White House Correspondents (ABC News)

During the course of the 2016 political cycle and following the election of Donald J. Trump as president, the media has been the subject of increasing criticism and, at times, outright hostility. The new president would add fuel to the fire when he declared on Twitter in February 2017 that news outlets were “the enemy of the American people” which, even by his standards, took criticism of the media to a new level. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March 2017, 94% of Americans say they have heard about the current state of the relationship between the Trump administration and the news media. And what they’ve seen concerns them: large majorities feel the relationship is unhealthy and that the ongoing tensions are impeding Americans’ access to important political news. Importantly, these concerns are widely shared across nearly all demographic groups, and large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans. 

Such tensions between an administration and the press corps are not new. An in-depth study by retired Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar described a strategy whereby the president does plenty of interviews but limited mostly to ones that are tightly controlled and targeted towards specific topics. But the subject of this study was not the Trump administration, but rather the Obama administration! Similarly, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote this in May 2016 about the Obama administration: “After early promises to be the most transparent administration in history, this has been one of the most secretive. And in certain ways, one of the most elusive. It’s also been one of the most punitive toward whistleblowers and leakers who want to bring light to wrongdoing they have observed from inside powerful institutions.” The point is that concerns along such lines are neither new or necessarily partisan in nature. 

Filling in for George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz on This Week with George Stephanopoulos in February 2017, Jon Karl said this about President Trump’s “enemy of the American people” declaration: “…there’s nothing new about a president of the United States criticizing or even vilifying the press…(Thomas Jefferson claimed that) ‘nothing can now be believed that is now seen in a newspaper’ and Theodore Roosevelt’s (having coined the) dismissive characterization of investigative journalists as ‘muckrakers’…Now the president has declared the press the enemy of the American people. I have reported in countries that not only complain about a critical press, but also try to shut it down, throwing reporters in prison or worse. I’ve seen my colleagues risk their lives, and with increasing frequency lose their lives in the pursuit of the truth. We are not about to stop doing our jobs because yet another president is unhappy with what he reads or hears or sees on TV news. There’s a reason the founders put freedom of the press in the very first amendment to the constitution. As long as American democracy remains healthy, there will be reporters willing to pursue the truth, even if that means incurring the wrath of the most powerful person in the world.”

Just a few weeks following the president’s dark take on the media and Jon Karl’s response, Trump announced via Twitter, “I will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!” The origin of this dinner honoring journalism through its award and scholarship programs can be traced back to 1921. Having attended the WHCA Dinner myself in 2012 when Jimmy Kimmel served as the host, one can make a good argument that it has devolved to a point where it has outlived its usefulness. As Jimmy put it, “It’s a collection of media elite, politicians, lobbyists, corporate executives and celebrities…in other words, everything that’s wrong with America!” That funny line aside, Trump would be the first president to not attend the dinner since Ronald Reagan in 1981.  Of course, Reagan was recovering from having been shot during an assassination attempt just one month earlier. Jeff Mason, president of the WHCA, said in a follow-up statement that the dinner “has been and will continue to be a celebration of the First Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic.” Just over a month later, the White House announced that its staff would skip the WHCA Dinner as well in a “show of solidarity” with President Trump. 

An editorial in the March 6, 2017 edition of Broadcasting & Cable summed up the situation this way: “The president does not want to attend the White House Correspondents Association dinner: that’s fine. The administration excludes some reporters from a gaggle; that’s not fine, but perhaps not a threat to the underpinnings of the system. But when the president lashes out at critical stories with attempts to delegitimize those and apparently any other critics: That is a big problem for the country.” 

