VOA White House Bureau Chief: 7 Words Or Less Gets Trump's Attention

Mar 7, 2019

We've all seen the press corps shouting questions to President Donald Trump on the White House south lawn, before boarding a helicopter taking him to Air Force One.

How does a reporter get his attention? That's one of the many stories shared by Steve Herman, White House bureau chief for the Voice of America, when he visited the National VOA Museum of Broadcasting in West Chester Township Wednesday.

"By trial and error, I found what works in getting an answer from the president is asking a question in seven words or less," Herman says.

"There are a lot of distractions. The helicopter rotor makes it difficult to hear. Lots of people are shouting questions," he says. 

So he keeps his questions short and sweet: Are you going to Japan? Are Russians tampering with our elections?

Steve Herman at the VOA's Clyde Haehnle Hall on Wednesday, March 6.
Credit JOhn Kiesewetter

Herman, a Cincinnati native, came from the West Wing to West Chester to talk about covering the White House and the world. His PowerPoint showed the seating chart for the White House briefing room (he's in the fourth row between Fox News Radio and the National Journal), and the cramped White House basement VOA work area. (At least they have their own area; some news agencies have to "share a chair" in the West Wing, he says.)

Here are some highlights from my conversation with him and his talk:

CINCINATI ROOTS: "Tonight for me is coming full circle. I learned of the VOA in my grandmother's kitchen on a radio that got AM and SW (short wave). I was about 7 or 8. I messed with the radio" and the VOA signal came booming in, he says.

His family's roots in Cincinnati go back 150 years. He reminisced about going to Crosley Field, Riverfront Stadium, the Cincinnati Royals and Xavier University football game. He moved to Las Vegas with his parents in 1971, heartbroken to leave town after the Cincinnati Reds played in the 1970 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

At age 10, Herman attended the 1970 All-Star Game at Riverfront Stadium a few weeks after the stadium opened. "My mother wanted to beat the crowd, so we left before that famous collision between Pete Rose and Ray Fosse at home plate to win the game in the 10th," he says.

PRESIDENTIAL SIGHTING: "The first time I saw a president of the United States in person was at Riverfront Stadium. Richard Nixon was at the 1970 All-Star Game." (He left early too!)

The VOA Bethany Station operated from 1944 to 1994.
Credit John Kiesewetter / WVXU

TO TELL THE TRUTH: The VOA motto is, "Tell the truth and let the world decide." It was founded in 1942 during World War II to broadcast the truth into Germany and Japan. Today it broadcasts in 45 languages to 275 million people around the world.

So is it difficult getting the truth from White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who often repeats or defends Trump's inaccuracies at her briefings?

"You're not going to get factual answers there because of this administration and its approach to media, and the way it sees message delivery. That's not a realistic expectation," says Herman, who has spent 26 years as VOA bureau chief in Asia, India, Korea and Thailand and also served as VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent based at the State Department.

To get the truth, Herman says he does what all good reporters do – talk on background (not for attribution) with White House officials; and talk to people outside the White House, including other parts of the administration.

ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE: Herman proudly notes that he did a story about the history of the phrase "the enemy of the people," first used by Russian dictator Josef Stalin in the 1930s.

"We didn't pull any punches at the VOA talking about that issue," says.

Herman points out that Trump's attacks on the media are different from President Richard Nixon, whose staff made a detailed "enemies list" in 1973. When he first heard Trump say the phrase, "that rhetoric was alarming and shocking. But we're not seeing the type of action of the Nixon administration. Yes, words are very, very important, and part of my job is to quote the president accurately. But just as important are the actions. The president says one thing, but the (punitive) action does not occur."

FAKE NEWS: Herman has covered two Trump rallies in Ohio and been subjected to taunts and jeers by his supporters.

"People yell 'fake news!' when we're going in. They yell at (CNN correspondent) Jim Accsta. But when the rallies are over, they come up and ask for Acosta's autograph," Herman says.

"To me it's entertainment (to Trump fans). It's like Big Time Wrestling, with good guys and bad guys, and you know the bad guy is not really a bad guy. But there's a small percentage of people who believe it, like in El Paso, when the BBC cameraman was attacked. A lot of White House media feel we are very lucky there's not been (anyone seriously hurt by an) assault"

POOL SPRAYS: What's a pool spray? That's when the White House pool print, TV and radio reporters get a brief chance to see the president in the Oval Office or elsewhere in the White House. It's called a "spray" because they last about 45 seconds – like a few quick sprays from a squirt bottle. Journalists would ask a couple of quick questions, take pictures and be ushered out of the room.

However, a Trump White House pool spray can go 45 minutes, not 45 seconds.

"Donald Trump, bless his heart, loves to speak to the media," he says. "This president is probably the most accessible president ever." Trump sometimes will have "a half dozen" press availabilities in a day.