Journalist April Ryan on Making History as a White House Correspondent and Why ‘Everyone Prayed’ for Her ‘Because of Donald Trump’

·11-min read

Veteran journalist extraordinaire April Ryan has made history – as of this January, she is the longest-serving Black female White House correspondent, with her 25-year tenure spanning five presidential administrations. All those years of experience and yet, she just came into the limelight only after standing tall and proud during White House press briefings during the Trump administration. “Everyone prayed for me, befriended me because of Donald Trump,” she jokes.

Today, Ryan is being celebrated by Byron Allen’s digital news platform theGrio at A Seat at the Table: A Celebration of Black-Owned Media as “an American treasure,” who “always brings the truth.” She said of the honor, “I never imagined that I would have a front-row seat to history, and at the same time make it.”

Ryan sat down with TheWrap to talk about how she kept her cool in those challenging moments during those four years Trump was in office that has left a “residue” and sent her into therapy, the steps that need to be taken to build back the public’s trust of the media, and the next chapter in her life… marked by setting yet another milestone goal.

During a February 2017 press conference, April Ryan asked then-President Trump if he planned to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, to which he responded, “Are they friends of yours?”
During a February 2017 press conference, April Ryan asked then-President Trump if he planned to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, to which he responded, “Are they friends of yours?”

TheWrap: You were very impressive during the Trump administration for how you handled things in the briefing room — you were calm, you were professional when condescended to on more than one occasion. How do you reel yourself in in times like those? I have to assume all sorts of things were going through your head.

April Ryan: Let me say this: One, it was bigger than me. And I was in shock, literally. It was like, they may have wanted to push my buttons but I was just in shock. I’ve been there for 25 years and I understand the decorum, I didn’t do anything wrong by asking the questions. But what I was not going to let them do is negate all the work that my mother and my father — who are passed on — everybody who poured into me all of my life [had done]. I was not going to act like they wanted me to, to negate what everybody did to get me to that space that we never expected me to be in. But I’m paying the price for it because having to go through stuff like that, there’s residue, and I am going through therapy for it. And I’ve talked to some other people who I will not mention who are household names and you’ve seen their fight. They’re going through it too. They’ve gone through therapy because it does something to you.

There’s an ongoing attack on the press. The media is looked down on and not trusted, thanks to a couple of things, including, the public sort of being programmed.

We were already having this tug-of-war with the American public because the line between fact and opinion had been obscured and people didn’t know what to believe or trust. We started to have news that we thought was news now, entertainment, disinformation, and then you have somebody who is supposed to be in the highest office in the land and you’re supposed to be able to trust what he says, screaming things like “fake news.” That definitely created a chasm that we are trying to build back from. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to build back from it in my lifetime.

How do we fix it? Or is the only thing we can do is try to prevent it from getting worse?

You have to stop the bleeding and then go into the wound … and literally, with the precision of a scalpel, cut away the dead, the wrong … look at the good tissue that’s there and start building it back, and then sew it back up. And then start going back to the basics. People have to trust us. We have to stop saying that we are one thing when we’re another. If we are a reporter, a factual reporter, a biased reporter say that. If we are columnists, say it. If we are a citizen journalist, say it. A lot of people are getting news and information from everywhere and they don’t know where to begin and where to trust. Ghost those sources that you’ve trusted before that have recognizable names. We’re all human. We all make those mistakes. But those that are credible will own up to it and fix it.

In March 2017, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer accused Ryan of “having an agenda” when she asked about Trump’s ties to Russia. Spicer then berated her for shaking her head in disbelief.
In March 2017, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer accused Ryan of “having an agenda” when she asked about Trump’s ties to Russia. Spicer then berated her for shaking her head in disbelief.

Elon Musk buying Twitter. Thoughts? Concerns?

It’s a wait and see, because I, to be honest with you, I got an award for being great on social media. Social media now makes me cringe. … I have to see how standards remain or change. I have to see what his plans are.

What is the media doing right and what is the media doing wrong in how they cover politics?

My answer goes back to, what is your definition of media and who are you? Some are tried and true who stayed tried and true. We are trying to reinvent ourselves in the advent of social media and being able to reach people without any buffer. When it’s in real-time, you don’t always have all the facts and people are so hungry for facts immediately now. There’s a constant turn to make sure you get it right.

Over the years, what story have you reported on that has touched you the most, where you think, “I’m glad that I’m a journalist right now”?

