White House Correspondent Philip Wegmann joins the podcast this week to share what it’s like to cover the president and his administration. We talk about Phil’s journey to get to this level in his career, the do’s and don’ts of a White House Press Briefing, and what it’s like when the President of the United States chides you on national TV. For those interested in a career in journalism, or if you just want to know what it’s like as a WH reporter behind the scenes, this episode is for you. 

Philip Wegmann is White House Correspondent for RealClearPolitics. He previously wrote for Washington Examiner and has done investigative reporting on congressional corruption and institutional malfeasance.


TRANSCRIPT

Beverly Hallberg

And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host Beverly Hallberg, and on today’s episode, we have on White House correspondent Philip Wegmann, who’s going to give us all the info of what it’s like to cover the president and his administration. We’re going to get into Phil’s journey to get to this level in his career, the dos and don’ts in a White House press briefing, and what it was like when the President of the United States chided him for a question that he asked on national tv. For those interested in a career in journalism, I just want to know what it’s like behind the scenes and the dance that reporters have with the White House. This episode is for you as we bring him on. A little bit more about Phil Philip Wegmann is the White House correspondent for real clear politics. He previously wrote for the Washington Examiner and has done investigative reporting on congressional corruption and institutional malfeasance. Thank you so much for being here, Phil. We appreciate it.

Philip Wegmann

Beverly. Thank you so much for having me.

Beverly Hallberg

Now, we have known each other for a while. I don’t want to, you can think about how many years we’ve known each other, but I remember having a conversation with you probably a decade ago about just your career and the direction you wanted to go. I was curious, did you always want to be a reporter growing up? Was that your dream job?

Philip Wegmann

Well, first of all, this is double jeopardy for me. Because not only are we having a discussion about journalism and my day job, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about all of the tips that you gave me as I was trying to figure TV out. And I’m hoping that I don’t break any of the rules that you gave me.

Beverly Hallberg

You’re doing great. I see you on the google all the time, so there we go. You’re doing fantastic. Yes.

Philip Wegmann

So as far as journalism goes I’ll be really honest with you. I got into reporting because I got lost on my way to law school. This is not something that was always the plan. I think that I took a grand total of two journalism classes in school, never wrote for the college paper. I wish I did. But barriers to entry with the proliferation of a lot of internet news websites has made easy to get into this field. It’s more difficult to succeed, but it’s easier to get your feet planted. And I’ve just been very blessed to have worked, you know, not only for some great publications, but also to have some really great editors like Tim Carney, the Washington Examiner, or Carl Cannon, my current bureau chief at Real Clear Politics. To not only help me, you know, with the day-to-day, but really invest and try and encourage me to, you know, always get to the next level because there’s so many stories and you want to execute all of them, and you want to be the best.

Beverly Hallberg

It’s funny, one of the things I’ve heard it in chatting with people over the years here in DC when they don’t know what to do next, they say, maybe I’ll go to law school. And I always say, well, that’s a, an expensive detour if you’re not quite sure where you’re headed. There are a lot of lawyers. My advice, advice was always make sure you want to study law and practice law if you are going to get a law degree. Because the time and money. But I agree with you. I think the path to journalism can be really varied at, I did have a radio and television broadcasting degree, so I did study it, but I never thought I’d own my own business, never thought I’d go to DC do media training, all the things that I’m doing. I find that occupation of media, it’s a lot about working hard, mastering a craft on the job, and just knowing the right people. Did you find that to be the case as you moved up and moved to different outlets?

Philip Wegmann

I certainly did. And the way I think of it more and more is when it comes to journalism, yes, you can go get the degree, and that’s very helpful to learn more and more about the theory and the nuts and bolts. But journalism is one of these things that you really do learn by practicing. In a lot of ways it’s a trade. I think a lot of people in the news business, they like to romanticize and they like to try and bring a more scientific lens to this. But at the end of the day the job can be broken down into those very simple questions of who, what, when, where, and why. And it’s journalism. It’s the news. New information is the currency, and whoever gets there first the fastest and tells the best story, more often than not, they win.

