Prime-time anchors Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon are now out. Discuss the sudden and stunning news all you want, but we want to talk about the women instead.
It took more than a half a century for ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN to put more women in their proper place: in the front row of the White House briefing room. Before four major networks all tapped women as their White House correspondents in 2021, there was Nancy Dickerson, the first female correspondent for CBS News and the first woman to report from the floor of a national political convention, chatting with Walter Cronkite about Lyndon Johnson’s 1960 campaign. Now, with Kristen Welker and Kelly O’Donnell as White House correspondents at NBC, Nancy Cordes and Weijia Jiang at CBS News, Mary Bruce at ABC News and MJ Lee at CNN, the bar for journalism is higher than ever, but more diverse and inclusive.
Along the path of intense competition for stories, something heart-warming stirred–friendship. A sisterhood built itself from the trenches of the White House briefing room and grew along the campaign trail, during a presidential Thanksgiving vacation in Nantucket, White House holiday parties an official visit to Poland and so much more. Ahead of the White House Correspondents Association dinner (a.k.a. “nerd prom” on April 29, 2023) we spoke exclusively with Welker, O’Donnell, Cordes, Jiang, Bruce and Lee about their official roles as well as private dinners with network friends, parenting tips, group selfies and snuggling each other babies.
NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT
On having more women and people of color in the White House Press Corps: While we have come a long way and it is incredible, we can’t stop here and we need to continue working on this.
As a woman, as a mom and as a person of color: I can relate to different issues people are experiencing and ask the questions that they want answered. The economy, the debate over abortion and paid family leave resonate with women and families all across the country.As a woman journalist, I feel a serious responsibility to shine a light on these important issues that we face as a country.
I have such incredible respect: For the work that these [White House press corps] women do.We are on the frontlines of history and we’ve been in the trenches together for years. We formed these very close friendships very quickly and we inspire and push each other to be the best journalists we can possibly be.
On pushing to break news and secure exclusive interviews: We covered several presidential campaigns together for different networks, racing to get to the rope line first to interview candidates. But on the way back home, we’d sit on the plane together, working on our reports, laughing, commiserating and sharing stories.
How women succeed in this role: Always be prepared.
Pioneering women who paved the way: Andrea Mitchell, Gwen Ifill, Savannah Guthrie, many of them who I also consider mentors. They set the highest bar for journalism and I start each day trying to live up to the example they set.
One issue that I try to shine a light on is: Women’s health, in particular for African American women. One of the most important stories I covered is the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate among Black women. This is a community that is still underserved, and a critical issue that needs to be addressed across all levels.
CBS NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT
The Lives of the White House Press Corps… Crisscross constantly. It’s not just at the White House. The night before the Trump arraignment, I got to Reagan National for my 10 p.m. flight to New York and Kristen [Welker] was already sitting at the gate. Mary [Bruce] and I covered two impeachments together. Kelly [O’Donnell] and I chased Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner and Paul Ryan around the Capitol for years together. And then there are all the campaign flights … the rallies … the foreign trips. I’ve gotten to see the world with these amazing women. How lucky we are that we get to spend time with some of our best friends every day.
If Kelly or MJ [Lee] get a scoop or an exclusive… I can be thrilled for them even if I wish I had it first! It’s the nature of the job. We motivate each other, no question. Out on the South Lawn, we’ll be chatting with each other one minute and shouting over each other the next minute as we try to put a question to President Biden. Each of us has our strengths — as broadcasters, as interviewers, as writers. We recognize and celebrate those strengths in each other. If you were to pop into our tiny booths off the White House briefing room, you’d hear a lot of laughter, a lot of gossip, and a lot of compliments for one another.
It’s never going to be easy: to balance motherhood with this job. The hours can be long and unpredictable. News doesn’t break on a timetable. We travel when the president travels. It helps to work alongside other women who are navigating the same challenges and making the same tough decisions. We compare notes all the time. “How are you juggling this? How did you deal with that?”
Women who blazed a trail at the White House: Nancy Dickerson, Lesley Stahl, Ann Compton, Rita Braver.
CBS NEWS SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT
February 10, 2022: Women reporters made up the entire front row of the White House briefing. We all cheered after someone noted it because no one could remember another time when that had happened. I immediately thought about a press conference I covered when President Trump hosted Turkish President Erdogan in the East Room. I was the only woman in the front row, surrounded by six men.
From a woman’s perspective: We often have personal experience that can help inform our reporting. That does not mean our gender identity shades our coverage, but it does help us ask the right questions.
One of my favorite quotes of all time: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”(former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright). In short — yes, we look out for each other. The narrative that women are all out to get each other — especially in our industry — is so tired and dated. While we are competitors, we are also colleagues. Beyond that, we are friends. I see fellow White House correspondents more often than other CBS journalists. We travel the world together, attend countless meetings and briefings together, and yes — socialize outside of work. Do I try to scoop the other networks on breaking news? Of course! Do I pop into the other offices when I need a Tide stain remover or a bobby pin? Yes. Do I vent to them about everything from childcare to access to a White House event? Absolutely.
When I was pregnant with my first child while covering Trump, fellow mothers were quick to give me tips for pumping at work, which I have handed down to every pregnant woman I see in the briefing room. Having a dedicated support system is important if you want to do this job well.
