“Our role is to inform the public, seek the truth, ask tough questions and attempt to hold those in power accountable by shining a spotlight on what they are doing. … What is at stake is the survival of our nation as a place where differing views are tolerated and debated, where election results are trusted and accepted, where people in power are held accountable and where the truth is accepted, even when it challenges our beliefs and our biases.”
~Jon Karl, ABC News chief Washington correspondent, in his book “Front Row at the Trump Show”
There is nothing new about a president of the United States criticizing, berating or even maligning the press. It goes along with the inherent nature of a relationship that is necessarily antagonistic at times. But in recent years the media have been the subject of increasing criticism and, at times, outright hostility.
In the first full month of his presidency, President Donald J. Trump took criticism of the media to new heights when claiming that news outlets were “the enemy of the American people.” According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March 2017, 94% of Americans said they had heard about the relationship between the Trump administration and the news media. And what they were seeing at the time concerned them: large majorities felt the relationship was unhealthy and that the ongoing tensions were impeding Americans’ access to important political news. Importantly, these concerns were widely shared across nearly all demographic groups and large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.
No group of journalists found themselves in the spotlight or targets of criticism more than those serving in the White House press corps. As Jon Karl wrote in the epilogue of his best-selling book, “Front Row at the Trump Show” the founding charter of the White House Correspondents Association serves as a reminder that a free press has played an integral role in the White House for well over a hundred years. Jon wrote, “… asking questions of the most powerful people in our government, reporting on their actions, attempting to hold them accountable. The charter will fade, presidents will come and go, and so will the individual journalists and news organizations who report on them … (but the role) has and will continue to survive challenging times and flawed reporters just as surely as it will survive flawed presidents.”
My respect for the role and work of White House correspondents has been shaped by the admittedly distant view of a longtime network affiliate, and enhanced through a wide range of associations with several journalists given the prestigious assignment of covering the White House for ABC News over the years. In particular, I’ll always recall fondly my visit to the White House in June 2014 at the invitation of Jon Karl, touring the James S. Brady Briefing Room and meeting with Ann Compton (now retired) and Arlette Saenz (now working at CNN).
While their personalities and approaches are different, each of the following profiles are intended to convey the depth of experience, commitment and sacrifice that are common to all of them. They are WINNERS for their tireless dedication to the pursuit of the truth and to reporting on what really goes on at the White House, and for serving in a role that remains vital to our democratic process.
Samuel “Sam” Donaldson, Jr. –
While he had a successful 47-year career with ABC News, Sam is best remembered for his work during two stints as the network’s White House correspondent from 1977-89 and 1998-99, covering presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton. One of my most indelible memories of Sam involves the day he was an eyewitness to the assassination attempt on President Reagan in March 1981; Sam delivered the very first broadcast report of that event on the ABC radio network.
The first time I can recall meeting Sam was at an ABC affiliate meeting on the west coast in June 1989. He and Diane Sawyer (see her WINNER profile) had just been named to co-anchor Primetime Live, the network’s new magazine show. Our paths would cross many more times in the years to follow. One especially memorable meeting took place in October 1996 when Sam was the keynote speaker at the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner in Sioux City, IA.
Alexander Britton “Brit” Hume –
Brit had a successful 23-year run with ABC News starting as a correspondent in 1976 covering the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, a position he held for nearly 11 years. He was named chief White House correspondent in 1989 following the election of George H.W. Bush. Brit would go on to cover not only the Bush administration, but that of President Bill Clinton as well.
My lasting memory of Brit involves a program called Viewpoint: Whitewater: Overplayed Underplayed? that was produced and originated live from Des Moines in April 1994. This special edition of Nightline was anchored by Ted Koppel, and Brit was one of the guest panelists. See the Ted Koppel WINNER profile for the unique backstory to this broadcast involving Brit.
Brit announced he was leaving ABC News in 1996 to join the then-fledgling Fox News Network. At his last news conference as ABC’s chief White House correspondent, President Clinton told him, “I think all of us think you have done an extraordinary, professional job under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.” Such rare praise is the highest compliment that a political reporter can ever hope to receive.
Ann Compton –
Pioneer. Trailblazer. Legend. Ann Compton was all of those things during her storied career. In December 1974, she became the first woman to cover the White House for a network television news organization on a full-time basis. Ann would go on to cover every president from Ford to Obama, traveling around the globe and across all 50 states reporting on presidents, vice presidents and first ladies over the course of seven different administrations. Robin Sproul, ABC News longtime D.C. bureau chief, once called Ann “a reporter of boundless energy who brings her A-game every day.”
In what was undoubtedly t the most significant story of her remarkable career, Ann was traveling with President Bush on September 11, 2001. As the designated “pool” reporter, she was the only broadcast journalist allowed to remain onboard Air Force One and in position to report on behalf of her colleagues during the chaotic hours following the terrorist attacks. For eight hours on that fateful day, the president’s Boeing 747 traversed the United States before finally returning to Washington where President Bush would reassure a shaken nation in a nationally-televised address. To acknowledge her unique role on that historic day, Ann received special recognition in the awards bestowed on ABC’s coverage which included an Emmy, Peabody, and the Silver Baton from the DuPont Awards at Columbia University.
