That change we keep hearing about won’t be restricted to the president’s quarters.
When incoming press secretary Robert Gibbs approaches the podium in the White House Briefing Room, a new cast of notebook-clutching, laptop-tapping reporters will be there to greet him as the five biggest news networks are all switching up their chief White House correspondents to cover the 44th president.
The new faces will be Chuck Todd (NBC), Jake Tapper (ABC), Chip Reid (CBS) and Ed Henry (CNN). Although Fox News hasn’t named a replacement for Bret Baier — who just took over “Special Report” — the betting money in Washington is on correspondent Major Garrett, who covered the Obama campaign. While all the correspondents played significant roles during the 2008 election, their White House experience varies from several years to none at all.
With surveys showing the public believes Barack Obama received easier coverage during the campaign, coupled with lingering criticism of how the White House press corps dropped the ball as the Bush administration made the case for invading Iraq, the incoming group has a few hurdles to overcome.
“No reporter should be there thinking they need to win a popularity contest with the public,” said Sam Donaldson, the veteran newsman who’s sparred with a few White House press secretaries.
“I’ve found that if you do your job right, you earn the respect of the people in the White House, including the president,” Donaldson added, “even if you ask him an uncomfortable question.”
With Obama inheriting two wars and an economic meltdown, there should be no shortage of tough questions to ask. Here's a look at the reporters who will be asking them:
Obama’s Jan. 7 press conference offered two notable firsts. The president-elect finally met the press corps in Washington, and among the assembled reporters was a familiar face to TV news junkies, NBC and MSNBC political director Chuck Todd, in an unfamiliar new role lobbing questions at Obama.
After watching Todd, notebook in hand, ask about Gaza, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews joked that Todd had “just lost his virginity.”
Questioning the new president is one more of the many hats that Todd — whose easy-going persona and deep political knowledge have made him an audience favorite, with a slew of fan sites dedicated to him — wears at NBC. While perfecting his correspondent chops on air, Todd will continue as political director, and editor of MSNBC’s “First Read” blog. In addition, he’s been named a contributing editor on “Meet the Press,” and this week published a demographic-filled book on the 2008 race, “How Barack Obama Won.”
“Our role, when we’re doing it well, isn’t being the first to report who the new CIA director is,” Todd said. “We should be judged by how we research the motivations and explain what this means for everyday people.”
While roughly 10 million viewers still tune in to the “Nightly News,” an increasing number are already aware of breaking news out of the White House by the time it airs, so that NBC is now in the “breaking analysis business,” says Todd. And as Brian Williams suggested, Todd’s job on newscast is to clearly explain why political events matter in simple language, as if “you’re talking to people in line at the grocery store.”
Todd said he’s “talked to everyone who will listen" about his new role, including former "Nightly News" host Tom Brokaw and NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker. “I’m one of those who want a lot of advice,” Todd said. “The mechanics of this are new to me. I want to get better at it.”
While Tapper's “Political Punch” blog is a must-read among the chattering class, during the election, he still racked up the second-most minutes of air time of any network correspondent, according to television analyst Andrew Tyndall, who said that he didn't see quantity coming at the expense of quality.
“I think [Tapper has] got the potential to be the best network White House correspondent since Brit Hume,” Tyndall said, adding that the two reporters share an ability to deftly break through the White House talking points with a quick turn of phrase before sending it back to New York.
Tapper said the White House correspondent job is one he’s “wanted for a long time,” which isn’t too surprising given his reputation for uncommon ambition, even amongst the competitive field of network reporters.
After hitting the trail for Salon in 2000, Tapper moved to ABC in 2003, by which time he already had two books under his belt. Similar to NBC’s David Gregory, who just left the White House beat, Tapper has served as a utility man for his network, filling in as host of “Nightline,” “Good Morning America,” and “This Week.”
Last year, he was also a utility man on the campaign trail, covering Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and, most important, Barack Obama. “I think it helps any correspondent to have spent some serious time hearing the guy speak, getting to know him, how his thought process works and how he got elected,” Tapper said.
Besides keeping tabs on Obama, Tapper wasn’t shy in criticizing the media for not being tough enough on the incoming president, or at least not holding him to the same standards as they applied to John McCain and Clinton.