Beverly Hallberg

And for you, how important has having a presence on Twitter, going on TV to talk about your work, how has that also bolstered your career?

Philip Wegmann:

It’s interesting because a lot of times reporters are addicted to Twitter and it makes sense, right? Because if something is going to appear on television, it is going to appear in print first and probably the fastest way other than visiting the Real Clear Politics home website to find what is in the news and what is most important. And driving the news cycle is probably Twitter. You’re going to hear from, you know, politicians, from other journalists, from sources. It is a good aggregator of things in the moment but it can also be very myopic. And I think people in our industry learned the hard way that the narratives on Twitter especially going into the 2016 election they all made a lot of sense online, but when they were tested against the real world, they kind of fell apart.

And so you had a lot of reporters who were suddenly questioning whether or not they lived inside of a bubble. And there were, I think, some good faith efforts to get outside of that bubble after the 2016 election. But I think a lot of people in our industry remain very addicted to Twitter. So it’s, it’s an evil, but maybe a necessary evil. I think that all journalists, it’s something that you probably have to have. But you know, in addition to Twitter, it’s, you know, in addition to its vices, it does have some virtues and that it helps you get your work out there. And, and television, I think more than anything is kind of just an accreditation, right? If, if you do good work in print as a print journalist sometimes your colleagues at the networks will invite you on to give analysis. And more than anything, I think it’s just a bit of a atta boy there.

Beverly Hallberg

Exactly. I want to get into what is a typical day for you? I know many people have jobs that are nine to five, but breaking news can happen all the time. What is a typical day like for you when you start, I guess, meet with your editors, figure out what stories you’re covering going to the White House for a press briefing, let’s say, what is a typical day or really is every day different?

Philip Wegmann

Well, Beverly, remember in college when your professors would say, you’re not going to be able to finish this assignment if you do it at the last minute, or you’re not going to do well on this test if you cram. In a way, all of those things that our teachers and professors told us when we were younger about Grammy and about waiting till the last minute in journalism, those things are kind of turned on their head because you don’t exactly have the option. Sometimes you do have the opportunity to take, you know, two, three days to prepare for one interview, but sometimes it’s the nature of the beast and the new cycle demands that you be ready at the drop of a hat. And so it’s like studying and cramming for the, a final exam. But you know, rather than a grade you, you produce a paper and the test continues until, you know, you either get fired or poached by a bigger outlet, or you retire.

It’s really thrilling. It’s a lot of fun. Structure is helpful in that, you know, you want to start out your day by reading absolutely everything across spectrum whether that’s the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal you want to have a good fluency in not just what is likely to happen, but what has already happened so that when you go to talk to your sources you’re very much on the same page and you can have an, an informed discussion about generally anything at any point. And, and keep that conversation going so that you can figure out what it is that you know, and then what it is that you don’t know a and try and, and pursue that. And it really is it’s like nothing else in the world. It’s incredibly frustrating at times, but it’s also so much fun.

Beverly Hallberg

Do you find that you have to hold two plans loosely with family and friends, because you never know when that news story is going to break or there’s going to be a source you need to speak to, and is your family, and are your friends typically pretty understanding of that?

Philip Wegmann

I think that they’re pretty understanding. Just last weekend I had to cancel on some friends for a you know, barbecue that we were going to do at the last minute just because of, you know, the, the former president was speaking here in town. There are things that you can definitely do to plan out, you know, days and weeks in advance, but sometimes you know, part of journalism is that, you know, you’re living your life second to other people. The, the news business requires other people oftentimes to make news, to do something. And you follow up after the fact and, and report to the, the public what has happened. And so I think that, you know, you, you can definitely set up guardrails. You can build in some flexibility, but especially when you’re young, and especially when you haven’t established yourself, you need to be willing to hustle.

