When President Trump called the press “the enemy of the American people,” journalist Olivier Knox’s son asked if his dad would be safe going to work at the White House the next day. “That was kind of a punch,” Knox says. “[My son] understands why I do what I do, at least as well as an 11-year-old can, and he never asked me not to do [my job]. But he was definitely very concerned. And then when we went to Mexico on vacation, he sort of wondered aloud whether Donald Trump would let me back in the country. But he said, ‘Don’t worry. If they stop you, we’ll get you a good lawyer.’”
Knox’s son was worried because his dad is the chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo News, as well as vice president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. And while Knox’s son has some fears about this administration, Knox himself is much more laid-back about things. “I’m always a little bit skeptical of the idea that we are in some shockingly new and different environment, because it feels like we’ve lurched from crisis to crisis, from unprecedented event to unprecedented event, at least during my career,” he says. “And while I won’t deny that Donald Trump is a unique force in American politics, I want to keep that perspective.”
Knox keeps his cool in part because he’s been covering the White House for more than 20 years. He got his start at Agence France-Presse in 1996, and he dove head-first into the Washington chaos with his first real assignment, covering Congress right as the Monica Lewinsky scandal blew up and the impeachment process began. “It was totally crazy at the time. Impeachment was the number-one story in the world. In every country around the globe they were discussing the blue dress,” he says. “It was a super-heated, crazy partisan environment.”
And the chaos didn’t end there. Almost immediately after the impeachment scandal died down, the country was forced to go through the contentious 2000 election, which ended in an even more contentious recount, and which was followed by 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For veteran journalist Knox, things have always been a little crazy — and he’s always continued to work through it.
He has been assaulted by various politicians’ supporters while on the campaign trail for work, first by a Gore supporter in 2000 and then by a Kerry supporter and a Bush supporter, leading up to the 2004 election. What’s different for Knox in 2017 is that now, the chaos is coming from inside the White House.
“The hardest thing about covering the Trump administration is frankly the chaos, not the media hatred. It’s the fact that on any given day, no one speaks reliably with any authority for this president, sometimes including the president,” Knox tells us. “The press secretary can come out and say, ‘He’s definitely not doing X,’ and within an hour say, ‘He is doing X.’ He changes his views on policies on a dime. [First he says,] ‘The House healthcare bill is great,’ and then he turns around and calls it mean and says we have to do better.
“To the extent that reporting is using facts and analysis to reduce uncertainty, reducing uncertainty is really hard in the current climate,” he continues. “What you end up seeing is a lot of stories that say ‘Trump might do X,’ which is not a very satisfying story, because of course he might. So that’s a bit of a challenge.”
To combat this problem in his own work, Knox relies on his innate curiosity to dig up story ideas that take him out of the realm of hard news and into areas rarely written about by traditional political journalists. For example, he’s left Washington to write about how American places get their names (with a dateline from Boring, Maryland, no less); what the Confederate flag market was like after the Charleston, S.C., massacre; and the business of creating and selling campaign souvenirs, among other non-traditional stories.
“I’ve been enormously lucky and privileged to work in a shop where the people who I report to have encouraged me to chase these things down,” he says. “We do these editorial calls and something will hit me out of the blue and I’ll say to my editor, ‘Hey, I know, I think it’ll be fun to look into how American places got their names,’ and my editor says right off, ‘Go.’ They’ve been willing to let me humor myself and indulge my own curiosity. And when I come back to them and say, ‘It turns out there’s nothing there,’ they’ve been willing to eat the lost time.
“Some of [those ideas] come from spending years covering this stuff, and some of it is just that I have a weirdly active sense of curiosity, and I’ve found a professional home someplace where my editors see that kind of curiosity as an asset and not a liability,” he adds.
One of the harder parts of the job, on the other hand, is dealing with the public’s criticism, but not because he’s personally offended. “The criticism I get the most is that we (the press) obsess over things that have no meaning for the average voter,” he says. “But I’ll tell you, some of the traffic numbers don’t bear out the criticism. [For example,] people devoured the ‘Scaramucci is out at the White House’ story.”
But some of the criticism can be valid, at least to an extent, Knox says. “People I know from growing up in Vermont and people from overseas ping me and say, ‘Why are you guys spending so much time on palace intrigue? Why are you doing textual analysis of the president’s words? You know, we have an opioid crisis. We are unemployed.’ I’ve got a few friends who are in the military who want to know, ‘Is this president going to send me to war?’ So most of the criticism I get is that there’s a disconnect between the amount of energy that we put into some ephemeral Beltway issues and personalities versus the interests of the population at large,” he explains.
He stays online, though, because it gives him the ability to engage with a mix of people, especially those outside the Beltway.
“There’s a reward there,” Knox says. “One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had this year was inviting people to ask me questions, and I discovered that I learn just as much from the questions they ask me as from the questions I ask them.”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.