Packing 24 hours of cable news with pundit arguments is (usually) cheaper to produce than original reporting and (supposedly) what the people who watch cable news would prefer to see. But CNN’s former White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is trying to disprove that conventional wisdom.
“Everybody thinks there’s one way to do it and I think I’m the person,” Yellin said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “I’m trying to do that.”
For a start, she’s using her Instagram feed, @Jessicayellin, to deliver to her more than 130,000 followers video updates that she describes as “news, not noise” — facts and analysis, without the conflict and outrage. She contrasted that mission with the M.O. of cable TV, where “I was told explicitly to make the news like ESPN.”
“They mean competition, jargon, outrage, make it a shout fest, you know, make it explosive,” Yellin said. “I have two comments on that. One is, you still need the explainer part. In order for people to truly engage and understand, we need a setup that says, ‘Here’s two minutes on what is the border policy. Now you can fight about it.’ Too often you don’t have that.”
On the new podcast, she also spoke to Recode’s Peter Kafka about her new satirical novel Savage News, which portrays both the dark side and the silly side of TV journalism. Yellin drew from her own experience when writing about how people surrounding the protagonist obsessively critique how her hair looks on the broadcast.
“I had no idea how important my hair would be to White House coverage,” she said. “... The character does her first White House appearance and the boss calls her in enraged, and she thinks she’s going to get yelled at for the questions she asked, and the boss is like, ‘Your hair appears to be longer on one side than on the other,’ and then gives her a name to go get a $600 chemical treatment so her hair is straight.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Jessica.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media, Peter Kafka, I’m very professional. That is me. I’m part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. I’m trying to make Jessica Yellin laugh. Hi, Jessica.
Jessica Yellin: Hi. (laughing) You are naughty.
I won! I won. Jessica’s bio: Former CNN White House correspondent. Prior to that, ABC. Prior to that, MSNBC. You went to Harvard, you’re very fancy.
You’ve written a book. Even fancier. Savage News. And you’re doing something cool on Instagram.
Thank you for saying something.
And we’re gonna talk about all of that! Yeah. Should we talk about Instagram first, we just go there?
Since we’re there. We’ll talk about the book for sure.
And it’s the new modern thing, right?
So, you have done all these very impressive television journalism … tenures. Is that the wrong word?
You’ve been on TV a lot, and now you’re doing a news project on Instagram.
What are you doing, and why are you doing it on Instagram?
So, I started this newscast on Instagram that is under my name. You can find it @JessicaYellin. I call it News Not Noise. Because I was in the news more or less for 17 years in traditional news, and I just have this feeling that all too much of what you’re getting from traditional news is a lot of noise. It’s hard to tell, if you’re just a regular person, what’s a mountain and what’s a molehill? And my job in this capacity now is to say here’s what’s news, this is the mountain, over here, those are molehills.
So, this started off as your personal Instagram account, and has become a news project for you, where you’re summarizing the news.
Yeah. So, it started, I mean, it was my Instagram account — like a year ago, I posted my cappuccino and it had a picture of Bruce Jenner’s face drawn in the latte, right? Just random Instagram stuff.
That’s a good latte.
It was impressive, I must say. I mean, it was Instagram-worthy. Then I wrote the book, and I wanted people to understand a little bit of what it’s like to be, like I say, on the bright side of the camera lens. And then I decided, what’s the way to address what I think are some of the challenges and issues in broadcasting?
Because your book — which we’ll talk about — is a critique, it’s a satire, it’s funny, and it’s gossipy, it’s good. It’s a critique of news.
It’s all of the above.
Of TV news.
Yeah. Yeah. And I wanted to find a way to address this audience that I think wants information told differently. I’m from LA, so I went home. I covered the White House, I went home, I went into the LA thing where I met with producers and talked to what are they called, unscripted television people.
You had some generals?
Generals, exactly! They’re amazing because all they do is meet to take more meetings to take another meeting to eventually make a decision. It’s so ...
You drink a lot of water.
Contrary to how we do things in news. So, I took all these generals talking about “there’s another way to do news,” and was sort of laughed out of the room every time. Nobody wants news without a panic attack. No one wants calm news. There isn’t a market for that. So, I thought I better test myself and see if I even know how to do it, and I just started doing videos on Instagram.
And it’s you, this sort of classic Instagram selfie but you’re not talking about your makeup or anything else, you’re talking about Brett Kavanaugh.
Exactly. And the idea is to quickly distill what truly matters in the story. To understand the most relevant facts, and either where it’s going or why it matters to you. The idea is to give busy people or people who are interested but turned off by the news another alternative, and I think of it as an onramp for people. I’ve done a lot of social science research, read the academic studies, etc., that shows there’s this huge audience that skews female, but it’s young men, too. They find the tone and the framing of news to be too negative.
They don’t like the way news is delivered whether it’s through traditional TV or cable or newspapers or websites. Not for them.
Exactly. And the conventional wisdom is, oh they just don’t like TV, or they don’t like the way everything is so highly produced, my insight is they also don’t like the tone and framing of it. How negative it is and how combative it is and how outrage-filled. And so can you invert that and do it differently and still get an audience?