You need to be willing to say, I see your nine to five, and I’m going to turn that into my own six to nine. You need to put in the extra work. And I think back to some of the stories that I’m most proud of at the Washington Examiner, whether that was investigations into you know, a member of Congress who was later CED as a result of our reporting, or whether it was, you know, some of these Senate candidates who we helped put the nail in the coffin of the, the work that I did. Yes. You know, I, I was working on those stories at the office, but I was writing those stories more often than not when the day was over. Right? You have to put in a lot of extra effort especially when you’re young, because again, you learn by doing. And that was something that I wasn’t ready for initially when I started this this, this crazy journalism experience. But you pick up speed. You pick up some tips and tricks along the way but for anyone starting out yeah, expect to put in the extra work. And I think that over the long term, you’ll be rewarded for

Beverly Hallberg

It. I find that there’s a rhythm to most things we do in life, especially in writing. I even find that for myself. There’s a rhythm in speaking, and I find this, I found it very strange when Covid first hit and everything shut down, and I didn’t really have any clients for a couple months, so I just didn’t speak for a couple months in my normal day-to-day as I would at my job. I was so rusty even after two months, which completely surprised me because here I’ve spoken for years, public speaking, media, interviews, all of this, and I didn’t realize how much the day to day of just doing something prepares you for that next day. Do you find, looking back at your writing a decade ago to now, I’m sure you see a huge amount of growth in your writing and it’s become a rhythm for you that you’ve really mastered this practice and will continue to as you write more.

Philip Wegmann

Yep. The goal is always continual improvement. I’m really curious about the pandemic because I think that in some ways there was a lot of flexibility for writers and reporters to roll out of bed, and rather than commuting to the office just to grab that cup of coffee and get to work at the kitchen table certainly I, I’ve, you know, taken advantage of, of some of the work from home benefits, but I think that there are also costs I think back to the newsrooms that I’ve worked in, and so often some of the benefits some of the, the best stories that I’ve pursued have been the result of just talking with, with other colleagues of you know, maybe heated disagreements or arguments or just idle gossip that then sort of gets the ball rolling.

And so I’m really interested in the rhythms that, that you referenced, because, you know, there was a rhythm that we all sort of developed during the lockdowns. And I think that there were some benefits maybe, you know, an hour or two extra of working when we didn’t have to commute. But I’m really looking forward you know, in the years to come to seeing if maybe, you know, maybe the return to the office you know, full-time completely has, you know, its own benefits. I think the loss of the newsroom even now, you know, a lot of outlets are struggling to bury reporters back into a physical newsroom. Not to sound too crotchety or, or too nostalgic, but I’m afraid that we, we might lose that and lose some advantages to it.

Beverly Hallberg

Well, we lose, I think we lose the advantage of learning from other people. And that’s what you alluded to there. It’s important to talk with other people and, and see what they’ve been hearing, what their sources have been in order to help you write a better story. And, and with your writing, there’s obviously talking to people, interviewing people, but sometimes with your job, you are asking questions of pretty high level people on camera. I remember one moment specifically, it was during the pandemic, it was the one year anniversary of Joe Biden’s inauguration, and you asked him a question on live TV that he didn’t like very much. You asked him if invoking white supremacists like Bull Connor and George Wallace and saying, those who didn’t support voting rights legislation were in the same camp. He told you that you need to go back and read what he said. He raised to his voice quite a bit. I was watching this live when it happened. Take me back to that moment. What was it like to be chided by the president of the United States?

Philip Wegmann

Well, the funny thing about that was that he implied that I got into journalism because I like to read and write. And I think the insinuation was that I perhaps not, might not be very good at reading. The truth is, I did get into journalism because I like to read and write, and I got into journalism because after four years of college, that was probably the only tangible skill that I had. So you know, I laughed a little bit about that. And I couldn’t help but, but sort of recall that president Biden is not the first president who has publicly lost his temper with me. Donald Trump did not like my question about his allegation that that pandemic covid supplies were being sold by some of these hospitals. And you know, he got pretty ruffled with me in the O Garden. But it’s one of these things that you are not prepared for, because obviously as journalists, our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict and comfortable and do everything that we can to get to the truth as quickly as possible. But nothing will prepare you for the leader of the free world getting angry with you in moments like those you can’t help but sweat and wonder. Did I ask the wrong question? Did I make a mistake here? But you know.

