Inside the White House Press Corps: CNN’s Ed Henry

Demon Ed Henry

CNN Chief White House Correspondent Ed Henry is perhaps the most disarming member of the White House Press Corps, a quality he uses to great advantage in questioning the President and his Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs. He’s also someone who has been rather forthright about the process, making him a natural subject for Inside the White House Press Corps.In our interview, Henry talks about how to stay on top as a reporter, the effects of the blogosphere on his reporting, the usefulness of his Twitter feed, and he attacks the idea of a liberal media bias.




Ed Henry, CNN. I’ve been at CNN since 2004 so it’s almost 6 years now.  I was covering the Hill for about 2 and the White House now for 4.  So I had about 2 years of the Bush Administration, 2 years – it’s the second year, I guess, of the Obama administration now.  So it was – ’06–’07? – yeah, three years of Bush, March of ’06 thru the end.  And now a year and a few days of Obama.  It feels like longer [laughs].

What makes a good White House reporter?

Well I think my good looks mostly – but, no, work habits.  I try to work hard at it.  You’ve gotta stay on top of your game because it’s easy to get lulled into thinking, it’s such an exciting beat and you’ve been covering it for a while.  You forget to ask the tough questions.  I was reading a story by Howie Kurtz the other day  — it wasn’t really White House related per se but it was about the reporters covering the Martha Coakely race.  Immediately after her primary, people were saying, this is going to be the first – blatantly in their stories; these were print stories, but TV can do the same thing – saying she’s likely to be the first female senator from Massachusetts and it was just a fait accompli.  There was one article in particular, I think it was the NYT where someone wrote that she’s very cautious and not mistake-prone, doesn’t make a lot of gaffes. It was sort of like – wait a second!  She ended up saying that Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan, not a Red Sox former pitcher.  It’s so easy to lapse into laziness – not to pick on anyone individual person – but it was a reminder to me that it’s very easy to fall into that.  The most important thing is to work hard.

You have to stay on top of everything the President says.  Whether it’s in an interview with your outlet or another outlet, everything he says in his speeches, you have to be watching for when he shifts from something he had promised a month ago, a year ago, a year and a half ago.  You have to be constantly staying on top of what’s happening inside this building; but, also, getting outside this building, whether you’re traveling with the President or jumping ahead of his travels to talk to actual voters before, and saying, “What do you think about the job he’s doing.”  I think, sometimes, we talk to ourselves a little too much about, say, This is what a senior official says, This is what some pundit’s saying.  John King is a good model for that at CNN.  Especially as anchor for “State of the Union,” he’s been getting out, he went to all fifty states last year and actually talked to voters, it’s sort of a revolutionary thing to actually talk to voters.

To what degree do you think the opinion media influence the questions that are asked here?

Speaking for myself, I don’t think the opinion media affects my questions very much.  It depends on how you define opinion media I guess, but if you’re talking about, say, the more conservative blogs, the more liberal blogs in particular.  I read a lot of them to get ideas and see what’s heating up the blogs right now; what are, for example liberal blogs really pressing the administration on.  I will sometimes get an idea and say – I’ll give you one example – I think it was the Huffington Post that was really staying on the AIG treasury secretary Geithner story and what they felt was a lack of disclosure about the counter-party swaps and whatnot.  It hadn’t been asked in this briefing and I thought, This is something to press the White House on.  So a couple of weeks ago I asked the White House about it.  That idea mostly came from the fact that there were legitimate questions being raised in some of the opinion media, if you can call it that, and I felt it was a fair question.  I got some answers on it . . . Most of the time I feel like, you can’t fall back on what the Left’s saying, what the Right’s saying.  You’ve gotta try to push as hard as you can down the middle.

I actually disagree with the White House position on this, I don’t give opinion but this is more analysis.  In terms of the White House saying, that, you know, the “media” said the president was overexposed.  That’s a reason not to hold a press conference for several months.  I’d have to go back and look at transcripts of every live shot I ever did. Did I ever do a live shot that said, critics are saying he’s overexposed, sure.  If the White House feels like that’s lame and that you’re hanging it on critics.  Fact is, there were critics out there saying he was overexposed, but personally, as a reporter, I don’t make a judgment about whether the president’s overexposed or not.  If I ever did in a live shot it was a mistake.  My point is that it’s the freedom of the president, dem or rep, man or woman, when eventually a female is elected, one day soon – they have the ability to control the message however they want.  In the case of healthcare the president felt like it was good to go on ESPN, or a cooking show, or whatever it was – if they felt like that was getting their message out, they’re entitled to it.  It’s really not our place to say he’s overexposed or he shouldn’t be doing that.  Those are choices he makes.  Now we can analyze it, though after-the-fact, as to whether, for example, on healthcare, did all of those interviews, all of the appearances move the ball on healthcare.  It appears it kind of got stuck in place for a while there.  We can make some reasoned analysis about that.  We’ve got to be really careful about the proliferation of opinion media.  It’s sped up so quickly because of the internet.  Instantly after a briefing there’s comment about whether that question was fair or unfair.  We’ve got to be really careful about making judgments about what any White House is doing.  It’s more pressing them, getting information, letting others make the opinion-judgments.  We’ve got to stick down the middle regardless of the current environment.

Do you think there’s anything to the idea of media bias?