My respect for the work of White House Correspondents has been shaped by what has been an admittedly distant view of a longtime network affiliate, and enhanced through a wide range of associations with several ABC News’ White House Correspondents over the years. The following profiles of ABC News’ White House Correspondents, with whom I’ve enjoyed some very limited involvement, are intended to convey the depth of experience, commitment, and sacrifice that are common to all of them:

 

Samuel Andrew “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. He reported on Carter’s long hostage crisis following the seizure of the American embassy in Teheran, Iran. Sam would later say, “I watched Carter wiggle and squirm for 444 days. It sapped his spirit and cost him his job.” Sam consistently engaged Reagan in a manner unlike anyone else in the press corps. He once asked, “Mr. President, in talking about the continuing recession tonight, you have blamed mistakes of the past, and you have blamed the Congress. Does any of the blame belong to you?” To which Reagan retorted, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat!” In the latter years of the Reagan presidency, no one was more dogged than Sam in pursuing the true facts behind the Iranian arms sale controversy after the president authorized the illegal sale of arms to Iran in order to free U.S. Hostages in Lebanon. But without question, his most indelible memory of covering Reagan has to involve being an eyewitness to the assassination attempt in March 1981; Sam delivered the very first broadcast report of that event on the ABC radio network. Sam returned to the White House in 1998 where he covered the Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment of President Clinton. 

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’s profile) had just been named to co-anchor the network’s new magazine show, Primetime Live. Our paths would cross many more times in the years to follow. One more memorable occasion occurred in October 1996 when Sam was the keynote speaker at the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner in Sioux City, IA.

Sam has been honored with 4 Emmy Awards and 3 George Foster Peabody Awards. He was named Best Television White House Correspondent in 1985 by the Washington Journalism Review and Broadcaster of the Year in 1998 by the National Press Foundation. In 2008, the Radio Television Digital News Association presented him the Paul White Award. 

 

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. It’s a little known fact that in 1979 he earned television’s first-ever Academy Award nomination for his work on ABC’s Close-Up documentary program.

Brit was assigned to report on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign in 1984, and George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 1988. News organizations will frequently change their White House Correspondents when a new president is elected, often times to a reporter who had been assigned to cover the new president during the preceding campaign. That was the case in 1989 when Brit was named Chief White House Correspondent and he would eventually go on to cover not only the administration of President Bush, but that of President Bill Clinton as well. 

My lasting personal memory of Brit involves a program called Viewpoint: Whitewater: Overplayed Underplayed? that was produced and broadcast 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. Here’s an excerpt from a longer anecdote involving the Viewpoint broadcast and Ted Koppel (see his WINNER’s profile):

“It worked out that I picked up Ted, James Carville, and Brit Hume in Washington, DC for the trip to Des Moines on a private plane. The onboard conversation was quite cordial until an hour or so in to the flight when Ted and Brit challenged James on how it was that Hillary Clinton had yet to publicly address her role in Whitewater (Ted had tipped me off beforehand that he might try to “rile up James as a bit of foreplay” in advance of that night’s broadcast). The plan no doubt worked as James became, quite literally, spitting mad as he vehemently made it clear that ‘no First Lady in the history of the Union has ever held a press conference and Hillary won’t be the first…it’s never happened and never will happen.’ Brit pushed back, calmly and respectfully pointing out that no other First Lady had ever been on point during her husband’s administration in the manner Hillary had been on the issue of health care. The hypocrisy was evident, and it was clear that it would be ‘game on’ during the broadcast later that evening.”

Brit announced he was leaving ABC News in 1996 to join the 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.  Brit would go on to spend 12 years as the D.C. Managing Editor of the Fox News Channel and as anchor of Special Report with Brit Hume, and he continues to work for the Fox News Network as a senior political analyst and regular panelist on a variety of programs. 

 

Ann Compton –

Pioneer. Trailblazer. Legend. Ann Compton was all of those things during her storied career. In December 1974, she became the first woman assigned to cover the White House on a full-time basis by a network television news organization. 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 no doubt 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 after 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 later reassure a shaken nation in a nationally-televised address. The story of Air Force One’s flight path during those incredible hours was told in a chilling account by Garrett M. Graff for Politico Magazine in September 2016. Here are a few of Ann’s recollections from that day as told to Graff: 

