By Austin Ferguson
The Rider community gained insight on what it is like to report on the White House on Oct. 12 when The Associated Press (AP) reporter Darlene Superville spoke to students and faculty in a Zoom event.
Hosted by communications and journalism professor Myra Gutin, the hour-long event covered Superville’s career in political journalism, starting with her AP internship in Newark, New Jersey, all the way to supervising the AP national political desk for four presidential elections and the president of the United States.
Superville first touched on covering the New Jersey Statehouse, one of her earlier professional assignments, and its geographical connection to the university.
“I used to live close by when I covered the statehouse, [New Jersey] politics and state government for the AP back in the 1990s,” Superville said. “And I would drive by up and down Route 206, see the signs for Rider College, and I never really imagined that I would end up going from the New Jersey State House to the White House.”
Superville said she was excited to “peel back the curtain” and take questions from attendees about the ins-and-outs of covering the White House, particularly during the 2020 election cycle.
The first question Superville answered surrounded her experience at the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, though she was not able to be in the debate hall due to restrictions with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were held in separate rooms elsewhere in the debate hall and watched the debate on large television screens … but it’s still always, you know, thrilling to go to a big event like a presidential debate,” Superville said. “Given the stakes in this election, and how the stakes were raised for this first presidential debate, it was very exciting to be there, even though I wasn’t exactly in the room with the candidates in real-time.”
Superville also talked about the uniqueness of covering President Donald Trump as a reporter as opposed to her previous assignment of President Barack Obama. Superville said that Donald Trump has tended to divulge information on Twitter that has made it more difficult to cover the White House since 2016.
“Early on, he [announced White House staff firings on Twitter] a lot and would catch White House officials off guard,” Superville said. “When you would go to them for information to find out, ‘You know, what’s happening? What can you tell us about this, that or the other.’ They often wouldn’t know what he had just tweeted, or they didn’t have any information to give us.”
According to Superville, Donald Trump did a lot of traveling up until his COVID-19 diagnosis and soon plans to start traveling again, giving her a busy schedule up until election day.
“They haven’t announced where he’s going yet, but there was some guidance from the campaign that he wants to be out on the road every day until Nov. 3, So we’re talking 21 days on the road from here on out, it’s a lot,” Superville said.
A faculty member asked about Donald Trump’s wife and First Lady Melania Trump’s availability to the media, which Superville noted was scarce.
“I can’t really recall very many instances where she’s done one-on-one interactions with reporters,” Superville said. “Her interaction with us is very limited.”
Superville did later note that Melania Trump’s attitude toward media availability was similar to First Lady Michelle Obama, saying that “First ladies are not elected, so I think they feel less beholden to interacting with [reporters] than the president or vice president.”
However, Superville said that one of her favorite stories to work on involved a trip to Morocco where she followed Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and had a chance to interview her, which eventually found its way onto Good Morning America, ABC’s national morning news show.
“At some point during the interview, before we went, we asked for an interview with Ivanka and they agreed. And we did this interview, and it was picked up by a lot of the morning talk shows,” Superville said.
Superville shared that some of her most tense moments covering the Trump presidency came when having to attend and cover his rallies, often noted by their raucous crowds.
“I’ve certainly been to a number of rallies where there is always a point in the president’s speech where he raises his finger and points at the back of the room and talks about fake news and then the whole rally crowd starts chanting, ‘Fake news!’ or whatever it is,” Superville said.
Despite admitting that the situations were “uncomfortable”, Superville noted that she “never really yet felt threatened in that environment.”
When asked, Superville said the AP’s biggest worry about election night on Nov. 3 is that there will not be a clear result by the end of the day.
“Well, the big concern is that we won’t have a declared winner on election night,” Superville said. “And that counting the ballots will go on for a couple of days, maybe even a few weeks with the volume of mail-in ballots that are being expected from voters all across the country.”
During the event, Gutin offered her experiences as a female journalist and asked Superville if any of those experiences have changed over time.
“In the bad old days, when I was a journalist in the 1970s and 1980s, women journalists had a rough time getting respect in the newsroom, as well as from male sources, in many industries and positions,” Gutin said.
Superville offered that she had shared similar feelings in her earlier career, but felt that the modern landscape of journalism had changed, citing vast amounts of women in leadership roles.
“I think female journalists are very much respected these days,” Superville said. “And I know that in, for example, in the Washington bureau of AP, where I work, the head of our Bureau is a woman, our Deputy Chief of Bureau is a woman, we have a news editor, who is a woman. The head of AP overall is female.”
Though she did not work for one herself when she attended New York University, Superville commented that college newspapers are “excellent training grounds for up and coming journalists.”
The biggest piece of advice that Superville gave to students that aspire to have a career in journalism is to not have a fear of questioning authority, citing her early experiences in the State House.
“I was just a few years into my journalism career and had not yet been around lawmakers and governors and people like that, powerful people, people who make decisions, and admittedly was a little bit timid about being in the position of having to question them,” Superville said. “I don’t have that reservation now after many more years in journalism, but knowing what I know, now, if I could go back to myself in the early 1990s, I would do things a little bit differently.”
When advising students, Superville reminded students of their power as aspiring journalists.
“As a journalist, you have an awesome power to hold people in positions of authority, people in positions of power to account for their decisions, their actions, and to inform the public on what those decisions and actions mean for them and how it will affect them,” Superville said.
Caption: Associated Press White House reporter Darlene Superville shares her experience covering the unprecedented 2020 presidential election.