Frank Washkuch: Please share something about your job as a White House correspondent that most wouldn’t expect.
Margaret Talev: A lot of the time, our day is incredibly less glamorous than you think it would be. It’s keeping the trains moving on time. You come in, turn on the TV, and watch Morning Joe, Bloomberg TV, or CNN in the morning. Are there any White House interviews? You’re checking in with the National Security Council and the domestic press guys. You’re reading what everybody else wrote. You’re thinking about the day ahead. A lot of it is really looking at the schedule and figuring out what to do.
Then there is that other layer, which is what are they not talking about. What’s coming around the pike? Since the White House is pretty tightly run without a lot of accidental leaks, that usually involves talking to people from the outside.
But sometimes it can get very exciting. When you’re going to China or Russia in the middle of a major global event or getting ready to go to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, there really is a lot to get your head around.
My job is sort of all three things at once – incredibly mundane, incredibly exciting, and then a lot in between.
Washkuch: What is the structure of doing a Q&A with the White House press secretary on a regular basis? How does that differ from previous jobs you’ve held?
Talev: The press briefings are almost entirely theater. They are important because it is an opportunity to put the official voice of the White House on the record and answering any questions, but it’s not where you’ll suss out the real answer to what you’re asking.
It is a version of events, but it’s not where you engage and have the sort of dialogue that helps you understand what’s going on.
Washkuch: How has social media changed what you do, including on-the-scene reporting?
Talev: One of the biggest changes has been the White House’s ability to bypass the traditional media through social networking. As anyone who worked with or for Secretary Clinton will attest, this was a big thing at the State Department in terms of their ability to talk directly to people, whether it’s in African countries, Syria, or wherever.
It happens here, too, though. If you go on Pete Souza’s Instagram feed, for example, you’ll see all kinds of photos the White House press corps has had no ability to see for themselves or to frame through their own lens. That’s one of the biggest ways it has affected my job.
Of course, we’re all playing in that water. As such, you think in much shorter attention spans. You think much more visually. My background is in print, but social networking has made everything very visual, niche, and in the moment. That can be good because it allows news to turn on a dime, but it can be bad because it makes things more superficial and easier to spin. Some of these stories – whether it’s the financial crisis of 2008, immigration, or years-long initiatives such as healthcare – are full of nuance, which is hard to capture on Twitter and Facebook.
Washkuch: How do you use social media to deliver news?
Talev: I largely use it to keep up with news, but when breaking news I tend to use it visually. I’ll use it when I am someplace that not everyone else can be, such as the travel pool on a certain day, on Air Force One, or maybe I’m around the President when he’s meeting a famous athlete or world leader. If I can get that picture first, second, or third, but certainly before everyone else, I’ll use social media to push that out. Otherwise, you’re swimming in a sea of people who are prolific and their entire job is basically to use social networks. That’s not the center of my job.
In terms of social media, if you’re the 20th person to do something, what is the value in it, especially if the same people following you follow everyone else? It’s a game where you either need to have something unique or be first – or both, preferably – in order to really leverage your brand that way. It’s certainly very valuable for seeing what everyone else is doing and talking about.
Washkuch: Do you still consider yourself a wire or print reporter?
Talev: I was in print for a little more than 15 years before I moved over to Bloomberg three years ago. When I went to the wire, I was worried because it’s a different skillset. There’s an urgency and you’re in the moment at a wire, while I was always more of a narrative writer. But my industry was changing and this was a good opportunity. Ironically, in my time at Bloomberg, what it means to be a wire reporter has also completely changed.
If you look at the three main wires – Bloomberg, AP, and Reuters – you see this internal diversification where they are creating speed desks. We have a speed desk that pops headlines out. When I started, I popped the headlines out. If I was at the White House and it put out a release on South Sudan, I had to drop everything and go write a story on South Sudan. Now the wire services have built their own teams that focus on speed and others that focus more on enterprise stories. We all do a lot more TV, Web video, and photos than we used to. I view myself as a multimedia journalist.
Washkuch: What was it like covering recent presidential elections?
Talev: The 2012 election was so different from that of 2008. Obama was new in 2008. It was the year social media began to really innovate elections, and you saw a continuation of that in 2012. The 2008 election was weighted down by the leftover implications of the financial crisis. It affected everything, including who the candidates were and how they could run. The 2016 election may be closer to 2008 in the sense it can be a bit more about the candidates and innovation.
The candidate in 2012 was the economy. I mean, the economy is always seen as a candidate, but it really was that year. It was all about what’s going to happen in the country? The unemployment rate? The stock market? The 2016 election is shaping up to be much more about the candidates, whether Hillary Clinton will run, and what would that mean.
Washkuch: We’re in an age of the never-ending campaign. How does that impact your role during "off years"?
Talev: There are no off years. We’ll cover the 2014 midterms as part of the 2016 general election. The Democrats could lose control of the Senate. We should probably focus on covering 2014 and the implications. It is a perpetual campaign.
What you see in 2014 is all about positioning and testing the waters for how to run and who will run in 2016. In truth, it diverts attention from the voters, the candidates, and the journalists from what the real issues are, but it is what it is. In reality, the 2016 election is already under way.
Washkuch: When people think of Washington, DC, now, they think of partisanship. Is it really more heated than it has been in the past? How does that impact what you cover?
Talev: Partisanship has always been a factor in this town. What’s changed is you just don’t see Democrats and Republicans, neither at the junior nor senior levels, socializing that much with each other. That makes it difficult to have any kind of good faith across the aisle. It also makes it difficult to do big things, such as welfare reform.
My sense is the one real exception to this is the women, especially those in the Senate. They seem to have a cross-partisan thing going with each other, though it has had only limited outcomes thus far. And the rise of the Tea Party has created another factor. It’s a pendulum that eventually swings back. I’m interested to see how the battle within the Republican caucus shakes out, where you really see the leadership and the establishment of the business community trying to figure out how to protect what they think is the core of the Republican brand.
I don’t think one party is worse than the other in this regard. It’s always been about partisanship because whichever side wins controls the Congress. If you control both chambers of Congress that’s a big deal, but it’s to the point now where it has really affected Congress’ credibility levels and its ability to get things done.
Washkuch: Please offer a prediction on how social media’s role will further expand in the political process in the next couple of years.
Talev: Social media is on track to become even more ubiquitous than it is now. People used to go look for news. Now news comes to them. That will be a major dynamic in the 2016 election. This will include the delivery of not just photos, but videos. It will be interesting to see news companies figuring out how to keep making a product that people pay for. Sites such as BuzzFeed will represent the nontraditional sources that will be bringing people competitive news about campaigns that will help set the pace for everybody else.