With a focus on civil rights, Yamiche Alcindor rises to the top as a White House correspondent

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Jay Godwin/LBJ Presidential Library/Wikimedia Commons

Yamiche Alcindor speaks at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, in April 2019.

Call them “Yamiche moments.” It’s a loose term to describe moments when colleagues say Yamiche Léone Alcindor excels as the White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour.

One of Judy Woodruff’s favorites was in March 2019, when during a live broadcast Alcindor texted a key source about the Robert Mueller investigation regarding Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. Alcindor fired off a request for comment when questions about President Donald Trump came up.

“I’m texting with Rudy Giuliani as we’re on air, so excuse that,” Alcindor said with a smile while NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins turned towards the phone. The former New York City mayor turned Trump lawyer messaged “It sounds like it’s over” when Mueller announced he wasn’t recommending any more indictments. Alcindor shared his reply and quickly pivoted to analysis.

Woodruff, anchor and managing editor for PBS’ weeknight news program, remembers the moment as an example of why her colleague is a “powerhouse” covering perhaps the wildest, newsiest administration in modern American history.

Another favorite Yamiche moment among NewsHour aficionados was a scoop. Alcindor reported in September 2019 that Gregory Cheadle, a Black man President Trump described as “my African American” at a 2016 rally, had grown so frustrated with the president’s rhetoric that he was leaving the Republican Party to run for a congressional seat as an independent in 2020.

The story was peppered with poignant quotes. “President Trump is a rich guy who is mired in white privilege to the extreme,” Cheadle told Alcindor. “Republicans are too sheepish to call him out on anything, and they are afraid of losing their positions and losing any power themselves.”

Alcindor, who joined NewsHour in 2018, sees the report as an achievement in source development. “It took me three years to break that story because I had to check in with him about every couple months, every couple weeks to kind of get his idea of what he thought about the party,” she told Current. “At one point, he said he was willing to leave the party, ‘and you’re the person sticking with me, talking to me for the last three years, so I’d be happy to give this story to you.’”

To Woodruff, the unique angles Alcindor develops in her reporting demonstrate sound journalism and creativity.

“I’m stating the obvious. The White House beat is a demanding beat. You can never rest for any White House, but particularly this White House,” Woodruff said. “But Yamiche has the energy. She has the curiosity. And she has the sources.”

Making history

The Cheadle scoop and a deep dive on Giuliani that aired a few months after the text-message exchange are part of a package of six reports that earned Alcindor this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award, presented annually to a journalist who demonstrates “overall excellence.”

The win is historic. Alcindor is the first public media reporter and first Black woman to win the award since the WHCA created it in the early 1980s. When announcing the honor, judges said Alcindor “is serious, incisive and — though she has a quiet demeanor — tough as nails.” It’s a description she agrees with.

“Being quiet, getting my work done and being empathetic has worked for me, and I’m not going to change that,” Alcindor said in an interview. “My hope is that my work will shine a light on the civil rights issues of our time, expose the flaws of America’s unrealized promise to treat every man and woman equally and give voice to people who may never get the opportunity to walk into the White House.”

Alcindor’s interests as a journalist grew from her upbringing. Her parents are Haitian immigrants who met while attending Boston College. Her mother works as a school social worker, and her father runs a Haiti-based nonprofit that helps people with disabilities. When Alcindor was growing up, the family constantly talked about news and current events.

Alcindor interviews Kathleen McElroy, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, about race and the media at the Summit on Race in America at the LBJ Presidential Library April 10, 2019. (Photo: Jay Godwin for LBJ Presidential Library/Wikimedia Commons)

She fell in love with writing as a child through poetry and short stories. She became interested in journalism while attending Fort Lauderdale High School after learning about the murder of Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was lynched and disfigured in Mississippi in 1955.

“To me, journalism is all about civil rights. When someone asks me, ‘Why did you become a journalist?’, I talk about Emmett Till and the fact that this 14-year-old boy was killed,” Alcindor said in an episode of the Showtime series The Fourth Estate. “And when Jet magazine put his picture in the paper, that changed an entire civil rights movement.”

Armed with an expanding historical perspective of the country, Alcindor got her first taste of journalism as an intern for the Westside Gazette, a weekly African American newspaper based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She also interned for the Miami Herald.

As Alcindor plotted a career path to becoming a reporter, she faced some pushback from her family. “Long story, but my dad wanted me to be a lawyer, not a journalist,” she said.

But she was too interested in local journalism and the policies affecting people in her community to change course. When she pursued her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University, she chose to study English, African American studies and government with a concentration in international relations, not journalism. That course of study didn’t alter her ultimate destination.

‘Dear Gwen’

Within the National Association of Black Journalists, Alcindor is what is known as an “NABJ Baby,” said Callie Crossley, host of Under the Radar for WGBH in Boston. “They’re grown folk, but that’s our affectionate term for them,” she said.