And so some of these are videos, and now you’re doing some text-only posts, and it’s a very straightforward thing. It’s a, “Oh, why didn’t I think of that?” thing, or are we sure 20 other people aren’t doing a version of this?
Right. What I found is in Instagram, there weren’t a lot of people doing the news.
Because it’s pictures and visual, and the assumption is the audience is not there for news.
But what I found is that they are. So, it grew from I had like 700 followers to begin with, and it grew to 130,000, 100 percent organic. I haven’t spent a penny.
You got a big push from Amy Schumer.
Amy Schumer pushed it out. I mean, amazing, she announced her pregnancy on my Instagram news feed.
That’s a good get.
She’s been very generous, but also Jessica Seinfeld who has an audience that’s women who cook, and they don’t have a news source, right? A lot of them. Or there have been other celebrities. Christie Brinkley, a whole bunch of people have helped push it out, and it gets you an audience of people who might be online looking at fashion or cooking or other kids things, and they want a way to engage with the news that doesn’t feel ...
A little dose of news that sort of comes to them, and so your idea is it’s mostly, you’re assuming that you’ve got a female audience because you’re on Instagram, or do you think you’re actively seeking out that audience?
The people who’ve pushed it out are women who have women followers, so it heavily skews female, but the research shows that women over 35 want this kind of news and millennials of both genders.
So, I’m sure you get this a lot, but the obvious thing that I think about when I hear about your project and see it is, there’s The Skimm. We’ve had those founders on this podcast before. They’re doing a version of this, and also there’s lots of people who are aggregating news, who are explaining the news. My coworkers next door at Vox.com, that’s the premise of the website, so there’s lots of folks who are somehow trying to put news in context for people who don’t think they’re getting it from traditional sources.
A hundred percent, and I think they all do it beautifully. And I’m a huge consumer of Vox, I love what they do, and I am a daily reader of The Skimm. I’m video-first, so I’m talking to you. Like Vox, I’m a reporter, so my stuff is sourced, and what I try to do that’s slightly different is crunch it for you so that it’s succinct and analytical. There’s an original reporting part, there’s an analysis part, and then it’s personalized because you’re talking to a human, in a way, and I think that’s part of what makes this connection real for people, that they see me.
So, you’ve got an audience. You’re building an audience quickly. It’s on Instagram, it’s free. I didn’t pay for it. I didn’t notice any sponsors. I assume at some point you assume there’s a way to turn this into a business?
Yeah, let’s assume so, right? That would be good. (laughing)
What do you think?
So, that’s what I’m actively exploring now, which is what is the best way to maintain the integrity of what it is and grow the business. And the idea is to offer calm, clear, succinct news without a panic attack, to an audience that wants information told clearly. Does it live on Instagram forever? Does it move off and go somewhere else? Is the smartest thing to, you know ...
Because in theory this could be on Twitter, it could be on Facebook, you could be a video show. Lots of different ways to do a version of this.
Yes. And for me I just want to be true to the audience and build. I want to bring in other reporters, and I see ways to partner with existing media platforms. There’s no reason this is competitive with ... It’s an onramp. There is an audience that wants news, they want a way to access news.
And right now it’s just you, right? Like you’re holding the phone in front of your face. You’re typing up ...
This is a funny thing. Yeah, you know, I used to be on the White House north lawn with like a whole crew, and a whole fancy shebang, and now I’m on my couch at home with a camera doing a selfie, basically.
Yeah, I was gonna ask about that. Is it whiplash? What’s the right word for going from that sort of, forget the White House part of it, but just anything involving TV is multiple people. There’s people back in New York, wherever, you’re doing the project, and you don’t really have control in many ways, and here it’s 100 percent control.
And then I assume some other trade-offs.
Yeah, the 100 percent control is good and bad. The part I love is, there are no gatekeepers. So, I can tell the story the way I think the audience wants to hear it. The awful thing is, there are no gatekeepers. So there’s no one I can go to and say, “Hey, do we do it this way or that way?”
“That’s a bad idea. Don’t do that.”
Right, exactly. So, I do miss that kind of editorial engagement, but I’ve created my own kitchen cabinet of other reporters, sources, people I trust that I harass all day long, saying, “What do you think of this story? What do you think that?”
And was there a breakthrough story for you besides the Schumer pregnancy?
I think Brett Kavanaugh, because the audience was super engaged, and the news, the traditional news was covering it in a specific way, which was all about the conflict, all about the outrage. And some of the learnings I’ve had is people want to understand the human part, and they want things to sort of have a landing place.
I don’t know how to say it except don’t scream at me and then go to commercial break. Give me a place to feel okay and then end. And what I did is I’d include, I know there are survivors of sexual assault in the audience and this is upsetting. If it is, you’re not alone. Here’s where you can go and call somebody to talk about it.
And that was resonant with your audience, and then built a bigger audience. A lot of media that has been created, either media companies or just coverage post-Trump is actively opposed to Trump — which it should be, I think. But it seems like you are sort of deliberately trying to be neutral-ish in your presentations.
