On this special Presidents’ Day episode, A’ndre and Ryan talk with Zeke Miller, AP White House Reporter and White House Correspondents’ Assoc. President, about presidential reporting. They discuss the history of White House correspondents and the relationship between the President and the press. Zeke also discusses sourcing and the role of leaks. He shares his views on the public’s relationship with the press and how social media has impacted his job, in addition to providing some insights on how Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden have interacted with the press.
On how Presidents Obama and Trump interacted with the press: “(President Obama) was not a voracious consumer of day-to-day White House reporting. He would pick up The New York Times or The Washington Post occasionally, but he wasn’t reading it for the latest political headlines. He was far more cerebral in a way and distant from the day-to-day news coverage and focused on the long game (…) He sought out doing interviews with the places he’d like to read The New Yorker or The Atlantic — that was sort of his speed. So, you know, he would engage with the press, but it wasn’t his preferred way of reaching the public, and certainly not with the later stages of his presidency. President Trump was a very different presence (…) He read anything that had his name on it. He would often annotate news stories and sharpie it and send it to you. He was doing that before he was president, back when he was a business developer or reality TV show host in New York. But while he would call the mainstream media, the press, the enemy of the people, he was deeply beholden to its coverage, and up-to-date on what was being written and said about him. And (he) also wanted to win the press over. You’d see flashes of it in the briefing room or in the Oval Office at times. He wanted the public at large, but also the people covering him, on behalf of that public, to come over to his side — he was always trying to win people over. So often what you didn’t see on camera, there’s a lot more of that behind the scenes — less antagonistic, a little more cajoling.”
On reasons for leaking information to the press: “The motivations for leaking are a myriad. It’s everything from self interest, or you’re not happy about the way a policy was decided so you want to get back at the person who decided it the other way. It’s because you’re trying to get in front of something you don’t like, or try to take credit and feel self important, or to spin something in a different direction, or because it’s a sanctioned leak — it’s an attempt by the administration to float a trial balloon about an appointment or a policy idea, and they don’t want to put their full weight behind it, they want to see how it might be received without actually doing that. So leaks have so many different purposes. I think in the Trump administration we saw all of them. And you know, pretty much all of them on any given day.”
On anonymous sources: “Readers should be skeptical, a little skeptical, of what they read of anonymous sources. Why is that person leaking something? That is entirely rational, and it’s our job as journalists to put our credibility behind that work. We’re putting our names instead of theirs, and we trust the source, which is why we’re going to present it to the reader in this way. But I think it’s incumbent on journalists to present that information in a way that is clear and provides the reader with as much context as possible without violating the sourcing agreements.”
On the relationship between the news media and American public: “It’s not great. Trust in institutions of all sorts, the media and government alike, are at roughly historic lows. That’s a problem for society and it’s bigger than any one relationship there. I think it’s one that every journalist is mindful of (…) We’re human, we get things wrong. We get things wrong frequently, whether that be misspelling somebody’s name, or a typo, or something larger. And when we’re wrong, our job is to maintain that relationship with readers and the American public (…) We have to shout it from the rooftops, ‘I was wrong yesterday.’ Because that’s the bedrock of our credibility with the American politic — we will tell you when we’re right and we’ll tell you when we’re wrong. And with equal volume, just to make sure that you have the information you need to be an active citizen in our democracy. I think it’s really important to try to be right and not get things wrong as much as possible, but things happen, we get things wrong. And that’s not intentional, it’s not an attempt to manipulate anything, it’s not an attempt to undermine anything. It’s just, you know, we’re human and mistakes happen, but it’s incumbent on us, because of the world, we need to repair that relationship with the American public.”