The GREAT White House Reporter Glow-Up
By Joel Pavelski October 1, 2018
Thanks to the nonstop demands of cable news, the ink-stained wretches covering Trump have transformed into tightly tailored professional pundits.
Five years ago, Jonathan Lemire was hired by the AP to cover politics in the city and state governments of New York. The job being the job, he also wound up covering other local stories.
So when Donald Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential candidacy in the summer of 2015, Lemire was there. He did very little TV then, preferring to pound the pavement and work the phones. But he covered Trump through the entire campaign—on the road, on Trump’s plane, on the stump. Trump once called him a sleazebag, which he seems to wear as a badge of honor. After Trump lost, the plan went, Lemire would switch to national politics, maybe even cover Trump in defeat from New York.
And then, of course, everything changed. During the first year of Trump’s presidency, the demand for Lemire’s newfound expertise exploded—he was fielding requests from all the big cable-news networks on a daily basis, and by the end of the summer of 2017, he had signed a contributor deal with MSNBC.
“The demand has basically gone from zero to 60, because now I’m on MSNBC just about every day and sometimes more than once a day,” Lemire said. A typical day might now begin with three hours of Morning Joe and end with a spot on Brian Williams’s show, with a full day of reporting in between.
All of which means he’s had to upgrade his wardrobe a bit. It’s not particularly sophisticated, he says, mostly J.Crew suits his wife has picked out. He has a five-suit rotation that he mixes and matches, and two dozen ties, some that he wears more than the others—most of it newly purchased in the past 18 months. He always keeps a blazer handy in case he needs to run to a studio, and keeps close to the studios in case he gets invited on TV.
He’s still following Trump around. In Helsinki this summer, he asked Putin if Russia had the pee tape. But along his way there, his luggage didn’t make it to Brussels. As far as Delta could tell, his bag—containing three suits, white shirts, ties, and shoes—was on its way to Santiago, Chile. Bleary-eyed from his overnight flight, he spent hours speeding around Brussels buying a new jacket and enough pants, shirts, ties, and socks to last him through the next few days of his trip—making sure they were the kind that would work on TV.
Such is the life of a print reporter covering Trump these days: full of uncertainty, packed with potential. Nonstop TV hits. Also: new suits, and much better ones than before. With the extra screen time comes added pressure to always dress the part of a TV anchorman—and some guys on the politics beat are investing in new suits, new stylists, and even new smiles to prep for their close-ups.
Journalists from old-guard print publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post who once toiled in relative obscurity—working the phones and appearing in public mostly through their bylines or Twitter profile pictures—have vaulted to nationwide prominence as on-call talking heads for networks like CNN and MSNBC. High-profile reporters like the Post’s Robert Costa and David Fahrenthold have landed contributor contracts designed by cable-news networks to give their shows a competitive edge with immediate access to context and analysis by the same person who first reports a major scoop. Newbie contributors can receive $30,000 to $50,000 a year from networks expecting exclusive access to their on-camera analysis, while the top tier of in-demand reporters with well-established personal brands and truly unique access to newsmakers can command as much as $250,000.
“For better or worse, we’re all swept up in this thing,” said Eli Stokols, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and an MSNBC correspondent. “We’re all getting asked to be on TV all the time, people who cover this White House. Most of us who cover it, even people who had no designs to ever be on television, have gotten used to it.”
Journos now file a story with global implications and appear within hours on cable networks to contextualize it on TV. Where once these on-air guest spots were scheduled days in advance by bookers and producers, today reporters on the Washington beat describe a grueling uncertainty. They never know when they might be called to sprint to set or to a pop-up studio in their own newsroom. And with the sizable checks and national prominence comes the pressure of upgraded expectations—and looking the part of a TV host is a new job requirement. So much so that many print reporters landing contributor contracts have lost weight, tailored their suits, spent thousands on their smiles, and gotten everything from frequent beard trims to what could only be spray tans to capitalize on the frenzy of attention paid to their reporting. Now, suddenly, reporters are ready for their close-up.
“Once I had my contract and I was on TV a lot more, I started to make sure every day that I was dressing camera-ready, because there’s a big difference between dressing nice and being camera-ready,” said David Drucker, a senior political correspondent for The Washington Examiner and a CNN political analyst. “In television, appearances matter, and even if you’re not that fashion-conscious, everything is magnified.”
Some, like Drucker, have turned to image consultants like Amanda Sanders, two New York–based stylists who cater to the new-media elite and count several MSNBC and CNN contributors among their clients. Both described a massive increase in demand, especially among men, driven by the political news culture and social media.