Beverly Hallberg

But let me ask you, is there a part of you where when it happens, you know, this is going to go viral and that’s going to be beneficial to whatever story I’m writing? Is there that part where you, you know, that in some ways with Twitter, this is going to be helpful? And I’m sure you hear from so many of your friends who are like, dude, I just saw the president yell at you.

Philip Wegmann

Yeah. I’ve been surprised the number of folks who will see clips of, you know, my interactions with Kane Jean Pierre or Jen Psaki before her, I think of the White House press briefing as usually pretty boring. But, you know, folks out there with real jobs are, are sometimes paying attention, which kind of blows my mind. But yeah, I think that there is a temptation and to think, all right, well, I got a really good exchange. I got underneath their skin and, you know, I’m going to get a lot of plots or a lot of pushback online. And there was a model of journalism there was a resistance model of journalism during the previous administration where you had a number of correspondence. I think that all of us can probably think of a couple of examples who they definitely saw their job as getting underneath the skin of the previous president, and they invited that, they encouraged that they were out for blood.

And I think that that made it very difficult to obtain useful information. And then it also allowed the press to sort of stoop to the lowest expectations of the former president. He said, you know, the media is an enemy of the people. And, you know, there are a lot of conservatives who already believe that the legacy media and corporate outlets are biased and irredeemable. And then with some of their actions during the previous administration, they confirmed those biases. And, you know, I remember distinctly the moment where I realized things had changed with the transition from the two administrations. You know, you would always shout questions at Donald Trump, and certainly the press now shouts a lot of questions at President Biden. But early on during his tenure, there was an event in the East Room, and as it wrapped up and as it was walking away with vice President Kamala Harris, I was the only reporter who shouted a question, and I felt a little bit awkward.

I think I shouted something about, you know, is there a crisis at the border? And none of the other reporters said anything. And there was like this adjustment period where, where the press sort of had to decide like, no, you know, we can be very aggressive. And certainly, you know, after the Afghanistan withdrawal and, and with some of these recent controversies, the press has gotten more aggressive. But the idea that it is the same level of intensity is laughable. And I think that if you are privileged enough to have this very great job and if you take your responsibilities seriously you will avoid making yourself the story. And you should focus on, you know, the question itself. And you should not be thinking, you know, how is my editor, or how are news bookers? Or, you know, how are my colleagues going to be thinking about my question? No, you should be thinking, what answer can I get to the people who don’t have an opportunity to sit in these 50 blue seats every day at the White House? You know, what do they want to hear? That’s the job. And so, yeah, I mean, not to be crass, but I have no interest of being a rite of Senator Jim Acosta. Yeah.

Beverly Hallberg

It was the rise of celebrity journalism during the Trump era. Do you think that that ship can be rioted, or do you find that reporters are so beholden to editors, the corporate heads of the organizations they work for, that instead of going out and just being a good reporter, asking people questions, getting to the truth, or actually having to fit in narrative more than just find out the facts?

Philip Wegmann

I’m curious. I mean, there’s been so much stratification and realignment and, and diversification in the industry thus far. I think that some of the best journalism for my money is coming from reporters and writers who are open about their biases. And you know, for instance, I think that Ryan Grim at The Intercept has done phenomenal work on some of these First Amendment issues when it comes to government overreach and the attempts to police you know misinformation. I think that you know Miranda Devine at the New York Post on the other end of the spectrum I think that she has revealed things. My issue more often than not is when you have wires who are pretending that they have a view from nowhere. And then very clearly people who are watching the questions that are asked, the stories that are written, they see that you know, the wires are very aggressive with, with one political party and then are less aggressive with the other. And you know, I think that the New York Times is wrong when they said in 2017 that the truth matters now more than ever, because damn it, it’s the truth. It’s not subjective, it’s objective. Get to the story. And if you have biases, if you have your own opinions, that means that you’re human. But professionally, it also means you better put up your own guardrails to make certain that those biases and opinions, if you are a straight news reporter don’t work their way into the story.