Ann’s retirement in 2014 was heralded by President Obama who, when calling on her at a White House news conference, said, “Ann Compton … is not only the consummate professional but is also just a pleasure to get to know.” It was my good fortune to spend several hours with Ann in the West Wing in June 2014 prior to the end of her long run at the White House. We reminisced about the time in the early 1980’s when she had agreed to a speaking engagement in Sioux City, IA only to later “beg off” for what was a very good reason: she was expecting a child and her doctor told her no more travel! It was not a surprise when just a few years later she was named a ‘Mother of the Year’ by the National Mother’s Day Committee!
Martha Raddatz –
Yemen. Iran. Pakistan, Israel. Jordan. Saudi Arabia. India. Turkey. Libya. Oman. The United Arab Emirates. Martha is widely known for her fearless national security and foreign policy reporting from the Pentagon, State Department, White House, and conflict zones all over the world. She has been embedded with U.S. Forces during dozens of trips abroad, from the sands of Anbar province to the mountains of the Hindu Kush. She is the only television reporter ever allowed to fly in an F-15 fighter jet on combat missions over Afghanistan. Martha filed exclusive reports in 2011 on the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden; later that same year, she was one of the reporters allowed to join the last major convoy out of Iraq. Martha reported exclusively from the USS George H.W. Bush covering the airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2014. I sent an email to Martha in June 2014 at a time when the fighting in Iraq was the deadliest it had been in 7 years, encouraging her to “be safe.” She promptly replied, “Thank you for thinking of me! We are staying as safe as possible over here!” as she demonstrated once again her fearlessness.
Even during her stint as ABC’s White House correspondent during the last term of the George W. Bush’s administration, she continued to make regular trips to war-torn Iraq. The depth of the respect Martha’s colleagues held for her was made clear in 2007 when she was presented the Merriman Smith Memorial Award by the White House Correspondents Association.
Jacob “Jake” Tapper –
A new and mostly-unknown correspondent for ABC News at the time, I first met Jake the morning after the Iowa Caucuses in January 2004. Some years earlier I had started a tradition of inviting a guest from ABC News to appear before my Breakfast Club on the morning after the Iowa Caucus. In fact, the late Peter Jennings (see his WINNER profile) joined us in January 2000 after anchoring the network’s Iowa Caucus coverage the night before. But by 2004, the primary schedule in the early states was being compressed to the point that the ABC News political team needed to fly out on a charter plane directly to New Hampshire immediately after their Iowa Caucus coverage wrapped up. As a result, “new guy” Jake Tapper drew the short straw, and he graciously agreed to accept my speaking invitation even though it meant catching a commercial flight to New Hampshire the next day.
By the time the 2008 election cycle rolled around, Jake was the senior political correspondent for ABC News … and his profile had grown immensely. For example, he contributed a report to a broadcast of World News Tonight with Peter Jennings that won the 2005 Edward R. Murrow award for best network newscast. I was thrilled when Jake accepted my invitation to make an encore appearance at our Breakfast Club following the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.
It was on the way to this second Breakfast Club appearance that Jake told me how fortuitous it was that he had stayed behind in Des Moines, and not flown off to New Hampshire with his colleagues, four years earlier. He then explained how he had gone back to his hotel following the conclusion of the network’s Iowa Caucus coverage in 2004, and it was there that he met a young lady by the name of Jennifer Marie Brown from St. Joseph, MO who had been in Iowa volunteering for one of the campaigns. They had a drink or two together, talked into the night, and agreed to stay in touch. And stay in touch they did, as they were married in 2006 and were later blessed with a daughter named Alice! It was a joy having dinner with Jake and Jennifer in Washington, DC a few years later where we talked about life’s strange twists and turns … and learned that they now also had a son named Jack!
Jake left ABC to join CNN in January 2013 where he now serves as their chief Washington correspondent, and anchor of the daily television news show The Lead with Jake Tapper.
Jonathan Karl –
Jon was named to succeed Jake Tapper as chief White House correspondent for ABC News in December 2012. Like so many others, his preparation and training for such a key assignment included reporting on every major Washington beat: Capitol Hill (he came to ABC from CNN where he worked as a Congressional correspondent), the State Department (where he traveled the world with Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), and the Pentagon.
I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with, and get to know, Jon in recent years. Those occasions have ranged from dinners in places from D.C. to Iowa, to meetings in New York and California. The pleasure of his company is always enjoyable, but the most memorable visit took place in June 2014 when he hosted me in the West Wing of the White House. While the original itinerary called for me to sit in on a press briefing, those plans fell through when Obama press secretary Jay Carney resigned a few days prior to my visit and no briefing was held.
The news media is not perfect. Far from it. But even on the day we criticize it most, a free press is a free society’s best hope to remain free. It’s my view that our country would benefit from a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the work of those who carry out their duties in the White House press corps.
Sam Donaldson, who as noted above served two tours as White House correspondent for ABC News, said this about covering the president of the United States: “Our job is to challenge the president, challenge him to explain policy, justify decisions, defend mistakes, reveal intentions for the future, and comment on a host of matters about which his views are of general concern.” That seems simple enough.
Hold On, Mr. President! by Samuel A. Donaldson, Jr. (Random House Inc., 1987)
Front Row at the Trump Show by Jon Karl (Dutton, 2020)
(March 6-13, 2017) Editorial “Speaking Truth to Power” Broadcasting & Cable
Thompson, Kate (October 4, 1996) “Donaldson disputes media’s ‘power’” Sioux City Journal
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Last Updated: October 30, 2022