“We were standing in the press cabin. A lot of people were too nervous to sit down. A Secret Service agent was in the aisle and he pointed at the monitor and said, ‘Look down there, Ann, we’re at 45,000 feet and we have no place to go’…We were landing going into Barksdale (Air Force Base, Shreveport, LA – Ed.), Ari (Fleischer, press secretary – Ed.) came back to the press cabin and said, ‘This is off the record, but the president is being evacuated.’ I said, ‘You can’t put that off the record. That’s a historic and chilling fact. That has to be on the record.’ It was a stunning statement, about the president trying to hold the country together but facing a mortal enemy. The president cannot be found because of his own safety. That sent chills down my spine…(After departing Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, NE and in route to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC – Ed.) We were finally able to say on the record – I called my bureau and told them – that the president was heading back to Washington and would address the nation from the Oval Office.” 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 called on her at a West Wing news conference saying, “Ann Compton, everybody here knows, is not only the consummate professional but is also just a pleasure to get to know.” Indeed, it was my good fortune to spend time with Ann, along with her ABC News’ colleagues Jonathan Karl and Arlette Saenz, in the West Wing in June 2014 prior to the end of her long running assignment at the White House. To spend time and talk with Ann contributed to a memorable visit. We laughed about the time in the 1980’s when she had agreed to do a speaking engagement for me 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 to me that just a few years later in 1988 she was named a Mother of the Year by the National Mother’s Day Committee! 

President Obama was spot on in his “pro’s pro” assessment of Ann. She was elected president of the White House Correspondent’s Association and chairman of the Radio-Television Correspondents’ Association on Capitol Hill. The Commission on Presidential Debates selected her to serve as a panelist for presidential debates in 1988 and 1992. In 2000, she was inducted into the Journalism Hall of Fame by the Society of Professional Journalists. 

 

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, the State Department, the 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 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. In 2012, she was on a U.S. destroyer as it made its way through the Strait of Hormuz. 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. She was granted exclusive access in 2015 to the anti-ISIS command center at an “undisclosed location” in the Middle East. Martha made yet another overseas trip in 2016 to produce follow-up reports and provide the latest information on anti-ISIS strikes, this time from the USS Truman.

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. There was one occasion when the usually serious nature of her reporting gave way to a lighter moment. In January 2007, Martha’s cell phone rang out in the middle of a White House briefing. After they recognized the music of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’” as the source of the interruption, press secretary Tony Snow and her press corps colleagues enjoyed a good laugh! But the depth of the respect her colleagues held for Martha was made clear when later that same year she was presented the Merriman Smith Memorial Award by the White House Correspondents’ Association.

Today, Martha serves as Chief Global Affairs Correspondent and co-anchor of This Week with George Stephanopoulos. In the 2012 political cycle, Martha moderated the only Vice Presidential debate between Congressman Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden. She was presented the Walter Cronkite Award for excellence in political journalism with a special commendation for debate moderation. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Martha co-moderated with ABC News’ David Muir both the Democratic and Republican primary debates on ABC.  She would later serve as co-moderator with CNN’s Anderson Cooper of the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump. After that latter debate, Michael M. Grynbaum had this to say about the co-moderators’ performance  in the New York Times: “They dug for revelations…(extracted) news nuggets – a rarity on a debate night -…they pressed for specifics, interrupting the candidates to demand concrete specifics…And they posed blunt, provocative questions at a forum that typically feels more like public broadcasting than cable news…(Raddatz and Cooper) seemed to cast off the hand-wringing pressures of this year’s crop of moderators…and put themselves directly in the mix of a high-stakes encounter.” In a reply to my congratulatory note for a “job well done” to her a couple of days after the high-stress assignment, Martha said, “I am soooo happy it’s over…And I thought Baghdad was tough?” Martha is a consummate pro who always represents herself, the ABC network, and its affiliates well. 

 

Jacob Paul “Jake” Tapper –

A mostly unknown correspondent for ABC News at the time, I first met Jake the morning after the Iowa Caucuses in January 2004. All the attention was focused on the Democratic party that year due to the incumbent status of Republican President George W. Bush. John Kerry captured first place and John Edwards came in a close second, while early contenders Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt finished well back. The outcome was a serious setback to Dean who exacerbated the problems associated with a third place showing with what became known as the “Dean Scream” in a post-caucus speech to his supporters.  It was a body blow to Gephardt, who had repeatedly stressed that a win in Iowa was critical to his presidential aspirations, and would lead to his dropping out of the race the following day.  

