Veteran radio reporter April Ryan’s run-ins with the White House in recent weeks have turned her into a kind of symbol. But it’s not exactly clear what kind.
After press secretary Sean Spicer responded sharply to Ryan’s question at a daily briefing last week, Hillary Clinton suggested the episode demonstrates how women are “patronized” in the workplace. Others saw the encounter with Ryan, who is black, as evidence of the White House’s dismissive attitude toward African Americans and its generally contentious relationship with journalists of all kinds.
Trump-centric detractors had their own take, painting Ryan as a lady with an ax to grind and as the embodiment of a partisan press.
This time, Ryan was thrust into the news as a result of asking Spicer about how President Trump intended to change the “perception” of his administration — a reasonable question given multiple investigations of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
Spicer had none of it. Raising his voice and growing agitated, he replied that there was no Russia issue. “Stop shaking your head,” he admonished her twice, igniting a social-media firestorm.
The exchange earned Ryan the usual hate mail, doubled her Twitter following, and even elicited a supportive call from a Republican former press secretary (whom she won’t identify). She said she also got death threats that required consultation with the FBI and police agencies.
With a few days’ hindsight, Ryan, who reports for American Urban Radio Networks, is more measured than her initial comments would suggest. “I know he has a job to do and I have a job to do,” she said. “I realize I may have hit a nerve. Russia is a very sore spot for them right now. They are besieged with investigations about possible real wrongdoing. I understand what he’s doing, but I also understand my role as reporter.”
At the same time, however, she’s not entirely willing to let Spicer off the hook. She points out that he recently called a female reporter for Politico “an idiot” and that he publicly dressed down CNN’s Joe Johns, an African American, for a story Spicer objected to in February.
For his part, Spicer disclaims any motives other than keeping the record straight. “We have promoted more nontraditional, non-mainstream media outlets and reporters than ever before, and we treat everyone the same,” he said in an interview Sunday. “We push back on anyone who is attempting to create a false narrative or assumes facts that aren’t in evidence.”
He added: “I’ve known April for a long time. She’s a tough reporter who has fought very effectively for her place in that briefing room. I respect her grit and determination.”
And that’s about as close as Spicer will come to an apology, or even of acknowledging there’s anything worth apologizing for. “I’ve treated every reporter — regardless of outlet, gender or race — the same,” he said.
Ryan, 49, has been down this rocky road before — in fact, three times since Trump took office.
In an exchange at a White House news conference in mid-February, she asked Trump whether he intended to meet with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss his urban agenda. Trump responded by asking Ryan whether she wanted to set up such a meeting. “Are they friends of yours?” he said. Ryan, clearly perplexed, replied, “No, no, no, I’m just a reporter.”
In February, Twitter exploded in its usual fury at Ryan after she asked Spicer about a remark the president made during the campaign. She asserted that Trump was referring to white people when he referenced those who “made this country.” Spicer disputed Ryan’s characterization of the quote, which appears to refer to Trump supporters generally, not white people in particular.
That incident came just after Ryan had a testy encounter in the West Wing with Omarosa Manigault, the former reality-TV star who is now a White House communications aide. Ryan said Manigault — a former friend who had insinuated Ryan had favored Clinton during the campaign — “physically intimidated” and verbally threatened her during the confrontation. Manigault, in turn, called Ryan’s statements “fake news.”
In all, it’s been a tumultuous three months for Ryan, who has spent 20 years on the White House beat for Pittsburgh-based American Urban Radio Networks, which feeds news and programming to some 300 stations serving primarily African American audiences.
A Baltimore native who commutes from that city to the White House each day, Ryan is the only briefing-room reporter specializing in urban issues such as law enforcement, crime, poverty and education. She has also reported on more general issues, such as the environment and foreign relations.
Ryan’s boss, Jerry Lopes, said the friction between Ryan and Spicer is a side effect of her aggressive approach. “That’s part of the April magic,” said Lopes, who hired her 20 years ago. “April manages to get the story. She does what’s necessary. I don’t care if it’s a Republican or a Democrat. She manages to find a way.”
In fact, Ryan has shown equal-opportunity tenacity. She had an earlier viral moment in 2009, when she clashed with Robert Gibbs, then President Barack Obama’s press secretary. Under a fusillade of questioning from Ryan about the performance of a White House aide, Gibbs responded: “April, April, calm down. Just take a deep breath for one second. See? This happens with my son. He does the same thing.”
The moment drew audible groans in the press room.
“April is as smart as they come,” said Michelle Dolge, who was news director at Washington news station WTOP when Ryan was a young radio anchor and reporter. “. . . She always came prepared. I loved how relentless she was: She would work any shift you needed, because she loved it so much.”
In addition to her radio work and her appointment Monday to a contributor role at CNN, Ryan is the author of two books. One is a memoir about her White House coverage (“The Presidency in Black and White”); the other (“At Mama’s Knee”) is a reflection on race relations and motherhood through her experiences as a single mother raising two daughters, now 8 and 14.
Based on the events of the past three months, Ryan may well have some material for another memoir.
“You try not to take it personally, but I am human,” she said. “I may be tough, as Sean says, but so what? It still stings.” She paused and added: “But I’m a big girl. You’ve got to get over it and move on.”