I love that, neutral-ish. Yeah, my bias is away from conflict and outrage. So, my general thesis, and so to finish that thought, my bias is away from conflict and outrage as opposed to right-left. I’m always trying to find the way to have the calmer take than the media landscape. I think of myself as sitting on top of the media landscape picking out for you what I think matters, told in a tone that I think this audience can ingest. So, I don’t think of it as right-left, but I also make it, it’s imperative that I always include data, so the audience has a piece of information to go and talk about.
So, I was looking at your summary of the Barr summary of the Mueller report. And it’s all very common sense. Here’s what Barr says, here’s what we don’t know, and it’s all factual and all logical and all true, and I’m sure there’s a good chunk of the country, that Trump-supporting part of the country that look at that and go, “This is biased, this is anti-Trump,” etc. Do you concern yourself about sort of making sure that people who like Donald Trump or his affiliates want to engage with you, or do you just say, “Look, I’m putting it out there and you guys can decide.”
I don’t concern myself with the Trump base. I believe that if you are embracing Donald Trump’s point of view and the base’s outrage, you are not hewing to facts most of the time. In this environment you’re going to be center-right to center-to-left. And it’s just the truth of the moment we’re living it.
Yeah. It’s pretty straightforward. It’s funny, it’s not funny that it’s controversial, it’s sad that it’s controversial.
I mean, if that’s controversial we need to have a conversation about what facts really are.
We do. Let’s have that in the next conversation. Let’s talk about TV and sort of how you got to the White House, and what made you decide to leave the White House. I mentioned Harvard, went to Harvard, you fancy pants. Your dad had worked in the White House?
My dad was John F. Kennedy’s personal page on the floor of the Democratic convention. He didn’t go to the White House, but he was ...
He was very House adjacent.
Yeah, he was a devotee of JFK, and growing up in my house the one thing we were not allowed to touch as kids were these Life Magazine editions commemorating his assassination. And my dad died, and the first thing I said like, everybody’s deciding, what do you want to remember dad? Those were mine. It’s pretty grim. (laughing)
Yeah. I understand!
So, there is this whole value system in my household which was you can’t just do well, you have to do good. And I thought first that I was gonna be in politics. But working in the White House I decided no.
So, White House intern, Clinton administration, do I get to say Monica Lewinsky out loud?
You sure may!
Did you work with her, did you know her?
I did not know her. I was also, I was from where she came from, but we did not overlap.
And so you’re working as an intern at the Clinton White House, and you decide, “I don’t want to do this.” Or there was something more interesting?
I noticed that in every room in the West Wing, remember those huge TVs? No plasmas back in the day. There was one in every room. It hung on clear fish wire, and there were two things that could stop a room cold. One was the president actually walking into the room physically, or that one TV which was tuned to CNN, the only 24-hour cable news channel at the time, reporting on the building. And I just noticed how much power those people had, and I always thought, “Oh, if I were doing that I would focus on this policy thing we’re working on today.” Because I was ...
“I’m gonna go work on TV and tell them how to ...”
Yeah, that was, yes, I know, I know.
And then you go from there and you do the sort of traditional route you do when you’re breaking into journalism, whether it’s TV or anything else is you go to a bunch of small markets and sort of work your way up.
I did. My first job in TV was in Orlando where I was a one-man-band reporter. I’d carry my own camera, edit my own stuff.
Back to what we were just talking about with Instagram.
How did that experience sort of sync with what you thought TV news was gonna be like? I assume you imagined it was much more glamorous at one point, and then all of a sudden you’re lugging your own makeup.
That is part of the learning. One of the reasons I wrote this novel is I wanted young women who want to go into the business to know, like it’s not super glam.
On the other side. It’s exciting and exhilarating, they’re adventurous and camaraderie, but there’s a lot of just work in it. But I have to say, being a one-man band was so hard but so rewarding, because the thing about local news that you don’t necessarily appreciate at the time is you have this intimate connection with families. People invite you to ...
You’re a big deal to those communities. You’re in their rooms.
You’re in their house.
And they open their door, let you into their house, and tell you their lives, their life story, and that is so riveting. And when you’re a political reporter in Washington, which was my goal, and I was exhilarated and glad I had the opportunity to do it, it’s much more distant from real people’s lives. So, what Orlando reminded me is, I just always thought of the people who are watching. It gave me this on-the-ground connection to who I think our viewers are.
So you do Orlando, a bunch of other small markets, and get to, everyone wants to break into Washington or New York, everyone they’re working with, unless they’ve decided they no longer wanna pursue that, right? There’s lots of Jessica Yellins out there hoping to get from bigger market to bigger market to bigger market, and then eventually Washington or New York.
I did it. My short story is I always said I wanted to be a White House reporter. So, I get to Orlando and they said, “What do you want?” And I was like, “I wanna be a White House reporter,” and they’d be like, “You know you’re in Orlando?”
And then I got to Tampa and they said the same thing and they let me cover politics. And I covered Bill Nelson’s first senate run in the year 2000, so I happened to be in Democratic Party headquarters in Tallahassee in the year 2000, and I was the reporter on the recount from the night it happened for 35 days. And I ended up doing the affiliate services in all of it, and it gave me great serious political tape, but it also gave me the confidence because I was next to all my political reporting heroes. Linda Douglas shows up, Cokie Roberts. Like, oh my God!
All these DC press corps parachuted in, and you’re now shoulder to shoulder with them.
