Next up in our #HerStory series is Ashley Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning White House reporter for The Washington Post. In this interview she discusses the challenges of being held to a different standard than her male counterparts and how presidential Tweets shape her working day.
Tell us how you got your start in journalism — is it a career path you’ve always been interested in?
I think I always knew I wanted to be a journalist. I know you're never supposed to say this, but what I always really loved was writing. Journalism to me ended up being like poor man's writing, because you didn't have to come up with your own plots and stories, you got to tell the stories of other people. I worked for my high school paper, I worked for my college paper, I took on internships — all summer — waiting tables and writing for obscure publications. And then when I graduated from college, I got my first job, which was at The New York Times as Maureen Dowd's research assistant.
What was it like to work there?
It was wonderful. I mean, it was an amazing first job. She was a fantastic mentor, and I think everyone should be an assistant once in their life, because in addition to learning so many journalism, writing, and reporting skills from her, I also came away with so many life skills. I feel like if there was ever a flash flood, I would have the ability to get my family airlifted off the roof of our house. So I feel very well prepared.
Being a female journalist is not without its challenges. What advice do you have for other women?
I think you are often, fairly or unfairly, held to a different and higher set of standards. So my advice would be to hold yourself to those standards and just make sure you are bulletproof, in terms of your writing and your reporting and your behavior. So you really don't give anyone a reason to unfairly criticize you or impugn your reputation.
What do you think needs to be done in the news industry to ensure that female journalists are front and center?
I think what female journalists need is what everyone needs, which is opportunities, right? You're never going to know if you can write a 10,000-word magazine piece unless someone lets you try to do it. You're never going to know if you can pick up and leave your apartment and put all your stuff in a suitcase and live on the campaign trail for a year covering the candidate unless someone gives you that opportunity. And I've been incredibly lucky to have those opportunities. And again, you're never going to know if you can land in a war zone and hit the ground running and cover that unless you're given those opportunities. So I think female journalists, just like any other journalist, just need those opportunities.
As a woman who has traveled the world and covered so many stories, what is your average day like?
It used to be that I would get woken by President Trump's Tweets — literally one of our responsibilities for covering the White House was to cover the president's Tweets. When it was my turn, my week, I would set my alarm on my phone for 6am, 6:15am, 6:30am, 6:45am, and 7am. My alarm would go off, I would check to see if the president had Tweeted, and if he hadn't, I would hit snooze. And then at some point, I would look at my phone, there would be a Tweet from the president, and I would just pull my laptop into my bed and start [working]. Now that I'm a mom, it's a little different — I'm often awoken by my daughter first. So now there's a baby drinking a bottle as I file off of the president's Tweets, but that's how most days begin.
Sometimes I'm traveling with the president — I'm on Air Force One, I'm going to a rally, or overseas with him. Back when there were press briefings, I would be in the briefing room asking questions. Sometimes I'm at the White House chatting with people. Sometimes I'm sitting at my desk making a bunch of calls, and sometimes I'm huddled in a conference room with one of my colleagues, frantically writing up against deadline. Sometimes I'm frantically scrolling through Twitter to see what the president just said, and if that means I have to rewrite the lede of my story, as happened yesterday, actually.
Does this mean you’re checking Twitter pretty constantly?
I mean, honestly, I cannot even look at the function on my phone that tells me how much time I spend on social media. I go through this weekly existential angst where I say, “I have to delete Twitter from my phone, it's consuming way too much of my time.” And I actually do believe that's true. Then I remember that, at this point in my life, I truly can't, because Twitter is a tool that I actually need to do my job. That's been true for a while now, but especially with this president, who puts out statements, his public thoughts, his public pronouncements on Twitter. You truly cannot be a White House reporter without being on Twitter for that.
And finally, my favorite question — who are your favorite female journalists to follow on Twitter?
So one of my favorite female journalists to follow on Twitter — and in life — is Maureen Dowd. She was my first boss, she's a wonderful mentor, and I will read anything she writes. And even now, it's almost Pavlovian, but I will follow any advice she gives, even though I'm now more than 10 years removed from from being her assistant.
I love Jenna Johnson, my colleague at The Washington Post. She talks not just to a handful of voters, or a dozen, or two dozen voters, but she talks to hundreds of voters. So if you follow Jenna, and you read what she is writing, you can really get a sense of what's going on across the country, across different political spectrums.
Weijia Jiang of CBS, Katy Tur and Kasie Hunt of NBC. I like following them, first and foremost, for their top-notch journalism. But secondly, for how honest they are about being pregnant and having kids and sharing those stories about what it's like to be on a foreign trip with the president and pumping breast milk and trying to get it shipped back to the United States in one piece. Or what it's like to be, you know, nine months pregnant and having to pee every minute and a half and having to anchor four hours of nonstop breaking news, and they share those experiences.