I always have struggled with the notion that there’s one media bias that defines the “media”.  It’s mostly been charged the entire media is liberal.  In recent years a lot of liberal folks like Media Matters, when I was covering the Bush Administration, felt like it was the opposite, that the press was way too soft on President Bush, didn’t ask enough questions before the war in Iraq.  Bottom line for me is, I think it’s in the eye of the beholder.  Depending on who’s in the White House, the other side is gonna say that the media is not being tough enough.  You’re not being tough enough on Obama now, you were much tougher on Bush.  That gets back to the previous answer: If we are tough and fair to both sides, let the chips fall where they may.  People are going to accuse individuals with bias, and they are going to be biased individuals, but to say the entire media is liberal or conservative is hogwash.  You do your own job, be as fair and tough, down-the-middle as possible, and let the chips fall where they may.  Let people make their judgments.

What do you take away from Twitter?

I think Twitter is fantastic in a number of ways.

The immediacy of it, of getting something out there, is fantastic.  But that in itself is a hyped up part of it, because working at CNN, we have that ability, we have a 24 hour news network, not just on television, but on the internet. is a massive site that can pump out information quickly.  You’ve got to be really careful to not treat Twitter differently as a journalist and think that, because you can just post it, instantly, you shouldn’t have editors or can just put it out there.  A mistake on twitter is just as important as a mistake on air.  It’s my name out there and CNN’s name, attached to my account.  Some people don’t put their news organization on their Twitter handle.  Nevertheless, even if you don’t, people associate you with that organization.  You represent more than just yourself.  You’ve gotta be tough, fair – but also accurate and careful, regardless of what medium you’re using.  To answer your question directly, I think the feedback is really helpful.  I’ll put things on Twitter, a little thought, a little nugget from a briefing or something behind-the-scenes, and instantly get people saying, “Dumb analysis,” or, “Interesting, hadn’t thought of it that way.”  It’s helpful for me to get the kind of feedback you don’t get when you’re doing a live-shot on television and the viewer’s watching you but can’t really directly tell you what they think.  It’s really helpful, because we’re not perfect.  That as one of the mistakes the medium, broadly speaking, made for a long time was thinking, the people we cover a lot of mistakes, but we’re infallible.  We’re not perfect, and we should realize that.  Twitter is a tool, and it helps us realize that, keeps us honest.  That’s good.

If you could ask 1 question of anyone, living or dead, who would it be, and what would you ask?

I’m Catholic.  If I could interview pope Benedikt, I’d ask him about faith.  That’s a question.  We don’t talk about faith quite as much when we’re covering politics, and I would ask him about faith in general but I would want to press him about, you know he ends up kicking up controversies no matter where he goes, it seems, on a lot of his ravels.  Some of his past ties have come up, a lot, his trip to Israel became very controversial, comments he’s made about Muslims.  If I’m going to ask tough questions of the president, I should also ask tough questions of the pope.  I’d really like to interview the pope.  I’d have to be careful about the grilling. There are some long-term questions here I can’t answer, what it would mean . . . IN all seriousness, that would be fascinating. I remember reading about Tim Russert meeting John Paul II, I never had the privilege of doing that.  I think he interviewed him as well or set up an interview for the Today Show.  I’d say Pope Benedikt.

What do you think of the new Apple iPad?

It was unveiled on the same day as the State of the Union, so I didn’t get to look closely at the iPad.  I certainly don’t do product endorsements, but I got an Amazon Kindle last year and on Presidential trips it’s terrific.  We used to carry around briefcases with a couple of books for an interview or weeklong trip.  I now get the NYT on the kindle and read it there.  It’s neat, clean, environmentally friendly, all that.  I read books on there.  I’m reading Byron Pitts’s book right new, CBS news correspondent, fascinating book about his life.  So I’m open to the idea of the Apple iPad.  But I”ve got right now in my pocket an iPhone, I’ve got a Blackberry, and I’ve got the Kindle.  I’ve got two different laptops, a personal one and a work one.  And I’m just at my limit.  If I’m going to do the iPad eventually I’m going to let it play out.  Usually the second or third version is better, of any of these things, like iPhone.  I never get it in the first few days, first few months or whatever, I don’t wait in line.  If I’m going to get it, I’m going to have to combine, I’m going to have to consolidate.  Like the president said in the SOU about some of these federal programs, I’m going to have to lose the Kindle if I do that or combine the Blackberry or the iPhone and finally do my email on the iPhone.  That’s probably more than you need to know, but I’m at my limit right now on devices.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure TV show?

So it’s something I don’t want people to know that I watch but now you want me to tell them.  “Entourage” is just terrific, it’s different than anything else on TV. I was into “Mad Men,” the first year, the first season.  I have to admit, I don’t want to lie, the second and third season I kind of lost interest.  I’m starting to watch old episodes of “The Office,” because a lot of friends are into it and I hadn’t really watched the first one going back.  It’s good.  I was going to say I pick entourage – it’s right at the top – but a second one, really close, is “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  There are some episodes that are just hysterical.  “Jersey Shore” I saw three minutes on Hulu the other day, just out of curiosity, like what is this thing everybody’s talking about it?  It didn’t hold my interest.  I could go back to it at some point, I’m open to it, but no, it’s “Entourage” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.

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