A 16-year veteran of the White House beat, Ryan has frequently peppered officials with questions about poverty, race, education and other issues that aren’t always at the top of other reporters’ agendas. She pressed several administrations, for example, about stalled payments to 90,000 black farmers who had won a $1.2 billion judgment against the Department of Agriculture for discrimination in its farm lending programs. She also scored a rare interview with Obama during his recent trip to Africa.
In an interview outside the White House press room, Ryan said her background, as well as her news organization’s primary audience of African Americans, does affect the way she approaches her job. “You are the sum of your experiences,” she said. “You might be able to shed more light on things that others ignore as a result of your cultural background.”
She adds: “When you look around that [press] room, you don’t see an audience that looks like the country. It’s changing — there are more women — but white males dominate. It’s still not America you see there.”
Richard Prince, who writes Journal-isms, a blog about diversity issues in the news media, says the complexion of the White House press corps is important because of the subtle but important role journalists play in shaping the president’s agenda. “The White House is quite conscious of which reporters are present, and the president tailors his conduct accordingly,” says Prince. “He knows that so-and-so is likely to ask a question about a given topic. [So] having more people of color in the room means more opportunities for the president to be asked about topics of particular concern to those constituents.”
Prince points to Obama’s revealing interview with the Univision network during the 2012 campaign during which anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas pressed him on his promise to pass immigration reform during his first year in office. The tough questioning eventually yielded a newsworthy admission: “I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside,” Obama said. “You can only change it from the outside.”
The relative lack of minority journalists working at the White House may reflect a combination of self-selection and discriminatory hiring and promotion, says Doris Truong, a Washington Post editor who is the acting president of Unity: Journalists for Diversity, an umbrella organization for minority journalism groups. Often, she said, minority journalists don’t “put themselves on the trajectory” that leads to the White House beat. But just as often, she said, those making hiring decisions hire people they “identify with.” Said Truong: “If you only hire people who look like you, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
But economics may play a role, too, particularly among news outlets serving minority audiences, said Kumar of Towson University.
During the Carter administration, she said, newspapers aimed at African American readers, such as the Chicago Defender and Amsterdam News, employed regular White House correspondents. But these publications have pulled back. Similarly, “black” news organizations such as BET and Jet, which covered Obama on the campaign trail, haven’t made a permanent commitment.
Kumar notes that such a manpower investment might not yield much since new arrivals literally take a back seat in the White House press room and thus rarely have a chance to ask questions during news briefings. In a rigidly hierarchical structure, the reporters who sit in the first two rows of the seven-row room tend to get called on the most by the press secretary or the president. Those seats are reserved for reporters from the biggest and oldest news organizations, primarily the TV networks and major newspapers, including The Washington Post.