Yes! Exactly. And I was good at it, and I realized I can do this and that helped. And then from there I got an opportunity to do the overnights at MSNBC. It was my big leap, and then I got the opportunity ...
Now MSNBC is a thing, but back then it was barely a thing.
It was not as dominant as it is now.
It was this weird MS, Microsoft, NBC joint venture.
Yes. But it was national news out of New York. I was psyched.
Still a fan. Yeah.
It was the big jump for me. And then from there I got to do the overnight for ABC News because they needed somebody Friday overnight and Saturday overnight.
Overnight literally means you’re in the middle of the night?
You show up at work at 10:00, and we practice drills all night long because it was in case the pope died or in case something terrible happened, a plane crashed, they needed somebody ready to go live. We drilled.
Break glass, I can go on air.
Exactly. At MSNBC I was on air overnight talking because, you know, things are always happening there, but ABC it was only as needed and then, so I worked Friday and Saturday overnights and then during the week, I filed for Good Morning America, and I was doing tabloid news stories. You know, any crazy crime across the country. I covered Martha Stewart going to jail, Michael Jackson’s second trial. But, again, I always said I’d like to be White House correspondent.
It’s one thing to say that and then how do you actually get that job at CNN?
I think it’s because I wouldn’t stop talking about it. Whenever they asked, “What do you want to do, Jessica?” I’d say, “Thank you so much for the assignment.” And I’d work my tail off to do whatever tabloid crime they told me. And then I’d say, “But I’d like to be White House correspondent.”
Finally, Kate Snow was at the White House, and she got promoted to Weekend Good Morning America, had to leave DC, and they had an urgent need to fill that slot. I basically got a call that said, more or less, “Jessica, don’t get excited. We just want you to go to DC to fill in for a minute at the White House.”
Which is what you referenced ...
Even though you imagined that you would have to climb over all these bodies to get this job, they were like, “Look, we need someone. You’re around. Take it for now.”
Just go. Yeah. And then I was there and I just did what I could. I worked as hard as I could, and finally two weeks turned into a month, turned into five months, and finally they were like, “Okay, you can stay.”
You’ve been in the White House, not at the highest levels of power, but you were around and you got a sense of how it worked, and now you’re in the White House reporting on that. What sort of didn’t you get about that job and what did you, “Oh, I know how this works, I know how to do this”?
Well, it’s a very different thing, obviously, covering the White House and working in it. One of the things I write about in the book is how different it is in person, the press room, than it is when you’re seeing it on TV. It just looks so intimidating and formal on TV, and in person it’s tiny and dirty and it smells so bad.
I know they’ve renovated it and it’s better, but there were people who were fire hazards. I mean, their booths were filled with papers to the ceiling. There was like five people in a tiny, tiny booth. Everybody could see what they’re typing. It’s super not glam, but there’s a real camaraderie among the press corps because you’re all in this weird circumstance together.
It’s a very unnatural thing where you’re all desperately competing against each other, but you’re all sort of in it together. Again, this is pre-Trump.
When Trump came into office there was a lot of discussion, what would happen to the White House press pool? Would they have to go to a different building? Would they no longer have access? There was a lot of question about access. It all became moot because the White House leaks like a sieve and Trump can’t get away from a TV camera, but did you, having been on that side where you knew sort of the mechanics about how all that stuff worked, do you think that, Trump aside, the traditional structure of having all that press jammed into a room, having a spokesperson come out once a day and sort of provide a message and then maybe you hear from another official, do you think that’s a useful role for the press, having done that now for years?
I think it’s unavoidable now that it’s become part of the language of White House coverage.
Because for a while they said this was not a standard thing that you would have a live White House briefing.
Right. Pre-Lewinsky it wasn’t, and then they started. And then once you start it how do you stop it? My view on this, I was always super conflicted because the briefing feels like kabuki theater half the time and that’s the opening scene of the book.
The spokesperson is performing, but the press is performing for the camera.
A hundred percent. Everybody knows they’re on camera and the truth is, most of what you get that’s really good is off camera, but sometimes you need the White House to be on the record and you need to be able to ask them a question, and even if they’re not going to answer it the people need to see that they’re not answering it. And so, where else can you have that guaranteed? The White House briefing serves that, fills that function.
At least we got to ask the question. At least we were able to record you not answering it or lying or whatever you’re going to do.
Right, and it’s insufficient to end your reporting there, but it’s necessary at this stage to at least have that opportunity. And I think the fact that the Trump White House rarely briefs is awful, but it’s, you know, of a piece with their entire approach to the press.
Yeah. To me it seems like they’ve taken it to the logical extreme, which is we may brief, we may not, but it doesn’t matter what we say because nothing we say matters. We’re either actively lying or we don’t know what we’re talking about. To me, it just means that you should just end the whole procedure. It’s literally, it’s only stagecraft now.
It’s a dilemma because I think the Trump White House has enlisted the press as a useful opponent. It’s world wrestling. The president needs an adversary and he’s decided to make it the media. It’s very hard for the media not to take the bait. How do you cover without engaging? The press briefing is like that dilemma in a nutshell, you know.
