Jessica Yellin is a world renowned political journalist, known for her time as Chief White House Correspondent for CNN. She has interviewed some of the most powerful people in the world, including current President Barack Obama, past Presidents George W. Bush and Clinton, and current candidate Hillary Clinton. Yellin has been honored both for her role as a woman in Washington, and her coverage of female politicians. Dylan Wells sat down with the current IOP Fellow to discuss the election, her career, and the future of journalism.
The Gate: How did you get your start in journalism?
Jessica Yellin: My first job in journalism was at Los Angeles Magazine. I edited the front of the book which is sort of little articles about local politics, and things going on around town, and also some fluffy things like society pictures and all that. And then, I asked a lot of people about careers in journalism, and at that time, people advised that TV was going to survive and that print was dying—which I now think was not true and not great advice because journalism survived and thrived on digital. But, I ended up making a tape, and I sent it around to a bunch of local TV stations, and had some crazy experiences interviewing, and finally got a job at Orlando’s twenty-four-hour news channel called Central Florida News 13. I worked there for eighteen months, where I carried my own camera and shot my own tape and edited my own videos—I was a one man band reporter. Then, I became the morning anchor there, and then after eighteen months, I got a job in Tampa local news, which was a very big market for local news. While in Tampa, I covered Democratic politics and the 2000 presidential election in Tallahassee. That was where the recount issue broke out, so I was in the Democratic Party headquarters in Tallahassee for the recount. From there I went to MSNBC, where I was the overnight anchor for a year, and then I went to ABC News, where I worked for “Good Morning America” doing all sorts of stories, and then I ended up covering the Bush White House for them. From there, I went to CNN, where I initially covered Capitol Hill and the 2008 presidential campaigns, and then went on to be Chief White House Correspondent.
Gate: Elle Magazine named you one of the ten most influential women in Washington, D.C. and you were awarded a Gracie Award for your coverage of female politicians. What was your experience like as a women working in politics?
Yellin: I would say I was a woman who covered politics but worked in media, in the political world. I think it’s a lot of the same pressures that professional women have in general, and women in the public eye, which is that there’s this careful line—being assertive without being aggressive, wherever that fine line is, it’s often very hard to find. For women on TV, there’s a need to be tough but likable, and those are hard things to bridge. We’re still trying to feel our way through what that looks like. I found that obviously I was able to become Chief White House Correspondent, so there is opportunity, but there are a lot of challenges along the way. Sometimes it’s not even in your own organization. It can be in dealing with people outside of your organization and trying to develop sources It’s the sort of thing that women in all aspects of professional life encounter. You just find it sort of intensified sometimes when you’re in a public position in the media or in politics.
Gate: You recently wrote a piece in The Daily Beast about how Donald Trump is running his campaign and being portrayed in the media. What do you think of the current coverage of the 2016 election, and how the candidates are marketing themselves for the media?
Yellin: One of the things we talked about in our seminar today [with former speechwriter for President Obama, Jon Favreau] was the fact that it’s a policy-free campaign at the moment. I would say if you’re a consumer of the election right now, if you’re a consumer of these campaigns, you’re not getting a lot of policy content. Right now it is very personality-driven. If you want to ask where do the candidates stand on tax policy, a person could watch and read the news pretty consistently and not have a great grasp on that at the moment. But it’s also in the early days.We start our campaign coverage much earlier every cycle, so as the campaigns progress and the caucuses begin, and some candidates drop out, the focus on their policy positions and substantive differences will intensify.
Gate: Do you have any thoughts on how the female candidates specifically are being covered in the media, like how Hillary Clinton is being covered in this election versus back in 2008?
Yellin: Some of the lessons of covering Hillary in 2008 have been learned and are to some extent being corrected this cycle. But, you still hear—more from pundits than from actual reporters and anchors—things like criticism of her voice, usually that she’s shrill, strident, and unlikable. Those things don’t have to do with overt sexism, but they have to do with what all of us culturally expect from women, and how hard it is to square what makes a women likable in our culture traditionally with what you want from a Commander in Chief. You want a Commander in Chief to be aggressive, forceful, certain, tough, but all of those things in a woman often culturally make her unlikable, or can make her unlikable, so those are hard things to square. Hillary Clinton is walking down a path that hasn’t been trodden before and so we’re all learning.