“I think there were media organizations who did damage to the brand, not only to their particular brand, but political journalism,” Tapper said, adding that along with a few journalists with their legs atingle, “one of the reasons the coverage was what it was is that the Obama shop, the Obama campaign, was very effective at what they did.”
During the 2008 race, Reid was “focused like a laser beam on McCain,” spending less than two weeks covering the Obama campaign, the domain of correspondent Dean Reynolds.
But while Reid’s getting sourced up in Obama-land, he’s ahead of the game when it comes to covering the White House. During the mid-1990’s, Reid described his role at NBC as a “jack of all trades," pursuing the hot Washington story of the day. And for a time, he said, there was no bigger story than the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which he covered “soup to nuts.”
More recently, Reid covered the Senate and House for NBC from 2004 to 2007, before joining CBS as its Capitol Hill correspondent. Obama, he said, wasn’t a “major player around the Hill,” during his tenure there, and then it was all McCain, all the time on the trail.
On hand in Arizona for McCain's victory party turned concession speech, Reid got a call to go to Chicago next, rather than Washington, but says he didn’t know who was getting the chief correspondent job. Then, while switching planes following an Obama press conference in Chicago, the word of his new role came straight from CBS News President Sean McManus.
Reid has mostly been stationed in Washington, with Reynolds covering Obama during his transition time in Chicago, and is just now picking up the new beat, whether cracking open Obama’s two books on a recent beach vacation or meeting with those close to the incoming president.
“They are masterful at controlling the message,” Reid said of the Obama team, adding that “our job is to avoid being spoon-fed by them.”
Reid said that his job isn’t to prove anything to viewers, including those carefully watching how aggressive the press corps is with Obama as president.
“I’m just going to do my job and I’m going to make sure not to overcompensate for perceptions in some quarters,” Reid said. “My number one goal is to have viewers believe me and trust me.”
Since the election, Ed Henry's 7-year-old son Patrick has been asking if Obama’s started pulling troops out of Iraq yet.
“This is a dramatic time,” said Henry, who frequently mentions his "front row seat" to the “historic” administration, “and I can’t wait for my kids to look back [on me] and say, ‘he did a good job.’”
Formerly on the print side as a senior editor at Roll Call, Henry made the jump to CNN in 2004 to cover Congress, and joined CNN's White House beat in March 2006, under John King. A few weeks later Bush responded to a question from him on the future of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the now-famous phrase, “I’m the decider.”
During the transition, he pressed the president-elect on whether adding old Washington hands to the Cabinet signaled real change. "Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost," Obama responded, in his own “decider” moment. "It comes from me.”
Henry’s also known for sillier YouTube-worthy moments. In Hawaii, Anderson Cooper had the camera zoom out to show off Henry’s board shorts while giving a report from the beach.
Once Obama takes office, though, it will be a “full sprint,” says Henry. “Barack Obama made a lot of promises on foreign policy and domestic policy. We have to keep his feet to the fire and be pushing every day.”
Asked about the perception that Obama has had easy treatment from the press so far, Henry warns against overcompensating: “We can’t turn every nit-picky thing into Watergate.”
Major Garrett (?) ;
In the last days of the 2008 election, amid growing tension between Fox News and the Obama campaign, correspondent Major Garrett took issue with a proposed “Fox & Friends” segment indicating that the Democratic nominee had ignored the network.
"May I point out Obama has done five interviews with me and one with Chris Wallace, one with Brit Hume and one with Bill O'Reilly," Garrett wrote, in an email obtained by Huffington Post. "That's eight interviews. Would I like more? Yes. Would Chris Wallace? Yes. Would Brit and O'Reilly like more? Of course."
If Fox selects Garrett to replace Bret Baier, as some colleagues expect, they’d be appointing a chief White House correspondent with extensive experience following Obama on the trail, and a reputation for fairness—in this instance, even willing to question his own network’s coverage.
Garrett wrote for U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Times in the 1990s before joining CNN’s White House team in early 2000, and later moving to Fox in 2002 as a general assignment reporter. There, he covered the 2004 election, and now serves as the network's congressional correspondent.