There are a couple of stories. Black farmers — I kept asking about the Black farmers and that money. That went for almost two decades, from [Bill] Clinton onto [Barack] Obama and even beyond because they had still worked on getting the money and getting it right. But I think they got it all straight during Obama. I remember democratic congressional leaders said it wasn’t happening because they had such financial constraints at that time. Barack Obama did it. He did it, even when people were saying, “no, we don’t have money.” He kept that promise. But I kept asking, as well. … That’s when you watch a story come to its conclusion.

There have been so many over the years. During the Trump years, from voter suppression to Russia, to policing to [Colin] Kaepernick, to asking the question about the Central Park Five. I remember that day as President Trump was leaving to go to Marine One to get to Air Force One, and I asked him [about the Central Park Five]. He said, “I don’t know why you’re asking that question.” … Those expensive full-page ads that he took out calling for the death of those men who were exonerated. And then he still stood by his words. He said, “Well, you know, they corroborated it.” And then he just kept going on, trying to continue with the misinformation. …

I’m at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner, maybe the next year and an after-party. I’m saying goodbye to the congressional leaders. And this man comes up to me … and said, “April, I want to tell you my name is Dr. Yusef Salaam.” He said, “We’re the Central Park Five, and we want to thank you.” … I broke down and cried. Because they thanked me. I did nothing, but they wanted the world to see who Donald Trump was. And I didn’t know that, but that question laid bare his mindset, who he was as he was talking about sentencing reform.

A lot of people read those ads and, to many, they bought it.

That’s why real reporters are there, to ask those questions. And, unfortunately, when it comes to Black issues, only unless there’s a crescendo moment. I’ll never forget [MCNBC journalist] Joy Reid said to me, “April Ryan asked questions about Black America … now everybody’s trying to do it.” We were beating the drum long before mainstream America about the issues of policing and the water’s not safe to drink and the Central Park Five. … Everyone prayed for me, befriended me because of Donald Trump. … When I ask the question, I do it and write the story and I move on, but it lives with other people.

During those years, when you went from reporting the news to being the news, how hard was that for you?

It wasn’t good because people [would come up to me] in the market, they would wait for me outside the White House. I had people just standing, looking at me. It’s awkward. I don’t want to be the news. But you know, it is what it is. I have a job to do, and I’m still doing my job. I should be able to fade into the wall and you don’t know I’m there.

Do you think it’s part of our job as the press to turn perceptions around, to enlighten people to the truth? Is that part of our responsibility?

It’s not. It’s not my responsibility to turn anyone’s perception around. It’s my responsibility to arm you with the information that I get, give you accurate information, and you make the decision. I’m not trying to sway you one way or the other.

A Seat at the Table: A Celebration of Black Media. You’re being honored on Saturday. What does that mean to you?

Byron Allen courted me to be his White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief. And he told me that he wanted to buy the network that I once was a part of because of me. … It has been a blessing. And then for your boss to put on a million-dollar party with Mary J. Blige to celebrate! What in the world?! … To publicly celebrate me. I grew up in Baltimore and never dreamed of this, never imagined this and I really like this. It’s hard. When people tell me, “Oh, I wanna be like April Ryan,” uh uh. … I say to up-and-coming journalists, “Be yourself. Be authentically you. Bring what you bring to that table and make sure they can never be without you because you bring greatness and good work ethic.”

How would you sum up the current chapter in April Ryan’s life and what do you see as the next chapter?

The current chapter in April Ryan’s life: she’s working hard to move to the next chapter. She’s working hard, one, to finally be the longest-serving White House correspondent. The record is 28 years. I’m right on the cusp. But right now, I’m the longest-serving Black woman journalist. … But this chapter of my life is enjoying the chapter of my life, because we work so hard and we don’t really get a chance to engage. I’m going to engage in this. I’m going to enjoy the next few years as I work harder than I’ve worked. I’m just so blessed right now in my life. And I got a book coming out in October, “Black Women Will Save the World.” I’m pushing for a New York Times bestseller. And I’m getting married next year. I found a man — or a man found me.

Yeah, you don’t have time to go look, he’s gotta come and find you.

The crazy thing is I kept telling him, no, no, no. We went through so many phases of this for two years. This relationship has gone through so many phases, and he is the most wonderful person ever. He’s a retired Naval officer and I’m like, “Where did you come from?” He’s just amazing. He said I should have had a Heisman trophy because I ran so hard from him. But you don’t realize, going through what you’re going through, you don’t trust anybody. You just gotta … keep going, not invite anything new in. And I allowed something new to come in and I’ve never regretted it. It’s just amazing.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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