Steven Herman

624. What was it like covering the Trump and Biden administrations?

Voice of America is probably the only news organization mandated by law to be fair and unbiased, according to Steve Herman, who covered the both the Trump and Biden administrations for the state-owned news network

“Even though we’re part of the federal government, there’s a firewall between us and any administration in power. We’re hands-off as far as the news content is concerned,” he says.

Kent State University Place just published a new book Herman wrote about his time in the White House press corps called “Behind the White House Curtain: A Senior Journalist’s Story of Covering the President — And Why It Matters.”

After working as a freelance reporter for 25 years in places like Delhi, India; Seoul, South Korea and Bangkok, Thailand, Herman returned to the U.S. as a senior diplomatic correspondent at VOA. He and fellow reporter Peter Heinlein started covering the White House, in the early days of the Trump administration.

“We joked that both of us had extensive experience covering autocrats and fragile democracies,” Herman says. “I had as difficult an adjustment as some other reporters I had been a spot news reporter for many years. The Trump White House was very ad hoc. The schedule would go off the rails and the president would say something and blow up the messaging the White House had intended for the day. That didn’t bother me.”

By comparison, he thinks Trump, as president, was more generous when it came to the amount of time speaking with reporters than any other.

“The ultimate goal of a reporter in the White House is to have access to the president, to hear what he’s saying but also to ask questions. We had tremendous opportunities to do that with Trump. A lot of people didn’t like the answers. You’d go back and try to do some fact checking and put things in context. But as far as access, it was an incredible administration.” 

Because much of VOA’s audience includes international listeners, fact-checking and providing analysis are key components of the radio network’s reporting process, according to Herman.

“Under the previous administration, where established truths were sometimes declared fake news and those who questioned the president were deemed enemies of the country, it was common practice to call out inaccuracies. 

“I never liked saying the president lied,” Herman says. “You are making an interpretation that he knew deliberately [that his statement was false]. Many presidents have gotten their facts wrong over the decades. With Trump, it was a pattern. We would try as quickly as possible to do that fact checking. For VOA, because of our approach, that was essential, even though some might not have liked the fact that we were fact checking the president and putting people in our stories that were contradicting him. We would do that with any administration.” 

As far as differences between the Trump and Biden administrations, Herman says the expectation was that Biden would be a calmer, more poised presence given his eight years serving as vice president and his long tenure as a senator.

“He was much more disciplined in his interactions with the media,” Herman says. “You could get his temper up too by firing a question at him. I’ve seen, more than once, Joe Biden, [press officers] grab him by the shirt and let’s get out of here and he’d say something because he was upset with the question. All presidents are human beings and they manipulate and can be manipulated. … You’ll notice Joe Biden, all the time, even as he’s walking away from the podium, he listens. He wants to hear, unfiltered, what those reporters are asking about. That’s really important to him. He may turn around and come forward and answer, he may not. They’re really interested in what we’re thinking and what we’re reporting, especially in an election year. It’s really incumbent on the candidates of the major parties to have interactions with the press.” 

Steven Herman, former White House bureau chief for Voice of America, discusses his experience covering the Trump and Biden administrations and his new book about the experience: “Behind the White House Curtain: A Senior Journalist’s Story of Covering the President — And Why It Matters.”

Allison Taylor-Levine

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