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Top TV journalists describe covering President Trump

Updated April 9, 2019 - 6:37 pm

CBS News correspondent Steven Portnoy was sipping on an overpriced beverage at the Bellagio on Sunday when news broke that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was about to resign.

“I spit out about 50 cents of aloe water and figured out how to get on the air,” Portnoy said. “That’s the life we lead. … It really is a 24/7 endeavor to cover the White House.”

Portnoy was one of four White House correspondents featured on a panel at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas on Tuesday morning. Speaking from the conference’s main stage, they shared tips on covering an administration that has become the primary focus of America’s largest news networks.

“It really does feel like drinking from a fire hose every day,” ABC News anchor and correspondent Cecilia Vega said. “There was a time during the first six months when we were filing two to three stories each broadcast from the White House alone.”

While previous presidents have relied on press secretaries to steer they day’s news coverage, the panelists said Trump frequently takes the wheel. PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor said she bought an Apple Watch so notifications of the president’s social media posts would literally wake her up.

“The president is absolutely governing through Twitter,” she said.

But the president’s deluge of posts — more than 2,800 times on Twitter last year alone, according to Politico — has forced journalists to rethink how they cover him.

“I think we’ve learned that it’s OK to pause a little bit more when it comes to some of these tweets,” Vega said.

Trump’s administration is also straying from norms by reducing White House press briefings daily to only four times in the past six months, Portnoy said. Instead, reporters are trying to catch Trump and key officials boarding the president’s Marine One helicopter.

“What we have now is this frenzied, freewheeling, seemingly chaotic exchange where we’re forced to shout over the sound of a helicopter on the South Lawn,” Portnoy said.

NBC News’s chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson said the noisy atmosphere has allowed the president to shrug off difficult inquiries by saying he couldn’t hear the questions.

“When you do a press conference you cannot dodge the question,” Jackson said.

The constant coverage of Trump’s administration, little of it flattering, has drawn the ire of the president and led to him to condemn the press. The correspondents said they must hold the president accountable, but they also noted ways they could win back more of the public’s trust.

Accuracy was paramount, Vega said.

“Every time we mess up factually it gives them ammunition to call us ‘fake news,’ to call us the ‘enemy of the people,’” she said.

Jackson reminded reporters and anchors to “check your tone” when delivering the news.

“I get it snark sells … but it’s not what we’re on this stage to do and talk about,” she said. “If you say it in kind of a nasty way, that does undermine your credibility.”

One of the most recent flash points between Trump and the press has been the completion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month investigation.

The president has said a summary of the investigation vindicates his team of allegations they conspired with Russian efforts to win the 2016 presidential election. But the correspondents said Tuesday they don’t believe the story is over.

“We still had a foreign government really trying to get at the Trump campaign and trying to influence the elections,” Alcindor said. “And I think we should continue to report on that.”

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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