Covering the White House is considered by many to be the pinnacle of political journalism, and Medill has a long and storied history of churning out reporters who have made 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. their second home -- at least for a few years. Four Medill alumni who are or have been White House correspondents discussed this coveted job with Elliott Smith (BSJ97), sharing the details and hard work that go hand-in-hand with the Oval Office beat. Smith spoke with:
Lark McCarthy (BSJ75, MSJ76), Emmy award-winning journalist who was a White House correspondent for ABC News and anchor for CBS News Nightwatch. She currently is the host of Inside E Street.
Julie Pace (BSJ04), current White House correspondent for the Associated Press, where she has worked since 2007.
Jeff Mason (BSJ98, MSJ99), current White House correspondent for REuters, where he has worked since 2009.
Susan Page (BSJ73), Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today, where she writes about the White House and national politics. She is a two-time winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency.
WAS COVERING THE WHITE HOUSE YOUR DREAM JOB?
MCCARTHY: It was a goal since high school. For me, it was a journalism dream come true.
PACE: It’s definitely something I fell into when I started at the AP in 2007. I got started covering the campaign, and I never thought I would start going to the White House. After the election, the bureau chief wanted me on the team, and it was a total surprise.
HOW DID YOU FEEL YOUR FIRST DAYS ON THE JOB?
PAGE: The first time I walked through the White House gate and down the curved driveway to the press room, in 1979, I couldn’t quite believe I was there. It seemed like such a huge honor and a privilege. I felt the same way when I went through the White House gates today — 33 years later.
MCCARTHY: The first few days were a mix of awe and pride and humility — the awe from thinking about all of the history that has happened on those grounds, pride in having achieved a career goal and humility in realizing that every day it’s a high-pressure, competitive environment.
MASON: Reuters has a small space in the White House that we call a booth. It’s essentially an office that you can go in and fit five people into a very small space. It’s about the size of a large walk-in closet. My first day covering the White House, I was super excited going in, then got in and sat down inside the booth and was depressed for the next three hours. I thought, “I can’t believe I will spend the next four years of my life in this tiny space.” But once you get your head around that, like anything, you adapt to your physical surroundings. The truth is, I was thrilled.
WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY LIKE?
PACE: I get to the White House by 8 a.m. every morning, but before that I’m answering emails and reading stories on the AP wire to see what my competitors have. You come into the day with a schedule that the White House puts out, but that’s just the framework. It never ends like it looks on the schedule.
MASON: A typical day in D.C. usually means getting to the White House in the morning and basing your schedule on the president’s schedule.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FONDEST MEMORIES?
PAGE: You’re covering the biggest, hardest, most consequential issues faced by the country and the world. You’re watching history.
You get a perspective, albeit an incomplete one, on what drives presidents and policy. You see a bit of what happens behind the
scenes. It’s just such a privilege. It is hard work and a lot of pressure — but also a load of fun.
MASON: My favorite memory is President Obama’s first full day in office. It was the day after inauguration, and I was in the booth late.
A White House official came down and said, “Jeff, Robert Gibbs is gathering a few reporters, don’t tell anyone but come follow me.” I figured he was giving some briefing, so I grabbed my laptop and went back and there were about four other reporters there. We set up with Gibbs, and he told us to follow him, and we walked out of the West Wing area and into the residence area on the lower floor. Gibbs stopped and said, “Out of an abundance of caution, with the mishap yesterday with the oath of office, President Obama is going to take the oath of office a second time.” There was the chief justice, president, maybe a couple of other aides and four or five of us in the press corps, and he took the oath of office again. There were maybe 10 of us that witnessed it, and I just happened to be working that night.
WHAT’S TRAVELING WITH THE PRESIDENT LIKE?
MCCARTHY: It is a heady experience. Travel days are usually long. The standing press corps joke is that check-in at Andrews Air Force Base is always 0-dark-thirty.
MASON: Getting on Air Force One is always exciting. That part has not rubbed off.
PACE: There are all sorts of routines. Every news organization has the same seat. There’s informal voting for what movie [we] will watch. Who gets off the plane first, who gets off last. These are all things that are passed down from one generation of reporters to another.
PAGE: The sad truth, though, is that on foreign trips what you see most of all are the inside of buses and filing centers at hotels. Are we in Moscow, Russia, or Moscow, Idaho? Sometimes you’d have to walk outside to be sure.
WHAT IS ONE FUN THING THAT MOST OF US WOULD NEVER KNOW ABOUT COVERING THE WHITE HOUSE?
PACE: If you think your office break room is rough, you should see it over here.
MCCARTHY: It is special to go to a White House Christmas party; or a picnic at the president’s home. And your parents will always get a thrill when you say, “I’m calling you from the White House.”
HOW DID YOUR MEDILL BACKGROUND HELP YOU?
PAGE: The skills I learned at Medill — and as a reporter and editor at the Daily Northwestern — are the ones I use every single day. Get it fast, but get it right. Details count. Provide context. Develop sources. Do more interviews than you need; you might learn something surprising.
MASON: I’m known on our team as being the strictest person about exact quotes. That’s because of Medill. I really care that every quote we stick on the wire that the president says is exactly right. I thank Medill for that standard.
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE ASPIRING REPORTERS HOPING TO FOLLOW YOUR PATH?
PACE: Don’t think there is a standard path to get to the White House or a beat like this. You can come to this job from a dozen different ways.
MASON: Always apply for the reach job. It may be technically out of your league, but if you want it, and you’ve got the skills to get there, eventually you’ll get it.
MCCARTHY: Follow your passion.
PAGE: Start small — in a local newspaper or station where you can do everything and learn all the things that you don’t know. Work hard. Play fair. Enjoy the job. Could any other career be as great as journalism? I don't think so.