I was raised to believe: That if you do the work, the work will speak for itself. That is not true. Now I tell younger journalists that they must make sure the right people — the decision-makers — are seeing their work. I don’t want to generalize, but I can say that more women than men who I have talked to about this struggle with self-promoting.
NBC NEWS SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT
When I started at the White House: The legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas was still in the briefing room and her reporting history connected back to the JFK years when far fewer women were in the press corps.What I appreciate now is that it’s perfectly expected to see women succeeding on this beat.
Women bring to political news coverage: Our own life experience to the beat and the job. While some are working moms, others juggle the stresses of aging parents and managing busy home life demands. Those challenges are what many of our news consumers experience in their daily lives so when we report on issues from inflation to baby formula shortages, we can bring an awareness that our audiences can feel. Men bring life knowledge too but ours may be different. We all can use what we know, experience and understand to help inform our questions and reporting.
In a demanding and difficult business: We all need allies and cheerleaders. I learned a while ago that other women in the same job understand the pressures and pitfalls better than just about anyone else. We could relate to the same concerns, share tips and much needed laughter. I feel stronger because of those bonds. We are competitors and we each want to break the next story or get the key question to the president. But when another of these ladies has the big get or career moment, it is a joy to see the light shine on her. Celebrating that inspires me for next time. I have found our support for each other is contagious. The good feeling helps get us through the long hours, high stress and unrelenting pace.
Success isn’t achieved: Differently for women on this beat. We bring preparation and drive to the task. We draw on our life and career experience. We must believe we are worthy of the immense responsibility of getting it right.
CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT
I’ve felt from the beginning: A real sense of collegiality among the women White House correspondents who work for the different TV networks. I started covering the White House for CNN just as our daughter was turning one – and now, I’m just weeks away from giving birth to our second kid. Not surprisingly, I find myself frequently leaning on fellow mom correspondents for advice and support. Sometimes just knowing that I’m surrounded by colleagues who have juggled the very same things that I am juggling as a new parent – that first White House foreign trip after becoming a mom and being away from your baby for days, or tackling grueling work days when you’re battling pregnancy fatigue, for example – can be incredibly reassuring.
What fills me with pride: Is not just that I’m in the company of so many outstanding female TV correspondents at the White House, but that there are so many women of color in that mix doing this job right now.Weijia at CBS, who has become a dear friend – she and I have certainly had moments of marveling at the fact that the idea of two Asian-American women, both senior correspondents for major TV networks sitting in the front row of the White House press briefing room, was simply unthinkable not that long ago.
Regardless of the fact that we work for different outlets: We are always going to lift each other up and support one another: It’s very much a “your success is my success” mentality.
In my first press conference with a foreign leader (in Korea): I wanted to be prepared in case I got called on to ask a question, but really didn’t know what to expect and was nervous. Kelly [O’Donnell] happened to overhear a conversation I was having with a colleague about this and was quick to jump in and share with us what she thought were the best strategies to make sure I could ask each of the leaders a question – or more!
The reporter you want to keep an eye on: Kristen [Welker] (an amazing blend of tenacious and kind). If you see her start to wander off at a Biden event, it might mean that she’s found a spot from where she’ll try to shout a question to the president.
Supportive male colleagues: Who cheer on the success of the female correspondents shouldn’t go unstated. I’m lucky to share our tiny White House booth with Phil Mattingly, for example – yes, we trade notes on reporting and all things work-related, but there are many days when I’m asking him question after question about parenting young kids while doing this crazy job; he’s also covered me on more than one occasion when I’ve had unexpected childcare issues pop up, without so much as raising an eyebrow.
MARY K. BRUCE
ABC NEWS SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT
When I first covered the White House [as a producer during the Obama administration]: the networks’ chief White House correspondents were all white men. Since then, we have seen a rapid wholesale change. At the start of this administration, those top spots were filled by a diverse group of women.
What I often find most remarkable about this shift: and the number of women now in the press corps is just how unremarkable it is. It is no longer unusual to have the front row at the daily briefing be all female reporters. That’s a pretty great thing.
We all shudder at the phrase: “women’s issues” and realize whether it’s talking to voters or pressing a politician, that these are fundamentally American issues.
It drives me nuts: When female candidates are pressed on how they juggle personal and professional responsibilities. Ask the men the same things!
While we are competitors on paper: It often feels like we are all one team. We spend a lot of time together working in very close quarters, whether it’s in our little booths in the back of the pressroom or traveling around the world together. This is a unique job, and these women can relate in a way few can. We all understand the crazy juggling and hustling required to do this.The deadlines and pressures. We share advice (and hairspray) but more than that we support, encourage, and push each other to succeed. Make no mistake, we are all competitive and ambitious, but this is also a real sisterhood and I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by such amazing women, mothers, and mentors.
This is not just a job… it is a responsibility and an honor. I’m reminded of that every day when I walk through those gates and look up at the White House. My mentor, the great Ann Compton, often points out that we work less than 100 paces from the Oval Office. We feel the weight of that responsibility every day and do our best to live up to it. That said, I think it’s important to be transparent. I get to work with an amazing team at ABC, the absolute best. I have a wonderful husband and family and people in my life who support me and our children so that I can do this.
The story not getting enough coverage: is education and childcare crisis in this country. It affects every family and parent — mothers and fathers — and is top of mind for most people I know.
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The annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is this Saturday, April 29, 2023.