April Ryan Interview: Veteran White House Correspondent Asserts, "We’re Not the Enemy of the People"
Image attributed to Glenwood Jackson
April Ryan, a 30-year journalism veteran, has been the White House correspondent for 20 years for American Urban Radio Networks (AURN), covering three US presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) who have called on her by name. She is also the Washington Bureau Chief.
Along with responsibilities at the White House, Ryan hosts the daily feature, the White House Report, which is broadcast to AURN’s nearly 300 affiliated stations nationwide. She is regularly featured on political news shows and is a frequent speaker around the country. Her first book, The Presidency in Black and White, was published in 2015.
"Really … I’m going to tell you something. Looking back, I should’ve known. He was cantankerous with the people asking questions ahead of me. He was going for it. He said that he enjoyed the give and take. The president was swatting us down like flies. I don’t know why I even wanted to get called on. But, I did."
Ryan’s second book, At Mama’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White, was released in December 2016. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and is the proud mother of two girls.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): April, what was your reason for writing At Mama’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White, and what should readers take away from it?
April Ryan: I’m a mother. I’m a White House correspondent, but I am a mother first and foremost, a mother of two beautiful little girls. The reality of life has hit us hard. Living in an urban setting, we’ve had to deal with issues of race. We’ve had to deal with my youngest daughter having to not play with a toy gun, a Nerf cannon gun in our backyard. My aunt told her, “Do not play with that outside!” She got so upset that I had to show her the video of the fatal police-involved shooting of Tamir Rice who was killed playing with a similar toy.
So, we’ve had to figure out how to change that dynamic because we have an open-spaced backyard that adjoins a bunch of other backyards, and you can see from the street into my backyard from several points. I don’t ever want that to happen to us. I don’t want that to be our reality. Then, there was the unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s funeral. I picked up my kids from school and had to tell them what was going on.
I would be remiss in talking about race and urban issues with presidents and newsmakers and not deal with it in my own home. Because I was faced with this, I wanted to see what other parents were saying to their children about matters of race. It was very interesting. I got so many views from different people, and it touched my heart listening to some of the stories. It just reaffirmed what I knew.
As a black woman, I’m considered a statistic now, a black divorced mother of two children. We are now increasing in numbers as the head of the household and as the sole provider in the household. Years ago, it used to be the man, the father, giving “the talk” (to avoid an altercation with the police) to the son. Now, it’s the mother giving it to the son and the daughter in many homes. In a nutshell, that’s what the book is about.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In Chapter Two, you wrote the quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history!” Do you see yourself as a non well-behaved woman making history in the White House as a member of the press corps?
April Ryan: (laughs) I am a well-behaved woman. I’m a woman who grew up learning social graces. My mother was very big on etiquette. So, I know social graces. I know how to carry myself around presidents and kings and queens. I can also talk to the janitor on the street or the CEO or anyone. But, I’m not the traditional woman. That’s what I would say. I don’t approach things in a traditional manner. That’s what I would say.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have ideas for other books?
April Ryan: Oh, yes! I’m always journaling and writing. I’ve got ideas for another book. I’ve got another title as well. I’m always trying to figure out what’s next. The publisher’s very pleased with the books I’ve written so far. My team helped me edit and just cleaned it up. You know, I’m a radio person, and I give it in short sound bites. That’s why my books are so easy to read.
I give it to you fast. Where other people are very flowery, I’m into 30 seconds or less. Bam, here it is. Let’s get in and get out. You can see that in the writing. But, I never thought that I would ever write a book. Never. Now, I’ve written books that people just enjoy and want to hear more about and get more information from me, and I’m fascinated. The publisher wants me to keep writing, so I’m writing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a black female, what were some of your struggles during the early part of your journalism career?
April Ryan: First, coming to Washington, I was not a political reporter. I came in fresh from other places. I did news announcing at a news station in Washington, but I was not the quintessential person on the hill covering that. I’ve done city hall and state government, but I’d never been the DC federal beat reporter. So, there was a learning curve. But, even before that, I challenged myself and I questioned myself. When I was young, I worked with some radio stations on the college campus. Then, I got a paying job that would sustain me.
I wanted to see if I could get a job in mainstream white America. I did that. I wanted to see how far I could go. When I say “white America,” that would mean a country radio station or a pop station or something like that. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to see if I could make it. I did. It took a minute, but I did.