It just seems like a B-roll, right? It’s a term for when you just need footage of the thing so you can stand up in front of it and talk about it and it just seems like an elaborate way to get B-roll. No one is ever going to get information. Maybe you get satisfaction out of watching Sarah Sanders stammer through something. Maybe if you’re on the other side you like seeing Jim Acosta get beat on. Not truly. There’s no way you can learn anything. If you’re incredibly diligent, you’re never going to learn anything from watching one of these things.
Right. Pulling back, here’s what I’d say. I am glad the briefing still happens every so often. I think they should go. I think they should have a camera on it. I do not think it needs to make air necessarily. It is often noise, and just letting them do what they do can be incredibly distracting. And so I think it’s an important record, but it should be de-emphasized.
Walk me through what happens when you’re not involved in the briefing, but you are the White House correspondent? What does a day like there?
Oh. You swipe in where the West Wing workers swipe in. You go to your tiny little booth and you start making calls and doing emails all day long. Calls and emails just back and forth, figuring out what’s the story. Constant stream of somebody else has this. Do we have that? Can we match it? What do you have? Have you tweeted? Is it posted? I mean, it’s just rolling incoming and trying to keep up.
You were there sort of in a Twitter era. Twitter hadn’t broken in the way it has now, but it was still a thing there. Online was part of your ... You had to be aware of what was going online.
Oh yeah. I covered Clinton where they barely had email. I mean, I worked in the Clinton, barely email. I covered Bush where they leaked a little bit differently because they could have a conversation with you and it wouldn’t get out on social media. And then by the time Obama was president, they knew the minute they talked to you it could be blasted out on social, so they were much more circumspect, and Twitter was a big thing then.
Sometimes the White House comm shop would announce information only on Twitter. You’d think, “I was literally just on the phone with you. You couldn’t tell me? You had to tweet it?” Twitter was a huge piece of the conversation then. You know, so you have to keep your eye on that while having your own personal conversations around town.
The work product, right? That sounds familiar to a lot of people like me who do some kind of journalism, but the difference is, right, the way I imagine it, is for you, unless you’re going to stand up in front of a camera and discuss it, it kind of doesn’t matter. In theory, you could get a scoop, but the lingua franca, right, is air time. So, you’ve got to find a story that has to put you in front of a camera.
Yes, and I write about this in the book about the main character, Natalie Savage, has a scoop and she’s trying to get the White House gig and she’s doing what she can to get noticed and landed and she goes to tell her bureau chief what the scoop is and the bureau chief says, “Okay, run to a camera. Get in front of it.” And as soon as she sits down to report it, it comes out of her competitor’s mouth. And so, yes, you have to get on air with your information and there’s all sorts of obstacles to you getting on air.
Right, because it’s unlike the world where I can tweet whatever I want. There’s a specific amount of time and space available for you to get on in front of a camera.
Well, I have to say, when it’s a 24-hour cable channel, you have a lot more opportunity to get on camera.
Right. Even then, their natural bias is we’d rather have people talking about the thing that someone else wrote about six hours ago and we can have a conversation about it.
Right. Well, this is the thing. The thing is — and this is true, I’ve talked to print friends, this is across the news landscape — it is crazy that you’re under all this pressure to break news and get an exclusive, but sometimes you get a nugget, you break something that you have and it might be the case that your organization doesn’t want you to report it first because they’re like, “Well, who else is reporting this?” You’re like, “No one, because I’ve got it. Let me go. We’ll own it.” They’re like, “Well, how do we know it’s true if no one else has it?”
There’s that part about being out on a limb and the other part is just it’s, you know, this can get very depressing, but in some ways the economic model works much better if we don’t have people going out and chasing scoops and we hear people talking about someone else’s scoops. It’s a much more efficient model for us.
Right. That’s different, yes. The conversation about punditry is an important one and I do think that it’s a crazy situation we’re in. You know, some of these news organizations have this magnificent ability to go to and cover what’s happening on the ground and instead they’re spending all this time in studio having a bunch of people yell at each other. I think it is a problem because it’s fomenting outrage and I think people are going to end up with outrage fatigue if we’re not already there.
I think we’re there.
We’re there. I know.
I mean, the flip side of this is, people like to be entertained and the reason that you see this model working in political coverage, but also when you watch ESPN and lots of other things now is that people like to watch, and talk radio, people like that kind of engagement. It’s more interesting than a dry recitation of the facts and to have a pro and a con, even if they really aren’t two sides, is sort of a natural way. It’s theater, right? People like that.
Can I add to that? So, I think that is how we view the news now. News is conflict. Its stories have to be told as conflict. Make it like ESPN. I was told explicitly to make the news like ESPN.
They don’t mean highlight reels. They mean have a take that is different than someone else’s take.
I think they mean competition, jargon, outrage, make it a shout fest, you know, make it explosive. I have two comments on that. One is, you still need the explainer part. In order for people to truly engage and understand, we need a setup that says, “Here’s two minutes on what is the border policy. Now you can fight about it.” Too often you don’t have that.
Second, I would disagree that the whole audience wants it told that way. There is a healthy audience for conflict news. They’re watching. But I think there’s another audience that wants news told differently.
Right. You can’t measure them because they’re not there.
But if you gave them something else, they’d show up for it.
