What’s it like to report from the White House?

Twitter diplomacy, fake news and alternative facts: journalists face new challenges in the era of Trump

By Frank Pavan

Veteran reporter Lawrence Martin has spent 30 years covering politics around the world – Donald Trump is the closest thing he has seen to a leader with no political playbook. He says the U.S. President “stands alone in a lot of ways. He doesn’t care about normal protocols,” Martin says. “He has just thrown the script out the window.”

Covering the Trump presidency for just over a year, Martin says that being “raw” and “unfiltered” is simply part of Trump’s personality. The 45th POTUS hates having his name out of the headlines for a day or two. “Being in the news is important to him,” Martin says. “The guy is a news machine.”

Stephen Maher, national columnist for Postmedia News, Lawrence Martin, political affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail and Tom Clark, host of Global News’ West Block.at the 16th Annual Canadian Journalism Foundation Awards. (Photo courtesy of The Globe and Mail)

Working as a columnist for a Canadian publication has enabled Martin to focus his articles differently. His stories are not entirely dependent on breaking news. Instead, he mixes anecdotes concerning the political history of both nations, all the while being able to shed light on current political matters. Martin emphasized that the most important aspect of his articles is tying them back to Canadian issues for his readers. “[U.S.] Congressmen and senators don’t really care much about you if you’re a Canadian journalist,” Martin says. “No Canadian newspaper would ever be able to compete with larger American publications. I tend to focus my work on Canadian issues related to the White House.”

Daniel Dale also knows a thing or two about erratic politicians. The Toronto Star’s Washington bureau chief spent four years covering the administration of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a loud, scandal-ridden personality who demanded fierce loyalty from supporters. “While the level of craziness on a daily basis with Trump far exceeds Mayor Ford’s, they are quite similar in a number of ways,” Dale says. “They attack the media in often very personal terms, they were both wealthy and campaigned against elite politicians. They both also lie frequently and without much shame.”

Dale was sent to Washington in January 2015, where he covered the Obama administration until the 2016 election. He says the differences between the two administrations are striking. “Obama didn’t have any personal scandals weighing down on him like Trump does,” Dale says. “Obama also released news during business hours, for the most part. Now, Trump might tweet at six in the morning or eleven at night. This accelerates the pace in which reporters operate and creates a constant sense of vigilance that didn’t happen before.”

Daniel Dale, Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star, speaking at Ryerson University. (Photo courtesy of Ryerson Journalism Research Center)

Part of being a White House reporter involves making quick changes and being decisive on which stories you choose to run. Dale, however, finds himself at the bottom of the list when it comes to breaking news and says that the Trump administration is not as accessible to journalists outside of the United States. “He almost never does an interview with a journalist not from Fox News or any other friendly conservative publication,” Dale says. “I rarely break a story because of how little access I have.” Despite not being given the same access to president Trump and his white house staffers as his American counterparts, Dale has learned how to filter through what is and isn’t newsworthy.

“Every day you can choose around 50 things to write about but I always make an effort to pick the ones that are most relevant to Canadians.” – Daniel Dale

Dale also says that there is a clear difference in the way a left-wing reporter is treated as opposed to one from a more conservative outlet. “Trump does not sit down with any left partisan news outlets. Even when he does have news conferences, he picks very conservative publications,” Dale says.

While President Trump does put himself in the spotlight quite often – whether to announce his latest developments with Kim-Jong Un on Twitter or to publicly bash other politicians for the entire world to see – Dale says that “he might show up in the news more often than past presidents, but if it’s just for spewing nonsense, I don’t think that makes him more accessible.” Due to the limited access Dale has, calling out any “false claims, dishonesty and nonsense” coming from the White House is how he differentiates himself from other journalists.

Being considered less of a priority for President Trump and his staff has hindered both Dale and Martin’s ability to report in Washington. However, White House reporter Steven A. Miller firmly believes that Trump has been one of the more accessible presidents America has ever seen. He previously covered political news out of Washington for the New York Post, but is now working for the Washington Times and began covering stories from the White House when Trump was inaugurated. “Typically, when covering the president you’d have to speak with a number of people to gather any significant information about him,” Miller says. “In the case of President Trump, all I have to do is look at his tweets and I can get a sense of what he’s thinking about a range of topics”.

Steven A. Miller of the Washington Times. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Times)

Perhaps this is because his publication is known to support Republican values, but Miller continues vouching for President Trump, saying that he is much more open to speaking to members of the media than people might think. “He tends to enjoy talking, he likes the media coverage, he has reporters in for meetings and he just talks at length about what is going on, which also isn’t the norm,” Miller says. “If Obama would hold a cabinet meeting, he might make one remark or answer a quick question but he would rarely keep a toll of reporters in the meeting for an hour.”

The aggressive rhetoric Donald Trump has directed toward the media since the beginning of his presidential campaign has not struck fear in these reporters. In fact, each of them firmly believes that the media has done a great job covering all of the activity surrounding the President since his inauguration. While there is a clear bias held by Trump and his administration toward conservative media publications, it has not stopped Dale and Martin from properly informing Canadians of all of the topical political news coming from Washington, D.C.