I had doubts always. We all still have doubts, But, 20 years later in the White House, and 30 years in this business, I think I’m okay. My career has been very interesting. I fell into a lot of jobs. There were some bumps and bruises, but I made it. There were bumps and bruises everywhere along the way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You made news in President Trump’s first press conference, asking him about his campaign promise to revitalize urban centers and if he intended to meet with the CBC (Congressional Black Caucus). Trump answered, “I’ll tell you what, do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours”? What was going through your mind during this exchange?
April Ryan: Really … I’m going to tell you something. Looking back, I should’ve known. He was cantankerous with the people asking questions ahead of me. He was going for it. He said that he enjoyed the give and take. The president was swatting us down like flies. I don’t know why I even wanted to get called on. But, I did.
When I asked the question, I wasn’t trying to make news. I was just trying to get an answer from the new president. He had said some things about the urban centers, and I just wanted to get what that construct was. What did it mean? What is his black agenda? What is his urban agenda? Will he include people who have done the heavy lifting on this? That’s all it was. I did not realize news was being made. I was shaking my head and saying, “No. I can’t set up a meeting with the CBC. I’m only just a reporter.”
Look, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. To the White House’s credit, they were very responsive to the question. They called the CBC right away. But, that’s what we do. We ask questions. Sometimes it shapes policy. Sometimes it changes policy. Sometimes it moves people on certain things. When I stood up, I didn’t know that all of that was going to happen. I didn’t know the exchange would happen the way it did. I didn’t know that he would call the CBC. I’m not a foreshadower of things to come, but it was what it was. It was a moment. It’s a moment now in history.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It appears that you’re getting quite a pushback also after telling White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that Donald Trump said things like, “We made this country,” and that he was talking about white America, not necessarily black because he said the word “we” in front of a predominantly white audience. Spicer denied that Trump said it, and you said, “I heard him say that.” You were referring to a Trump campaign rally speech in March of 2016?
April Ryan: Yeah. And, there’s some pushback. But, it’s amazing. I asked that question earnestly. I wasn’t trying to set anyone up or anything. It was an earnest question because that happened around the time when, and I’m sure you remember, there were fights breaking out at the rallies. That’s when he said that.
Then, on top of that, it happened around the time when they had to cancel his Chicago rally. There was a lot of high emotion. There was a lot of racial tension. I remembered that specifically. I remembered everything that surrounded that quote. I remembered the moment. I remembered the setting and a lot of stuff.
If they push back, that’s fine. But, in the fallout of it all, it’s interesting to see, looking at the totality of the picture, that it depends upon who you are, but I’m seeing a big divide when it comes to thought processes of what the word “we” means in front of a predominantly white crowd. It just goes to show that we still are divided in our thought processes when it comes to even “words.” We’re very hypersensitive when it comes to matters of race.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Just to be clear, you understood the “we” in Trump’s speech to mean that white America made this country because the crowd was predominantly white at his rally and also because of the racially-charged events happening during that same time?
April Ryan: Yes! Right. It’s the totality of the picture. I was nervous watching it and prayed people didn’t get hurt. I watched that night. I intently watched every interview Trump had that night. I listened on MSNBC. I said, “He’s got to talk. He’s got to come out and say something.” I was flipping the channels.
I wanted to hear what Trump had to say because I was nervous for our country, because we can’t do this. We can’t. And now, he is president of the United States and talking about unification. That is great because there’s still a lot of pain from some of the rhetoric and people maybe misunderstanding “words,” if that’s the case, or they need an explanation of the “words.” Some people are still very raw from the campaigning. All of this was last March, less than a year ago, and we’ve got maybe four to eight years of this. So, we’ve got to figure out how to work it out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you deal with the so-called “alternative facts” in determining what are fabrications and what are truths?
April Ryan: I do my job like I always do it. You say what you say, then I research it and try to find out what’s going on. It may be true or it may not be true. There’s not just two sides of a story. There’s all sides really. My thing is to get difference voices. I’ll listen to what they have to say, but I try to get more voices in to say, “Yes, this is true or no, this is not true.”
So, there’s more researching now. There’s more fact-finding now. There are more quotes now from the past. We have to look at the historical perspective of the facts and talk to people. There’s a lot involved.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s very different now with this new administration?
