Interview: Karen Travers on Covering Chaos

JEFF CIRILLO: Karen Travers (COL ’00, M ’03) starts every day in the West Wing by 6 a.m. and still doesn’t always wake up before the president starts tweeting.

For Travers, a journalist who has covered three White Houses for ABC News, reporting on President Donald Trump has brought an onslaught of unprecedented challenges.

“It’s not even remotely comparable to what it was like covering previous administrations,” Travers said. “There’s no off time. In the beginning it just felt like if you paused for five seconds you were going to miss 10 stories. Since then we’ve had to rethink how we staff.” 

Travers shared tales from inside a chaotic West Wing in an interview with On the Record on Friday. A Georgetown alumna who once served as editor-in-chief of The Hoya, Georgetown’s undergraduate student newspaper, Travers is back at her alma mater this semester as a fellow with the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service.

Travers said reporting on the Trump presidency has meant keeping her cool when the president calls her “fake news,” separating fact from fiction, and learning how to cover a barrage of important stories when the news never stops coming.

“We get on a daily basis a dozen stories that would have been a weeklong story in a previous administration — but they just don’t suck enough oxygen because of all the other stuff that is happening. If you think there’s a lot of news, there’s probably seven times more that you just can’t be expected to know about.”

Telling the public what is really happening in the West Wing means deciding which stories to prioritize over others. Among the stories lost in the onslaught last week was the EPA’s move to reverse Obama-era restrictions on the release of methane gas from oil and natural gas facilities. 

Meanwhile, Trump announced the rollback of requirements for energy-efficient lightbulbs, slowing a bipartisan regulatory effort planned for more than a decade. “Does anybody in America know this? No,” Travers said. “That’s a big story!”

In some cases, President Trump stirs up a new controversy on purpose to distract from something else in the news. However, chaos is not always a winning press strategy for the White House — other times, it’s a liability.

“They have never been able to effectively channel a communication strategy because the president steps on it, blows it up, with one tweet,” Travers said. “And I think they’ve missed a lot of chances to have, in their mind, good headlines to show what they’re doing. They’re their own worst enemy.”

Georgetown students can soon get an up-close look at Travers’ life in the White House and her career in journalism. As part of her fellowship with GU Politics, Travers will host off-the-record discussion groups on Mondays at 4 p.m. this semester exploring the challenges of White House reporting in the Trump era.

Her career has brought her beyond the briefing room to 49 states and more than 60 countries, from Trump’s summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the inside of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in key battleground states. 

As for how she keeps her bearings in a sensory deprivation chamber of distractions and denials, Travers said the best tool for reporters is to keep close track of the facts and not get heated when the president calls you “fake news.”

“Some people get their bristles up. Some reporters combat him and push back in the moment to him,” Travers said. “I don’t want to become the story. We’re trying to hold him accountable and hold the administration’s feet to the fire. It’s not about me.”

This interview is part of a series of interviews with GU Politics fellows.

Jeff Cirillo