On the same day that the Senate voted to appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith spoke in Fresno State’s second fall President’s Lecture Series about a nonstop news cycle and what it’s like to cover President Donald Trump.
Keith, on top of being the White House correspondent for NPR, is the co-host of the NPR “Politics Podcast” and a member of the “Politics Monday” team on PBS NewsHour, providing coverage of the president, Congress and federal politics in Washington.
In the past, Keith has also covered the final two years of the Obama administration, as well as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“It has been a complete and total rollercoaster,” Keith said about the events over the past few months. “I mean, if you look at this year, it started with impeachment. Then the coronavirus crept in, and took over our lives. And then there were the racial justice protests, and those in some ways continue. And then you have the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and now today the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as the newest Supreme Court Justice.”
Keith, a Central Valley native, described a few notable moments of her time covering President Trump and his administration along with the behind-the-scenes look of being part of the White House press corps, a group of journalists assigned to cover the president.
She recalled how she received a message from her editor that Ginsburg had passed away, and the president was not told that during the campaign rally in Minnesota. Keith was at the rally and shouted at the president, asking for his reaction.
“Anyway they moved the press corps — the traveling press pool which is like the 13 reporters that fly with the president — they moved us out early and moved us over to underneath the wing of Air Force One. And the president — the rally ends, YMCA is playing because it plays when his rally ends — comes over under the wing,” Keith said. “The music transitions from YMCA to tiny dancer, and he is walking towards us and I’m shouting, ‘President Trump, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. What is your reaction?’ And he says… ‘Like oh my gosh really? I’m just learning that right now.’ And then he said she was a really great lady and she’s going to be sorely missed.”
When the president announced he tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after 1 a.m. EST, Keith got a call from her editor to get up and start working. She also was at the first presidential debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and Trump in Cleveland.
Knowing that the Rose Garden event was a superspreader, Keith said she was relieved to know that she had no known exposures after coming into contact with some of the president’s top advisors at the debate.
Keith also said the press corps is taking a lot of precautions, and the White House Correspondents Association board (WHCA), which she’s a member of, has become their own little Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We put up signs, if you have seen signs up in the briefing room on the chairs telling people not to sit there because of social distancing. Or if you have seen signs on the door that’s a ‘masks required beyond the point.’ I made those signs and laminated and put them up,” Keith said. “That was my role in the WHCA. We are doing our very best as a press corps to keep each other safe, even the constraints of where we are going to work physically.”
Keith also discussed her start in journalism, growing up in Hanford — 50 miles away from Fresno State. When she was 15, Keith said she was an essayist, convincing the Hanford Sentinel to give her a column where she would write her perspective as a teenager.
That summer, her family drove all the way around the U.S. in a minivan, and Keith said she wrote columns detailing what she witnessed across the country. At the same time, she sent letters to every famous NPR person she recognized and was able to get in touch with the producer of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday.” They were looking for a teen essayist, and Keith was able to record her columns for Weekend Edition.
“I remember I would get my little $150 check for doing my, you know, I get this check for being on the radio, and I would proudly take it physically to the bank and deposit it,” she said. “Hoping someone would notice that it said NPR on it.”
By her senior year of high school, Keith said she had her columns published with NPR, the Hanford Sentinel and the Fresno Bee before attending college.
From there, she moved away from essay writing and shifted to news writing, eventually working as a full-time reporter covering the Central Valley for KQED, San Francisco’s NPR affiliate.
She eventually joined NPR as a business reporter in 2009 and became a Congressional correspondent for the outlet in 2011, covering House Republicans.
Valley Public Radio’s (VPR) Joe Moore, the host of the event, asked Keith her approach on follow-ups, noting a specific example in which Keith asked White House doctor Sean Conley about lung scans in a press conference outside Walter Reed Military Medical Center.
Conley was being quite evasive on what the president’s lung scans had shown, Keith said. Seeing that the day before, she went to the briefing the next day where the president was being released from Walter Reed and asked Conley if he was purposely not answering the question and why.
“I think we got sort of a revealing answer, which was he said it was HIPAA guidelines basically saying he can’t answer the question,” Keith said. “What that means is that his patient, the president, did not authorize him to give that information to the American public.”
When traveling with Trump and spending time with the Trump campaign, Keith said there’s “a lot of cognitive dissonance” in his actions whether that’s him saying he’s feeling great when coronavirus cases are rising or when he’s at an indoor event putting senior citizens in danger while saying he’s going to protect them.
Traveling with the Trump administration has also led Keith to cover many different topics, including toilets and showers. When Trump hurled complaints on low-flow toilets and dishwashers in a campaign speech, Keith dug into it and wrote why certain appliances are now more energy efficient and use less water.
With a week left before the election, Moore said he greatly appreciates the insight that Keith gives everyday into the White House and the 2020 election and looks forward to all the coverage that is to come.
The lecture was co-sponsored by Fresno State President Dr. Joseph I. Castro, VPR, the Fresno Bee, KSEE 24 and Valley PBS.
Keith reminded the viewers not to “doom scroll” and detach from the news, so they don’t lose their mind. That being said, she said the days after the election will be hectic.
“It’s going to be a couple of weeks or months of insanity,” Keith said.