April Ryan: No. It’s not different, but there is more fact-checking. The reason why is because this is a group who has not governed before. So, they don’t necessarily do things they way things used to be done. We have to say, “Okay. This is how it was done.” What they’re doing is somewhere in the middle. We have to find out what’s real and what is not or what’s true and what’s false.
It’s more challenging because these are people who have not governed before, and they don’t do things the way it used to be done. You have to fact-find with everyone, but there’s a couple of extra layers added now with this president.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve conducted one-on-one interviews with former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and other political figures. Will you be doing a one-on-one interview with Donald Trump?
April Ryan: Most definitely. I have a request in to interview President Trump. I want to interview him. I tweeted to him, “Please give me an interview.” I did emails and phone calls. Yeah. I want to interview him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Over your 30-year career as a journalist, what is the one story you broke that makes you smile even now?
April Ryan: There are two stories. Believe it or not, I was the one breaking the ACA (Affordable Care Act) numbers before the White House even got them, and they couldn’t believe it. They didn’t know how I did it, but I sure did. Then, there’s the black farmers story when the Department of Agriculture discriminated against the black farmers. There was a lawsuit, and it took 17 years for these black farmers to get their money.
President Clinton tried to make it happen and President Bush tried to make it happen. But, the Agriculture Department didn’t want the other farmers to know what was going on and told them to hush. They said, “No. You’ve got to give it to us.” They wound up getting their money.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Which president – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama – did more to enact policies that positively impacted minorities?
April Ryan: Well, this president is putting emphasis on HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and trying to make some more obtainable, which is good, but we have to see what the plan looks like. We still have a long way to go. It’s hard to say. Each one had their moments with issues of race and it depends on what category.
I’m going to be honest with you. George W. Bush did more for Africa than any other president, but when it came to issues for black people, they didn’t really celebrate him. There was a lot going on with Bush and the black community. Bill Clinton did a lot, but he could’ve done more. Barack Obama did a lot, but he could’ve done more. None of the presidents I’ve covered had a silver bullet to fix anything, like, “This is it. This is gone forever.”
I think each one had to deal with what issues were around them at the same time they were dealing with issues in black America. So, it depends on what issue. I’d say it’s mainly between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, but both of them could’ve done more. Everyone can do more. When it came to George W. Bush, he could have done a lot more, too. But, I think the ones more elevated on black issues were Clinton and Obama over Bush. But, they could’ve still done more.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you spoken to Barack Obama since January 20, or do you know what his next move will be?
April Ryan: No, but I’ve talked to some of his high-ranking people. What I’ve heard is that in the next few months, maybe weeks, once Obama’s back off of vacation, he’s going to get himself settled, and he’s going to look at the new crop of leaders, to work to raise up a new crop of leaders.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you see the Trump administration as dangerous?
April Ryan: It’s an exhausting time because they have got us on our toes. It’s a big frenzy all the time with stuff going on. Something’s always coming at you. Is this a dangerous time? There’s a lot of fear from a lot of people, to include congressional leaders. There’s a lot of fear as to where we’re going.
A lot of things are being undone, and you’ve got people in power who, again, don’t have governing experience. Those are large concerns. There’s a concern on national security. There’s a concern on domestic policy. We’re seeing people who are very upset, ones you never expected to be upset. There’s a lot of concern over a lot of levels about different things that are happening with this new administration. We are just a month and a few days in, and there’s a lot going on. It’s a handful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What will be different about the new executive order on immigration?
April Ryan: They said it’s going to follow the law. That’s what Sean Spicer said. The first time, I guess, they did what they thought was appropriate and legal. But, when you deal with stuff like that, it’s rough. It was rough for them because they kept talking about “radical Islam.” They kept saying “radical Islam,” and you cannot discriminate against someone in this nation because of their religion. So, they have to fine tune how they want to do this, and that’s what they’re saying.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): President Trump and his administration have instigated a war on the media, and he calls you an “enemy of the American people.” How do you respond?
April Ryan: He didn’t call me an enemy of the people. They called all of us the “opposition party.” Well, you know, it’s sad that he said that. We’re not the enemy of the people. He has this thing for news agencies and news people who don’t necessarily agree with him. I don’t know. It’s a new day. But, we are baked into the Constitution. Free press. We are not going anywhere.
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