seen them through the ups and downs of a race and has an appreciation for the arc of his presidency, his candidacy and his career in a way that they’re still challenging other reporters to understand as well,” he said.
But while Memoli has become a regular part of his networks’ television promotions, the larger cable universe has become less interested in the type of journalism he is producing.
Indeed, television news executives already seem to be getting ready for the GOP to come roaring back in the midterms. Earlier this month, CBS news president Neeraj Khemlani told CBS News staff they were hiring former Trump acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in order to round out the network’s Republican contributor roster, which he said had been lacking. For those still on the West Wing beat, it’s just another indication that they haven’t yet found professional nirvana.
“It’s not like there’s a lack of trying — these reporters are there every day to get anything out of the Biden White House,” another cable news executive said. “But it’s boring there, it’s not what it was.”