Crossley doesn’t know Alcindor well, but she connected with her and other Black journalists at NABJ’s annual conference. Alcindor mingled with other prominent journalists at NABJ meetings and participated in the Student Projects group, a multimedia reporting initiative that allows students to cover the association and the convention. At the 2013 NABJ summit in Orlando, Fla., she won NABJ’s “emerging journalist” award.

At the time, she was a 26-year-old multimedia journalist for USA Today who had completed internships at the Seattle Times, the Washington Post and Mmegi, a newspaper in Botswana. Alcindor also participated in the New York Times Student Journalism Institute and worked as a reporter for Newsday in Long Island, N.Y.

By the time she was honored by NABJ, Alcindor had grown closer to Gwen Ifill and another mentor, Athelia Knight of the Post, because they had the same hairdresser. When Ifill died from cancer in 2016, Alcindor wrote a memorial tribute about one of the most important lessons she’d learned from that relationship.

“Thank you for telling me to know my name,” Alcindor said in a “Dear Gwen” letter published by PBS NewsHour. “The first time I met you, I said my name was Yamiche but that you could call me ‘Miche.’ And you said, ‘Do you really want to be called “Miche?” Don’t let people give you nicknames.’ That stuck with me, because I think as I get older and as I look at all the breadth of your work, I think of knowing myself and knowing my name and owning who I am. It was so important that you told me that.”

Ifill, who started out as a newspaper reporter on her path into the Washington press corps and, eventually, Washington Week and PBS NewsHour, helped Alcindor learn to navigate “overwhelmingly white” newsrooms and other spaces, hold onto her identity as a Black journalist and “not be ashamed of pitching stories that are important to black people.” Her fear of being “pigeonholed” is long gone, Alcindor wrote. And though people sometimes butcher the pronunciation of her name, she no longer hesitates to say proudly, “It’s YAH-MEESH.”

‘Million followers’

NewsHour EP Sara Just said it is difficult to pick a favorite piece from the package of Alcindor’s coverage that was submitted to the WHCA. But she is especially proud of a December 2019 report on asylum seekers, an assignment that Alcindor travelled to Mexico to cover.

Alcindor began the report by interviewing Delmary Arias, a mother who fled El Salvador with her daughter because her ex-partner threatened to kill her and “had been touching” the daughter, as Arias said. When Arias and her daughter crossed into the U.S. and applied for asylum, they were detained and sent to Mexico, where they were kidnapped, threatened with dismemberment and held for $10,000 ransom. The kidnappers released Arias and her daughter after Arias handed over all of her belongings and the cash she had in her purse, a little less than $200.

Alcindor contextualized the report by describing how migrants seeking asylum must navigate government bureaucracies and threats of violence from drug cartels and gangs. She followed the case of another family of migrants and interviewed an activist and leader for a nonprofit that supports migrants.

Contextualized reporting is evident in the other stories cited by the WHCA’s judges, including her reports on discord among world leaders at the 2019 G-7 summit. After President Trump called Baltimore “filthy” and “infested,” she interviewed Trump supporters in Ohio about their views of the president’s rhetoric on race.

Alcindor co-hosts the PBS NewsHour/Politico Democratic debate in December 2019.

Colleagues and former editors noted that in her use of Twitter, Alcindor balances reporting facts and contextualizing news. She often tweets officials’ words, then briefly presents background, either in a thread or within the same message. Earlier this summer, Alcindor filmed protests in Washington, D.C., and posted tweets profiling people who marched and chanted in support of racial equity and against police brutality.

When Alcindor reported for USA Today, she sometimes broke news on Twitter before notifying colleagues at the mothership, said Anne Willette, one of her editors at the national publication. The practice was groundbreaking at the time, she said, but editors embraced it. Alcindor went on to lead in-house Twitter tutorials for USA Today reporters and editors.

“She saw the power of the platform,” Willette said. “She wouldn’t have a million followers if she wasn’t a good reporter.”

Alcindor was working for USA Today when she first appeared on NewsHour in July 2013 to discuss the Trayvon Martin case. While reporting, Alcindor learned that Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney who is currently representing the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, was meeting with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. She waited in a hotel lobby for five to six hours to interview Crump.

Crump found Alcindor waiting when he went into the hotel with Martin’s family. Impressed that she simply would not give up, Crump stayed in touch with her throughout that trial and others. That included when he represented the family of Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson, Mo.

Because Alcindor had done the legwork to earn trust with Crump, she wound up being in the room with Brown’s family when news broke that a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. She tweeted the news.

Critics aim at tweets

Alcindor has received criticism for some of her Twitter activity. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Alcindor incorrectly paraphrased comments made by President Trump during a briefing. Trump had been asked about a tweet in which he said low-income housing would “invade” the suburbs if Joe Biden were elected president.