And I’ve done the survey data. I have the survey data to indicate that that audience exists and I have an Instagram story to show that there are at least some people who want it told differently.
And you think there’s a gender component to this, right, both in terms of the audience and also who’s making the decisions about what kind of news we’re going to get.
I do. First, the research shows that when women are involved in a big way in running newsrooms, the news that comes out is different. It’s told differently. You could have a story on politics, but instead of having it focus entirely on rhetoric and who’s up and who’s down and polls, it’s more about how does this impact one person in Ohio? What does this mean to you at home? It’s brought to a human level in a different way and there’s more of positive solutions focus framing. And as it turns out, that attracts a larger female audience to news.
You would think, if that is the case, that at least one organization would say, well, everyone’s doing one thing. Let’s go the other way. There’s more room. Also, we would love to have a bigger female audience. We would also love to bring in a whole new audience that isn’t already watching news so we don’t have to fight for them. Let’s go do it. By the way, not out of the goodness of our hearts. Pure profit motive. That is an attractive audience. We want to serve them. Let’s go do it. Why hasn’t one of the networks leaned into this?
You’d think. I mean, it describes an industry ripe for disruption where everybody thinks there’s one way to do it and I think I’m the person. I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to do that.
You’re going to do it. All right.
That’s what I want to do. I think there’s another way and I think it’s not just a business, but it’s a mission because I don’t think anybody would disagree that there’s a healthy need for our citizenry to be informed and it’s important that we’re focused on that.
Speaking of focused, this is why we’re here, your book. I’m holding it up. Savage News, a novel by CNN former Chief White House Correspondent Jessica Yellin. That’s you, with an Amy Schumer blurb on the front. Very good.
Isn’t that cool? Oh my god.
I’ve got to say, they asked if you … Someone said, “You should have Jessica on and take a look at the book.” I just assumed that if you were writing a book about the White House in 2019, I mean, published in 2019, it was a story about Trump. I knew it was fictional, but I still assumed this was a Trump story. It’s not at all. It has Trumpish elements, but it really is not a Trump story.
It’s got a missing first lady, a reality TV star, sex, palace intrigue, and workplace drama and it’s not a Trump administration tell-all.
No. It took me a few minutes to figure that out.
It’s really about what it’s like to be a woman reporting in a crazy time.
What it’s like to have your job, your old job.
It’s heightened because it’s satire. You know, people always ask me when I covered the White House is it more Veep or House of Cards? Everyone assumes it’s House of Cards. I think Washington is Veep and I think the news is Veep. It’s just sort of, this is what every show about the news misses is the comedy that goes on behind the scenes.
Because people are human beings and they screw up and they fart and they say the wrong thing on air.
Exactly. And it’s just the ... And then you have to make sure that doesn’t blow back at you and the things you do to make sure of that and, you know, the personalities, so I wanted to add a comic element to people’s view of the news.
It’s a screwball comedy.
Screwball. And then also give people slight empathy for the reporters. One of the things that I always thought was strange is I would get this incoming barrage of rage from viewers about why we were making certain programming choices and you’re like, “I’m a reporter out in the field doing my best. I don’t decide programming.” People don’t really understand the kinds of pressures that are on you as the reporter, like they’ll focus on your hair.
But you knew what you were getting into?
I had no idea how important my hair would be to White House coverage.
Really. You went to Harvard. You were at the White House.
Here I am thinking I’m going to make a difference and then ...
They don’t generally put unattractive people on TV.
Okay, Peter. There’s a difference between being attractive/presentable and being sort of like autocratic about what your hair must look like.
You’ve got a reference — I don’t know if it’s in the book or one of the articles I was reading — where you talked about like your hair being misaligned by an eighth of an inch and getting notes about it.
Yeah. The character does her first White House appearance and the boss calls her in enraged, and she thinks she’s going to get yelled at for the questions she asked, and the boss is like, “Your hair appears to be longer on one side than on the other,” and then gives her a name to go get a $600 chemical treatment so her hair is straight.
And this is a gender thing, right, because the men need to be attractive as well, but it’s a different standard and a different focus.
A hundred thousand percent. I mean, the women, if you’ll notice, if you watch somebody who you think is new on a network and you watch them over six months, how their look changes, it’s remarkable. They’ll go from often having curly hair, you’ll see somebody appear with curly hair and then it’s wavy and then it’s sort of got body and then it’s stick straight in no time and that’s the look, and you move from having black and navy suits to having like these colorful jewel tones. There’s just like these rules of TV look for females.
They’re much more rigid.
They’re essential. Sometimes, nobody orders it. You just understand that that’s sort of what we’re going to do.
Trying to get to the next level, or stay on the air.
When did that sort of click into place for you? How long ... I mean, you get to TV, so you get a big dose of, “You need to look this way.” Then apparently it ratchets up throughout your jobs. At what point did it really sink in, “Oh, this is really a big component of my job, and I do or don’t feel comfortable with that.”
Well, it became clear when you start getting notes.
You think you’ve tried ... You know, I’m there trying to make sure there’s nothing wrong in my story, and I have the most up-to-the-minute information, and then your feedback is, “Why were you wearing that jacket?” “I never want to see a hat again.” You know, all that sort of stuff.
