By David Bauder, The Associated Press on May 22, 2020.
NEW YORK – To anyone who’s watched, there’s more that binds Yamiche Alcindor, Kaitlan Collins and Weijia Jiang than an impromptu display of teamwork at a recent White House news conference.
Each reporter has a knack for getting under President Donald Trump’s skin and an equal ability not to let it knock them off stride.
They symbolize the test of covering a White House like none other, with a president who views the press as an enemy yet is accessible almost daily. A question may elicit a candid response, misdirection, falsehood or attack – you never know what’s coming.
Trump has reacted to questions by Alcindor, Collins and Jiang by calling them nasty or racist, and effectively telling the journalists to pipe down.
â€œHow do you call out what’s happening without making yourself the story, and refocus on what the public policy should be?â€ said Jessica Yellin, a former CNN White House reporter who now does a daily Instagram newcast. â€œIt’s incredibly challenging. They’re showing us how it’s done and figuring it out at the same time.â€
The unexpected co-operation came during an outdoor news conference when Jiang, of CBS News, asked Trump why his claims that the United States tested more than any country mattered at a time people were dying of COVID-19.
Trump said that â€œmaybe thatâ€™s a question you should ask China. Donâ€™t ask me. Ask China that question.â€
He looked to move on but CNNâ€™s Collins, in line to ask the next question, let the exchange play out.
Jiang – who was born in Xiamen, China, and emigrated with her family to West Virginia when she was 2 – wondered why the president directed that remark to her. Trump said he would say it to â€œanyone who asks a nasty question.â€
He tried to wave off Collins and motion for the the next questioner – Alcindor. The PBS â€œNewsHourâ€ correspondent waited as Collins tried to ask a question before Trump, apparently frustrated, called an end to the news conference.
Jiang later tweeted thanks to both Collins and Alcindor.
It was a good example – not always common – of reporters working together to prevent a president from dodging a question, said Lynne Adrine, a former Washington news producer and now professor for Syracuse University.
Not everyone has the same perspective.
Jiang was criticized for â€œgrandstandingâ€ and insinuating that Trumpâ€™s response to her question was racist. â€œOnly a partisan hack could interpret Trumpâ€™s response as racist,â€ Kylee Zempel wrote in The Federalist. â€œThe president routinely shuts down reporters who ask bogus questions, as he should.â€
Two years earlier, when Alcindor asked Trump about nationalism, the president labeled the question racist. More recently, he objected during a coronavirus briefing when she prefaced a question about ventilators and masks by noting that he had said some governors didn’t actually need equipment that they requested.
When he denied having said it, Alcindor said she quoted him from an interview with Foxâ€™s Sean Hannity.
Trump said she should be more positive. Alcindor tried again to ask her question.
â€œExcuse me, you didnâ€™t hear me,â€ Trump said. â€œThatâ€™s why you used to work for the (New York) Times and now you work for somebody else. Look, let me tell you something. Be nice. Donâ€™t be threatening.â€
She proceeded to ask her question.
Alcindor, who, like the other White House reporters was not made available to the AP for an interview, later noted that she wasnâ€™t the first human being, woman, black person or journalist whoâ€™d been told to be nice and not threatening.
Alcindorâ€™s roots are in print journalism, and she covered Trumpâ€™s campaign for The New York Times. She joined PBS in 2018.
â€œIt should never be about me,â€ she said on â€œPod Save Americaâ€ earlier this year, â€œbecause Iâ€™m so focused on all the people in this country who will never see the White House, who will never get to speak to the president. And they deserve me to be professional and not lose my cool and to be so focused on the truth that Iâ€™m not wavering on anything else that goes on around me.â€
CNNâ€™s Collins pressed forward like an automaton in a recent exchange with Trump about a whistleblower’s accusations. She completed her question on the fifth try despite Trumpâ€™s attempt to stop her. â€œCNN is fake news. Donâ€™t talk to me,â€ he said.
â€œI watch them and I say, â€˜these women are smart and theyâ€™re stoic, and they’re asking questions that the public wants answers to,’â€ said Jill Geisler, a professor on media and leadership at Loyola University in Chicago. â€œThey’re not there to start a scene.â€
Collins, who came to CNN from the conservative website Daily Caller in 2017, has been tested repeatedly. The administration barred her from an outdoor news conference in 2018 and last month to force her into a seat in the back of the White House briefing room. She wouldnâ€™t budge.
This week she responded to Trump’s critical retweet of a video that showed her removing a mask while leaving a news briefing by tweeting, â€œNearly 90,000 Americans have been killed by coronavirus, and the president is tweeting about me pulling my mask down for six seconds.â€
A response that attacks rather than defends is dangerous, however. Taking the bait – and becoming known for hostile exchanges with a president – can make a reporter a hero to some and a less effective showboater to others.
â€œThere’s something unique about the way television reporters try to create moments that they can use on the air,â€ said Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer. â€œYou don’t see this problem with print reporters because, generally speaking, they’re not going to get on the air.â€
He senses reporters trying to prove themselves to colleagues.
â€œA reporter’s job is to get information and to hold people accountable,â€ Spicer said. â€œThey don’t have to be jackasses about it.â€
Trump’s current press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, did not respond to a request for comment.
â€œIt’s a reporter’s job to do what they need to do get answers and it’s a president’s job to try and remain above the fray if he wants to deliver his message,â€ said Nedra Pickler, a former White House correspondent for The Associated Press. â€œThis president doesn’t live by those rules.â€
Jiang, Collins and Alcindor aren’t the only reporters to tangle with Trump. CNN’s Jim Acosta has turned his experiences into a book. Some believe Trump is particularly angered by tough questions from women and minorities. Spicer disagrees, noting Trump’s respect for Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
â€œThe president is a fighter,â€ Jiang told Syracuse University students recently. â€œCertain reporters I think get under his skin more than others, and you just have to be aware that you could be one of those that day.â€
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