Some years earlier, I 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 made an appearance in January 2000 after anchoring the network’s Iowa Caucus coverage from Des Moines the night before. But by 2004, the primary schedule in the early states was being compressed to the point that 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, relatively new correspondent Jake Tapper drew the short straw. He graciously agreed to accept my speaking invitation even though it necessitated catching a commercial flight to New Hampshire the next day. In doing so, he proved to be a great sport while impressing the audience with a recap and analysis of the previous night’s Democratic caucus results. (Jake accurately predicted that Dean’s post-caucus speech would long haunt him, and that Gephardt would drop out of the race which is precisely what happened later that same day. – Ed.

By the time the 2008 election cycle rolled around, Jake was ABC News’ national/senior political correspondent based in the network’s D.C. bureau and his profile had grown significantly. 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 also learned that Jake would be ABC News’ lead reporter covering the 2008 presidential election. With all this in mind, I was thrilled when he accepted my invitation to make an encore appearance at my Breakfast Club following the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. These were much different Caucuses than in 2004, with wide open races for the nominations of both political parties. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee posted a comfortable win over Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and John McCain; on the Democratic side, Barack Obama finished ahead of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. Jake had much more to talk about during his comments to the assembled business and community leaders than he did in 2004. It was on the way to this second Breakfast Club appearance in 2008 that Jake told me how fortuitous it was that he stayed behind in Des Moines, and not immediately flown off to New Hampshire with his colleagues, four years earlier. I told him that I didn’t understand. 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 since that time had a little baby boy! 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 to learn that they now had a second little boy! 

As noted earlier in regards to Brit Hume, news organizations will often change their White House Correspondents when a new president is elected. That scenario played out once again as Jake was named Senior White House Correspondent the day after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. My wife and I would have the pleasure of meeting up with Jake and Jennifer at the White House Correspondents Dinner in April 2012 where Jake was honored for an unprecedented third time in a row with the prestigious Merriman Smith Award which recognizes “presidential coverage under deadline pressure.”

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 ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent 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. His broad experience covering foreign policy and the military is reflected in having filed reports from more than 30 countries. Jon has always kept a keen eye on U.S. politics as well. In the 2016 political cycle, he covered all the major candidates. His work included the first interview with Donald Trump, as well as interviews with Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders (who knocked on Jon’s head for good luck!). Jon is a regular contributor to This Week with George Stephanopoulos and also serves as an occasional guest anchor. In addition, he hosts the weekly podcast Powerhouse Politics along with ABC News’ Political Director, Rick Klein. 

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, Ann Compton and Arlette Saenz 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. 

Like so many of his colleagues, Jon has been recognized with some of the most prestigious honors in journalism. He is one of the few journalists to win twice the Joan Shorenstein Barone Award for excellence in Washington-based reporting, in both 2010 and 2015. Jon received the 2001 National Press Foundation’s Everett McKinley Dirksen Award, the highest honor for Congressional reporting. In 2009, his coverage of President Barack Obama’s inauguration was recognized with an Emmy Award. Jon was bestowed the Walter Cronkite Award for National Individual Achievement in 2013. In January 2017, ABC News President James Goldston announced that Jon’s title was being expanded to that of Chief Washington Correspondent and Chief White House Correspondent in recognition of his exceptional work during the 2016 political campaign.    

 

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. While I have an acknowledged bias to the ABC Television Network and a sense of allegiance to White House Correspondents associated with ABC News, it’s my feeling that our nation would benefit from a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the work of all their broadcast, print and digital colleagues who assume the duties of the White House press corps. Sam Donaldson, who as noted earlier served two tours as White House Correspondent for ABC News, said this about going to work every day to cover 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.”

Correspondents from Sam Donaldson to Jon Karl are WINNERS for their tireless dedication to the pursuit of the truth and what really goes on at the White House, and for serving in a role that remains vital to our democratic process.

Sources

Book –

Hold On, Mr. President! by Samuel A. Donaldson, Jr. (Random House Inc., 1987)

Magazine –

(March 6-13, 2017) Editorial “Speaking Truth to Power” Broadcasting & Cable

Newspaper –

Thompson, Kate (October 4, 1996) “Donaldson disputes media’s ‘power’” Sioux City Journal

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