I remember being in hurricanes and they’re like, “You know, you weren’t wearing the logo hat,” at an early station. So it’s just part of the job. It’s a visual medium, but it I think it’s much harder for women. There’s even the part where you have to wake up and go to makeup, two hours before your live shots, so you can have the full war paint put on with the fake eyelashes, and then head to the White House. So, it’s part of the deal.
Back to the book. The book explains some of that, if you’re unaware of that. Again, there is not really a lot of Trumpy stuff, in part because you wrote the book pre-Trump.
I started it pre-Trump, and I also wanted to tell a story that was about news, and not about him. I felt like there’s nothing you can do ... If you try to out-Trump Trump, or write a crazy ... You can’t. There’s a ...
It’s interesting that there has not been a lot of Trump fiction.
What are you gonna do? I mean, even TV writers talk about this in LA. How do you make it “more?”
So I tried to sort of but the president ... There’s a president in the background, and there’s a first lady whose not from America, and she goes missing. There’s some components, and there’s a White House that leads them on a wild goose chase. There’s some things that’ll resonate, but I really wanted to keep the focus on a young reporter trying to break through.
Again, you wrote this pre-Weinstein?
So I started it ... First of all, I’m just gonna confess. I can’t even remember. I think I started it in 2014. It took me so long. It’s really hard.
It seems like it’d be difficult to write a book.
I know. Nobody’s patient with process. I tell friends I’m writing a book, and two months later they’re like, “When’s it coming out? Why’s it not out yet?”
So I started it pre- all of this, and then finished it after, but yes. So I wrote some, I call it “light #MeToo,” pre-Weinstein, and all my early readers tell me to take it out. No one wants to hear that. Some said it’s not plausible. And then post-Weinstein, I got a flood of calls saying, “Put it back in, put it back in.”
And so you went and did it.
Yeah, and my goal was to show a different kind of “me too.” Not the kind of stuff where there’s aggressive assault, the sort of thing you have to report, or everybody understands, but the kind of icky, vague, upsetting stuff that happens at work for women in any workplace, I think, that you don’t always know to do about it, but it creates an undertow that makes your job harder. I’d like to be able to have a conversation about that stuff, and how do we talk about that?
Yeah. I still ... This goes back to Kavanaugh, right? It’s because everything is often so 0 to 100 and it’s hard to sort of figure out middle ground. I think your age and experience also affects how you view this stuff. I’m measuring my words as I’m saying this because I don’t want to get in trouble.
But there’s lots of gray areas, right? I think people who acknowledge that are doing us a service by saying there’s stuff that can be gross but not illegal.
And bad, but not fire-able.
Exactly. There’s this guy I call “Handsy Hal,” and he helps decide everybody’s assignment, so he’s super important in your life as a reporter, but he’s constantly doing inappropriate things. Our character can’t upset him because she doesn’t want to lose her assignments, but he’s showing up at her apartment at midnight saying, “Let’s get a drink.” And he’s complimenting her on the way her behind looks in pants. It’s just like, “Dude, stop doing that.” We need to find a way to be able to say that without maybe reporting them to HR, or being able to have them sent to HR and just explain that’s not cool.
Here. We’ll make some really bright lines for you. You stay in this box, and don’t do that, you get to keep your job.
Right. I’d like us to be able to talk about that without these apocalyptic outcomes for everybody.
When you talk to people who’ve read the book, does that resonate with readers from different industries? Are they going, “No, no. I didn’t realize TV was like that, but my job’s not like that.”
Yes. I’ve gotten all of the above. I’ve gotten, “Oh my God, I know who that is.” They think they know because they’ve had one. I’ve had younger women saying, “He should be turned in.” They have a very different point of view, like less accommodating. And then I’ve had people ...
Younger women are less accommodating?
I’ve found that to be the case.
I respect that. Amy Schumer has this Netflix special out, and she does this bit. I’m told it’s called a bit, not a shtick, sorry. Okay, she has this bit in it where she says we’re all going along our business and this younger generation of women comes along and says, “Hey, are you guys getting harassed?” And the older generation is like, “Um, yeah.” And the younger generation says, “Do you want to do something about it?” And our generation’s like, “Okay, yeah! Sure.” So we are learning from what younger women just won’t put up with, but in my age group, it was so different. It was so different.
Or you say, “Yeah, that’s part of life.” And you do put up with that, and it sucks, but that’s not sexual assault. That’s a bad date. It’s something I’ve heard.
Yes, but the willingness to actually speak it is what I’d like us to be able to ... so that you feel less stifled. So when the icky, creepy thing happens, instead of stifling your response, you can say, “Hey, I don’t like that. Can we not?” And, that’s all.
I forgot to mention, I was reading your Atlantic piece about Brett Kavanaugh. At the end you say, “I went to school with Brett Kavanaugh.”
I covered Brett Kavanaugh when I worked in the Bush White House, so I knew him.
You were reporting. You knew him professionally.
Professionally, and a little bit ...
Have you spoken with him since?
I have not.
Yeah. It’s a very good piece you wrote last fall, really critiquing Fox News’ interview of him.