Beverly Hallberg

I want to end with what it’s like in the press briefings when you are asking questions of the White House Press Secretary, as you mentioned, it’s Karine Jean Pierre right now, the press has gotten a little bit more testy with her as of late because there are some hard issues, especially including Hunter Biden. What is really the goal when you go into those press briefings? How do you get your question answered? Tips and tricks that you’ve learned along the way that help you get called on.

Philip Wegmann

I wish I had some sort of secret formula. I’m going to be honest with you. It is waking up in the morning and emailing the press secretary’s team, texting them, calling them, being as omnipresent as possible, letting them know when you’re going to do a cable news hit, letting them know ahead of time that you’re working on a story. You know, more often than not, what I’ve found with you know, comms folks on the left or the right, is they’re not going to hold it against you if you are aggressively pursuing a story so long as you are not surprising them. Right. And you know, yeah, I mean, I’ve had shouting matches with both Republicans and Democrats, and certainly I think that the, the main difference between the current and previous administration is that Trump world was the Wild West.

 Biden world is much more like a well-oiled DMV, you know, they don’t link, they leak, they stay on message. But you know, there’s different ways to get your questions asked. A lot of times for me, that just means, you know, raising my hand keeping it raised, and making certain that whether it’s Karine or Jen, they know that I’m going to ask the most aggressive progressive question, or the most aggressive conservative question that I can, but I’m always going to be fair. And to their credit I think that both Jen and Karine have been very ecumenical in the way that they’ve worked around that that, that briefing room. I certainly don’t like some of the Dodges and the, the dismissals. You know, my bias is towards more information, not less, but the both of them, they hustle. And I think that if you’re aggressive, but polite they’ll still call on you.

Beverly Hallberg

Final question for you, and it goes along with what you were just talking about. There’s a dance that reporters play with the people they’re interviewing, that they play with the administration. There’s the element of, yes, you’re going to be tough, and sometimes you’re going to write stories that the person you’re interviewing doesn’t like. What do you do to ensure they still want to talk to you in the future? Now, sometimes like a Karin Jean Pierre, they have to speak to the press, or they should speak to the press. There’s that element, but maybe it’s a more quiet individual. Maybe it’s a member of Congress who you would like to interview in the future. Do you let them know if it’s going to be a harsh story towards them? Or what is your process like to, to still keep that relationship going? Even if it’s going to be a hard story?

Philip Wegmann

There have definitely been times where I’ve asked a tough question, or I’ve been pretty aggressive in an interview, and that has led to access drying up. And, look, you know, this is their prerogative, the press secretary, yes, he exists to inform the American public about, you know, the president and his policies, but they have a number of reporters that they can call on in that room, you know, members of Congress, they’re not under any obligation to speak to you specifically as a reporter. I think the best thing that you can do is be very forthright about the story that you’re writing. Be very straightforward about what is that you want to find out. And I like to front load things and make certain that there are no surprises and give them every opportunity to answer a really hard question.

And I think that, you know, in reporting, one of the things that you often have to do is make your incentives align with theirs. They obviously have an incentive as a politician or as a comms person to, you know, protect or to elevate or advance themselves and their own interest. And as a reporter, your interest is to get the story. And so, you know, there’s many ways to, to skin a cat. But if the story is negative my general approach is to go to them and say, you’ve worked with me previously, or look at some of these other stories that I’ve written about your colleagues. You know, what you’re going to get with me. I’m going to be tough, but I’ll be fair. And it’s in your best interest to work with me. Because if, if you don’t work with me, I’ll probably still end up writing the story. But you, you won’t have as much of an opportunity to get your say in there.

Beverly Hallberg

There’ll be that dreaded no comment, which I’m never a fan of. I always encourage people to say something, even if the story is not going to be in your favor. Because you might as well have something to say. But Phil Wegmann, you always have something to say for a question I get asked often by people is, where do I go for just straight news? Go to Phil Wegmann, you can check him out on Twitter again, he’s with real clear politics, check out his work. But Phil, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate it.

Philip Wegmann

Thank you, Beverly,

Beverly Hallberg

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