“Business is taking off,” Von Weise said. “If you want to move ahead quickly in your career and get more time [on TV] and better assignments, then it’s worth the investment.”
Von Weise says most men come to her during a transformation in their lives—maybe a job promotion, maybe moving from newspaper drudgery to TV fame. Drucker sent her video clips of his TV appearances, which she critiqued, and she visited his closet to get a sense for his taste and to “do an edit.” Once you toss your old, ugly clothes, Von Weise said, you’re able to identify what’s missing, target only those things, and spend a lot more money on making sure they’re nice enough for TV.
Men are now buying new glasses as accessories, not necessities, ensuring that they have glare-free lenses and switching out the styles of the frames for pricier, statement-making models, according to Sanders. They’re visiting barbers more often for haircuts, beard trims, and even eyebrow shaping. Having a tailor on speed-dial is a must. And nearly everyone seems to be asking about how to upgrade the one thing that you can’t fake on a broadcast: good teeth.
“If someone’s going on TV, they don’t want to wear Invisalign at 30,” said Mojgan Fajiram, DDS, a cosmetic dentist in New York City who offers a perfect Hollywood smile by adding a thin layer of porcelain that lays over the teeth.
That kind of brilliantly white grin will cost you two to three thousand dollars per tooth in New York City, Fajiram said. But that’s a price many are willing to pay—Fajiram said her clientele from the media has increased 50 percent in the past few years.
“Men will spend $40,000 on their smile, easily,” according to Sanders.
Some reporters have slimmed down noticeably and tightened their tailoring. An MSNBC contributor, who asked not to be named while commenting on the appearance of a colleague, said that the trimmer appearance of the Post’s Robert Costa “has a lot to do with how much he’s on television and wants to keep being on television.” Costa politely declined to be interviewed for this report.
He wasn’t the only one—some print reporters contacted for this piece said they’d prefer the focus to be on their work, not their appearance on television. It's a sentiment that’s typical of reporters, who want to keep themselves out of the stories they’re telling, but it also speaks to the stigma that many feel comes attached to admitting that you need help with your look. “People want to take credit for it, they don’t want to walk into the office and say they worked with an image consultant,” Sanders said.
“In the past, [image consultation] wasn’t seen as necessary, it was seen as an indulgence saved for people who have a lot of vanity,” Von Weise said. “But more and more people see it’s part of an important regimen just like working out.”
As male journalists spend more time on television, they’re playing by rules that have always made life more difficult for female journalists. While men can typically get away with owning a few high-quality, solid-colored suits in navy and gray, women are expected to show off a broader range and are held to a higher standard—particularly on networks like Fox News, renowned for its “leg cam” and army of blondes in jewel-toned dresses with immaculate manicures.
“Most male reporters who go on TV have it a lot easier than our female colleagues in terms of our looks,” Stokols said. “Our outfits are not being scrutinized nearly as much.”
For men with this new lifestyle, consistency is key. “It’s like a sports uniform,” said Drucker. And the uniform is simple: solid colors, a dark suit, and a lighter shirt. No patterns. Always the right tie—a pocket square only on occasion—and a different one every day.
“If I have to travel, it makes packing easy,” said Jonathan Capehart, an opinion writer for The Washington Post who regularly appears on MSNBC. “You throw in the gray suit and the blue suit, you throw in navy and an extra gray trouser to go with the navy blazer, and then you load up on shirts and ties and pocket squares. And call it a day.”
All this talk of “simplicity” sounds bleak, but half the battle is keeping attention on the substance of your work—and pre-empting social-media criticism. “The more you’re put together, the more the person will focus on the words that you’re saying as opposed to how messed-up your tie knot is,” Capehart said. “The thing about Twitter or Facebook and social media is that people let you know what they like or don’t like right away.”
And it’s not just the social-media-savvy viewers who will go to great lengths to make sure their sartorial feedback is delivered—viewers will use any means they can find to comment on a reporter’s appearance.
“It’s amazing the people who somehow look you up, figure out your e-mail, write you in real time, and tell you you’re an idiot for something you said. Or just tweet at you and say, ‘Man, that’s a fly jacket’ or ‘Your tie was crooked’ or ‘Your hair looks stupid,’ ” Stokols said. “People have no shyness about responding and letting us know stuff. And oftentimes they’re right.”
But these days, there may be only one cable-news audience member who really matters, and he’s thumbing through the channels from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Being on TV is always important—but particularly in this White House, being on TV is currency,” Lemire said. “We know the president watches a lot of cable news. People around him do as well, and they take their cues from him. If people see you on television a lot, they’re more apt to return your phone calls.”