Another tweet drew criticism from CPB Ombudsman Jan Schaffer, one in which Alcindor used a fire emoji while quoting Rep. Cedric Richmond. During Attorney General William Barr’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee that day, Richmond delivered a zinger after Barr evoked the memory of Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader and senior member of Georgia’s congressional delegation who died last month. Responding to Barr’s opening statement, Richmond said, “I would just suggest … that actions speak louder than words and that you really should keep the name of the Honorable John Lewis out of the Department of Justice’s mouth.”

Schaffer found “nothing wrong” with sharing Richmond’s quote on Twitter. “But the emoji was totally unnecessary — especially at a time when many viewers complain that they already see the PBS NewsHour as having a liberal bias,” Schaffer wrote.

CPB’s ombudsman was “quick to assign bias where none exists,” Alcindor said in a statement to Current. There is no formal definition for the fire emoji, she noted, citing Dictionary.com, which lists multiple interpretations of the icon. “Her column ignores that other definitions are possible,” Alcindor wrote.

Alcindor said that Schaffer didn’t contact her prior to publishing her critique. Had she, “I would have welcomed explaining my tweet to her as well my approach to Twitter given that I have tweeted nearly 35,000 times.”

‘Yamiche is relentless’

Alcindor’s rise as a household name stems in part from instances when President Trump has singled her out during White House press conferences.

One of the first times President Trump scolded Alcindor for her questioning was in November 2018, when she asked about criticism that his rhetoric emboldens white nationalists. Trump called it a “racist question” and said it was insulting for her to ask. He then described his poll numbers among minorities.

During a news briefing in March, Trump interrupted Alcindor and told her to “be nice” and not “threatening” after she asked about the nation’s coronavirus response. Alcindor tweeted that her take was “Be steady. Stay focused. Remember your purpose. And, always press forward.”

The president has also called Alcindor’s questions “snarky,” “nasty” and “untruthful.” In June, Trump signaled Alcindor to “Shhh” when she asked him about his plans to address systemic racism. Trump also told her “You are something else” when she asked about rising unemployment among African Americans and Asian Americans.

Alcindor stepped up her reporting on the intersection between politics and race when the New York Times hired her in late 2015 as a national political reporter. Carolyn Ryan, then senior editor for politics and now assistant managing editor, said Alcindor’s reporting on Sen. Bernie Sanders still stands out. She was well-respected by the Sanders campaign because of her professionalism, even when she asked tough questions, Ryan said.

Alcindor was also great at gathering sources. “She would go out on a story to, let’s say, Indiana or Michigan, and she would just come back with a bucketful of sources and she would keep those sources throughout the campaign,” Ryan said. “Yamiche is relentless as a reporter, but she’s also incredibly fair,” she added.

In a scene from the Showtime documentary series “The Fourth Estate,” Alcindor interviews Sen. Dick Durbin. (Photo: Aletheia Film/Courtesy of Showtime and RadicalMedia)

On The Fourth Estate series, which focused on the New York Times, Alcindor is shown interviewing a Black Republican about President Trump, diligently asking follow-up questions. In another scene, she is shown furrowing her brow as Trump speaks about “very fine people” on both sides at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, which drew white nationalists and supremacists, religious and civil rights groups, antifacist organizers and everything in between. 

“Donald Trump thinks that there are some nice neo-Nazis out there. That to me is really, really scary,” she said in the series. “The president has real issues with race, and as one of the only African American reporters at the New York Times, I feel an extra need to explain to people what’s happening.”

‘She’s unmistakeable’

Abby Phillip, a White House correspondent for CNN and friend of Alcindor’s, told Current that Alcindor is a role model for young women who want to cover politics. She also presents a positive image as a successful Black woman working in broadcast journalism who has not changed her appearance to suit others’ expectations, Phillip said.

“One of the quiet ways in which she’s so barrier-breaking is just in her actual presence. She’s unmistakeable. You cannot miss her,” Phillip said. “She has short natural hair, and she doesn’t change it for anyone.”

Alcindor persists like the Black women journalists who entered the White House grounds before her, said Brandis Friedman, a Black woman who is a co-host and correspondent for Chicago Tonight on WTTW. Those predecessors include Ethel Payne of the Chicago Defender, April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks and CNN, and Alice Dunnigan, who covered Harry Truman’s presidential campaign.

Alcindor expresses gratitude for the WHCA award but said she’s hopeful that there will be fewer “firsts” as journalism becomes more diverse. Lately, she’s focused on mentoring younger journalists who want to pick her brain, since the support she’s received has been invaluable.

“I never want to be the last at anything,” she said. “I always want to make sure that I’m building up other people that are coming behind me and giving them the tools they need to succeed.”

Alcindor plans to expand on this topic in Don’t Forget, a forthcoming memoir in which she will chronicle how her life as a Black Haitian American has informed her work. She didn’t offer spoilers but confirmed that she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of writing more books.

“I’ve lived through, luckily, some seminal moments in American history and world history,” she said. “Maybe there will be a second and a third and a fourth memoir, God willing.”

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