Which seems like low-hanging fruit because of course Fox News did a crummy job, but they have actual journalists there, and they were attempting to ask questions. And actually, I think your point was, lots of places would’ve done a bad job like this because we don’t really know how to talk to anyone about these topics. Certainly for politicians, or anyone who’s been trained to give a certain kind of answer, we just allow them to give that answer and then we move on.
Yeah, exactly. We have this weird dichotomy where it used to be that women were entirely stifled. I couldn’t even say, “That creeps me out. Please don’t.” And now, I find a lot of men of goodwill and high integrity feel stifled because they’re afraid to communicate, and get in trouble for saying the wrong thing. You know what? I said earlier, we have not a lot of patience for process. I think we’re in the process of figuring out this cultural conversation. Do you know what I mean? We don’t have the answers of how to communicate, but we’re going through this ugly period, and what’s important is that we just start talking about it.
Yeah. Not to be too ... I believe the children are our future, but I do think a generation from now, a lot of this is just gonna seem like a ridiculous fight that we had, and everyone’s gonna sort of be on board with at least some commonly accepted parameters and it’s gonna be fine.
Well, I actually find younger men at work get it more. They get it better. They just came of age in a different time.
Yeah. Unless we think there’s gonna be a pendulum swing and you’re gonna see a reaction to this.
Well, one thing we’ve all learned lately is, don’t make predictions about the future.
I won’t. I’m not making a prediction. I have one last question about the book. There’s a scene in there where you ... Not you. Your protagonist is trying to chase the first lady to the French Riviera except the network doesn’t want to pay for it, so you go to Florida to some crummy hotel and set up a shot on a beach. Either it says, or then implies, that you’re in the Mediterranean. Is that a real story?
No. It’s a sin of omission. She never says it. She doesn’t even imply it. It just is a good look. What that is is a little bit of a pointing out how we craft things in the news, too. I remember when I covered the Bush White House, and we would go to Crawford, and we had this ...
The ranch in Texas.
He would do his brush-clearing and bike-riding.
Yes. We would never see that. A camera was sent there. We were miles away at a gymnasium in some local high school, and in the field next to the high school there was some old broken-down wagon and bales of hay set up, and that is where every network did its live shot.
And you were in Texas? You were near Crawford?
I think Dateline ...
And you weren’t on the ranch, but it suggested that you were near the ...
We were ranch-proximate.
So that kind of shading is standard?
Yes, and it’s just comical to me. It’s part of the game and the show of it. It’s just an oddity of doing the job. I also remember, part of that scene is because we always also try to hide from weather. The No. 1 rule of a great camera crew is they can find you cover, so that if it starts raining or snowing, the shot looks like you’re outdoors, but you might have an awning over you.
My greatest crew ever was when we were ... I think we were in Iowa or Ohio during an election. It was a crazy blizzard out and they found us a ground-floor room at some Hampton Inn or something, and they removed the windows, the glass from the windows, so that we were physically inside a hotel room but the shot was to the outdoors.
Because you want the outdoors. You want to see that you’re out in the snow or whatever, but you can’t actually put on a performance there.
Well, you can, and often you have to stand in a blizzard, but it’s way better if you don’t have to. So the idea that we got to have cover, but have the shot look great like that was heaven. So that was homage to that crew that found us that amazing live shot location.
That was great. I also like the other convention of TV news where you have to go to the scene of where something happened 12 or 24 hours earlier, and stand out there to prove that you’re at the place where the thing happened, but it no longer ... It doesn’t matter that you’re in front of the school.
It was so ... I mean, we used to do that for election nights. We’d have a primary night or an election event, and I’d literally be in some spot 12 hours after candidate Obama had left. All you hear is the clinking of the bleachers being broken down and it’s empty, and you’re still standing there doing your live shot.
Do you think any of that changes over the next few years as the Jessica Yellins of the world are creating their own Instagram, and there’s a new vocabulary for what we expect to see come through our phone screen, and some of this stuff gets shunted to the side because it’s either too expensive or just dumb?
I do. I think the fact that people are watching just me, talking to a camera, shows they don’t need all that production. I think people want to see real events happening, and so it’s still crucial that we get out of the building more and show real Americans in the real world. But when it comes to doing the reporter piece and the live shot, you don’t need to make all that stuff happen.
I will say, VICE is doing this HBO show where one of the big things is “we don’t have an anchor with a news desk. We’ve gotten rid of that, and we’re just gonna show you shots of people doing stuff.” I find, because I’m old, at least ... maybe because I’m old. The lack of having that anchor there, even though that’s all pretense and silliness of not having a person at a desk you just cut to and say, “That was that story, here’s another story,” unsettles me. So, I get some of these traditions exist for a reason, or have existed for a reason.
I agree, and I think you want somebody ... the storyteller, somebody leading you on the path. You know, it’s the modern Walter Cronkite and it’s about having individuals you can trust. I just think that maybe in the future, people might follow individual reporters as opposed to brands. The advice I always give audiences when they say, “I don’t know who to trust. There’s too much coming at me.” I say, “Find a couple reporters you respect. Follow them, and follow the people and sources they refer you to.”
Go follow Jessica on Instagram. She’s easy to find. Go buy Jessica’s book, Savage News. Jessica, thanks for your time.
Thanks so much. It’s really great to be here with you.
Thanks for coming.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.