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In The Trump Era, Journalist April Ryan Finds Herself 'Under Fire'

Sep 5, 2018
Originally published on September 6, 2018 8:28 am

There was a time when journalist April Ryan was just another face in the crowd of the White House press briefing room.

She started covering the White House for American Urban Radio Networks more than 20 years ago. In an interview with NPR, she looks back at how nervous she was the first time she raised her hand to ask a question.

"It was nerve-wracking," she says. "My ears were hot. It's like all the blood runs to my ears. And it feels like you just lose yourself. I mean, think about it — the world is watching you, and they are scrutinizing what you're asking. And you can get lost in that moment. Even though you're professional, that is still the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Think about it — everything comes to that White House, from war to peace and everything in between."

Today, April Ryan's nerves have hardened. She is one of the most recognized faces at press briefings. She's one of the few black reporters covering the White House. And she has made her mark with her unflinching questions — especially on issues of race.

In her new book Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House, April Ryan writes about how and why she has also come to be known for tangling with the Trump administration's communications team.

NPR's requests for comment from the White House and former press secretary Sean Spicer were not returned as of the first airing of this interview.


Interview Highlights

On a now-infamous March 2017 clash with press secretary Sean Spicer

Ryan: I hate listening to those tapes. ... You're in there making a moment in time that you're not supposed to make. You're there to ask a question, not to be the meme of the day, or the conversation — the watercooler conversation. Like, what did I do?

Cornish: That happened many times over the last couple of months. And did you have a moment where you felt that you didn't want to go back — that you maybe wanted another beat?

Ryan: Oh yeah. That day was one of the worst days. I couldn't focus. It took me a longer time to do my job than what I normally do. And so I remember driving home, teary-eyed but not crying. I was like: What am I going to do now? I'm going to leave this place. And I was really trying to figure out my life — sustaining my life with my children — I'm a divorced mother. This is real. This is not a joke; this is not a farce. This is my life.

On charges that she is purposefully provocative with her questions

I have asked each administration the same questions except for one: "Mr. President, are you a racist?" ... to President Trump. It was so much that happened that day. And the only reason why I asked because we had the s-hole comment, we've had Charlottesville, we've had the Frederica Wilson stuff; we've had so much stuff going on. There are multiple issues that are on the table that many African Americans — a part of this nation — are concerned about. And that — I understand that this administration is still feeling the sting of that, and that's why I'm considered on this blacklist that they have.

But I looked back and I talked to some people from various organizations. And they said: April, you're an equal opportunity offender. I said: What do you mean by that? They said: Remember, the NAACP was upset with you because you were breaking news about them. I said: That's true. They said: Remember, the Congressional Black Caucus was upset with you at one point because you kept asking questions that they didn't want to answer. I said: That's true. The Clinton administration was angry with me at one point about asking questions — I would always ask, you know, "Are you going to apologize for slavery?" They hated that. George W. Bush's administration was angry at me. Barack Obama's administration was angry. So this is not new — but this administration doesn't like it.

On the current state of her relationship with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, after many contentious exchanges and an attempt at reconciliation

Ryan: Point of no return ... I mean, some days she doesn't even want to give me eye contact, but she can't. I am in her line of sight, third row, smack dab in the middle. I don't communicate with them any more beyond the briefing room. I don't go upstairs to see them — I haven't for a long time. You know, during that time that we had that dinner, it was an earnest – I believe both of us wanted to mend fences. I do believe that. But how am I going to mend fences with you when you continually [are] just diminishing me or trying to discredit me? I'm a woman like you are, with children.

Cornish: But what does this say about once things become personal, right? That, what does that mean for your ability to do your job?

Ryan: For the longest time, I kept trying not to make it personal. But it's personal. They are attacking me. They meant to kill my career. They have gone after me. But what I can say is: I can still go in that room and ask a question. I have a job to do. The job is bigger than this.

On adding a security detail and receiving death threats

It's a sad point. There are people out here who really are concerned with my safety, and there are people out here [who] really could care less about my safety. I don't like talking about it anymore, but it's real, and it's a turning point. And it's not just me. We're hearing it on C-SPAN. We're hearing it on voice messages to other journalists. We're seeing it. I don't know; it's a sad peace. All I will say is: There's collateral damage that these kind of things have on a person and those who are around them, and you have to change your life.

Noah Caldwell and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There was a time when journalist April Ryan was just another face in the crowd at the White House press briefing room. She started covering the White House for American Urban Radio Networks more than 20 years ago. And she looks back now at how nervous she was the first time she raised her hand to ask a question.

APRIL RYAN: It was nerve-wracking. My ears were hot. (Laughter) It's like all my - all the blood runs to my ears. And it feels like you just lose yourself. I mean, think about it. The world is watching you, and they are scrutinizing what you're asking. And you could get lost in the moment. Even though you're professional, that is still the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Think about it. Everything comes to that White House from war to peace and everything in between.

CORNISH: Today April Ryan's nerves have hardened. She's become one of the most recognized faces at press briefings. She's one of the few black reporters covering the White House. And she's made her mark with unflinching questions, especially on issues of race. In her new book "Under Fire," April Ryan writes about how and why she's also come to be known for tangling with the Trump administration's press team. She walked me through one infamous exchange with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer in March of last year.

RYAN: The beginning of it, I was asking about Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RYAN: You've got Russia. You've got...

Simple question.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RYAN: You've got...

SEAN SPICER: No, we don't have that.