Gate: Again returning to past elections, you conducted one of the most in-depth interviews with President Obama in 2012. What role can journalists play in helping form the public’s view of a politician, and how do you go about crafting an interview that has the potential to influence a large audience’s vote?
Yellin: In 2012, I did an in-depth interview with President Obama and in that case I did it for a documentary. I had to make a hard decision, because there was plenty of news breaking that I could have asked him about that day, but you have a limited amount of time and so I had to ask him the questions that suited the documentary. It’s very different to do that than compared to a “day of news” interview. It’s hard, you have to think through not just what information you want, but how he might reply, how you can push him to get the information if he deflects—you have to think through all the possible outcomes. But, it’s also exciting, and a nice opportunity because when you’re covering the President, one has a ton of questions that don’t get answered, and to be able to actually ask him is kind of a relief. I think that I was one of the first people, if not the first, to ask him what his standards are for drone warfare, where he answered on the record, and it got almost no coverage. It was picked up on some national security blogs, while other sexier stuff got picked up instead.
Gate: During your time at CNN, the station experimented with various forms of new technology—during one of your seminars, we saw you in hologram form. What do you think the future of journalism is? Will it be in forms of new media, and will television news survive?
Yellin: I do not have a crystal ball, I don’t know the future, but I think we’ll incorporate certain forms of new technology and some will fall by the wayside. Twitter has already changed the way we all ingest news and communicate. We’ve talked some in this seminar about how new media is changing things. If platforms like Netflix get into the news, or Amazon, or even Snapchat, all those create more opportunities for new voices and new styles of commenting on current events. I think that’s great. The traditional media offers one approach to covering the news, but with the democratization of media, there are huge opportunities, especially for your generation, to create something else.
Gate: Do you have any crazy stories from your time covering politics?
Yellin: Oh, I have a million! My favorite sign off was when I went to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia with President George W. Bush, and I remember standing in a square there, near a statue, and it felt like it was well below zero, and I got to say “Jessica Yellin, ABC news, traveling with the President in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.” There’s all sorts of stuff. Sometimes it’s the big moments, like getting to meet some interesting leaders, like Aung San Suu Kyi. We were at her house waiting for hours for President Obama to come meet with her, and that was cool to sit on her lawn. But some of it’s just the crazy experiences, when the pilot comes over the intercom and says we’re going to turn out the lights for a “lights-out” landing in Pakistan just to be safe, and we’re all sort of stressed out wondering what this is going to be like, and if it’s a corkscrew landing. And then they put down the gangway and open the door and there’s twenty TV cameras and a parade, and a marching band, and you don’t think [the lights-out landing] was quite necessary.
Gate: What advice do you have for young people interested in politics or journalism?
Yellin: I have a couple pieces of advice. One is, try it and see. The best advice I ever got is that you can’t figure out what you want to do by thinking really hard about it, or talking to lots of people—you got to try it. Journalism is one of those things you just try. Once you decide what you want to do, the goal is to tell people what you want, and then do what they ask. So if they you want to be covering politics but they want you to cover car crashes and murder scenes, if you’re on local news, you do what they ask. But then you tell them, “I’d like to cover politics.” Be consistent in your message and hard in your work, and I think that is the best formula for reaching your goal.
Gate: Why did you decide to take a break from journalism, and what are your plans for the future?
Yellin: Have you been talking to my mother? I always wanted to be White House Correspondent. When I say tell people what you want, I told people I wanted to be White House Correspondent. And then they’d say, “What do you want to do after you’ve done that?” And I’d say, “I’ll worry about it when I get there.” I ended up in D.C., and on and off for a decade, I covered the White House, I became the Chief White House Correspondent. I covered President Obama, I covered Hillary Clinton, I covered former President George W. Bush in a war. I really felt like I could either continue to do that, or maybe try to exercise some other muscles. And, you know I love to write, but I wasn’t writing a lot. I have strong opinions, not necessarily partisan opinions, just points of view, but it wasn’t appropriate for me to express them in that capacity, and I thought it was time for a change. So, I’ve taken some time off, but now I’m starting to dip my toe back in. I won’t go back to doing what I was doing, but I still will be engaged in commenting on public events, and would love to have a role in the media.
Dylan Wells is a fourth-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at ABC News' Washington, D.C. bureau as a Political Unit Fellow. Previously, she interned twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. On campus, Dylan serves on the boards of TEDxUChicago and Chicago Strategies. Last year she served as The Gate's Elections Editor, and was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.