RYAN: And then Sean goes into something talking about, well, you know, we don't have Russia; you have Russia. If we use Russian salad dressing...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SPICER: There's no connection. You've got Russia. If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that's a Russian connection.

RYAN: And I said, oh, my goodness. I mean, I was being serious, and he went to a really trite point. It was trite what he was doing. He was playing with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SPICER: You - it seems like you're hell-bent on trying to make sure that whatever image you want to tell about this White House stays because at the end of the day - let me answer. I - OK.

RYAN: I am just reporting what...

SPICER: But you know what? You were asking me a question, and I'm going to answer it, which is the president - I'm sorry. Please stop shaking your head again. But at some point...

RYAN: I hate listening to those tapes.

CORNISH: Why?

RYAN: How would you feel? You know, you're in there making a moment in time that you're not supposed to make. You're there to ask a question, not to be the meme of the day or the conversation, the watercooler conversation. Like, what did I do?

CORNISH: That happened many times over the last couple of months. And did you have a moment where you felt that you didn't want to go back, that you maybe wanted another beat?

RYAN: Oh, yeah. That day - that day was one of the worst days. I couldn't focus. It took me a longer time to do my job than what I normally do. And so I remember driving home teary-eyed but not crying. I was like, what am I going to do now? I'm going to leave this place. And I was really trying to figure out my life, sustaining my life with my children. I'm a divorced mother. This is real. This is not a joke. This is not a farce. This is my life.

CORNISH: What's your response to people who think that you are purposely provocative in your questions?

RYAN: I - let me - I have asked each administration the same questions except for one - Mr. President, are you a racist?

CORNISH: And this is a question you put...

RYAN: To President Trump.

CORNISH: ...To President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: Mr. President, are you a racist? Mr. President, will you respond to these serious questions about your statement, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No. The answer is no.

RYAN: I'm talking to the president, not to you, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm talking to you.

RYAN: Mr. President, are you a racist?

It was so much that happened that day. And the only reason why I asked - because we had the s-hole comment. We've had Charlottesville. We've had the Frederica Wilson stuff. We've had so much stuff going on. There are multiple issues that are on the table that many African-Americans, a part of this nation, are concerned about. And that - I understand that this administration is still feeling the sting of that. And that's why I'm considered on this blacklist that they have. But I looked back, and I talked to some people from various organizations. And they said, April, you - you're an equal opportunity offender. I said, what do you mean by that?

They said, remember; the NAACP was upset with you because you were breaking news about them. I said, that's true. They said, remember; the Congressional Black Caucus was upset with you at one point because you kept asking questions that they didn't want to answer. I said, that's true. The Clinton administration was angry with me at one point about asking questions. I would always ask, you know, are you going to apologize for slavery? They hated that. George W. Bush's administration was angry at me. Barack Obama's administration was - so this is not new. But this administration doesn't like it.

CORNISH: I want to ask about another exchange. And this one is with Sarah Sanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RYAN: Next question - with all of this turmoil, particularly this last week, has the president at any time thought about stepping down before or now?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: No, and I think that's a absolutely ridiculous question.

RYAN: No, it's not ridiculous. It's not ridiculous. It's not ridiculous.

SANDERS: I gave you two questions, April. We're moving on. Jordan, go ahead.

RYAN: It's not ridiculous.

CORNISH: Now, you've had a lot of back-and-forth with Sarah Sanders. I know at some point...

RYAN: I love your tape. I love your tape (laughter).

CORNISH: ...You sat down and even had dinner with her and tried to mend fences.

RYAN: You saw the picture.

CORNISH: Yes.

RYAN: Yes, we did. We did. We did.

CORNISH: What point are you at now? And at some point - at a certain point...

RYAN: Point of no return - no return.

CORNISH: ...Does this make it harder for you just to be doing this job?

RYAN: No return. I mean, you know, she - some days she doesn't even want to give me eye contact, but she can't. I'm in her line of sight, third row, smack dab in the middle. I don't communicate with them anymore beyond the briefing room. I don't go upstairs to see them. I haven't for a long time. You know, during that time that we had that dinner - and it was in earnest. I believe both of us wanted to mend fences. I do believe that. But how am I going to mend fences with you when you continually just diminishing me or trying to discredit me? I'm a woman like you are with children.

CORNISH: But what does this say about once things become personal, right? That - what does that mean for your ability to do your job?

RYAN: For the longest time I kept trying not to make it personal, but it's personal. They are attacking me. They meant to kill my career. They have gone after me. But what I can say is I can still go in that room and ask a question. I have a job to do. The job is bigger than this.

CORNISH: In the meantime, you've had to bring security into your life, right? You face death threats. Does this feel like a turning point?

RYAN: It's a sad point. There are people out here who really are concerned with my safety. And there are people out here who really could care less about my safety. I don't like talking about it anymore. But it's real, and it's a turning point. And it's not just me. We're hearing it on C-SPAN. We're hearing it on voice messages to other journalists. We're seeing it. I don't know. It's a sad peace. And all I will say is there's collateral damage that these kind of things have on a person and those who are around them. And you have to change your life.

CORNISH: April Ryan - she's the White House correspondent and bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks. Her new book is called "Under Fire: Reporting From The Frontlines Of The Trump White House." Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RYAN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: And we reached out to the White House press office and former press secretary Sean Spicer for their response to April Ryan's accusations. We have not heard back from them.

(SOUNDBITE OF EROL ALKAN AND BOYS NOIZE'S "WAVES (CHILLY GONZALES PIANO REMAKE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.