It’s hard for PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor to pick one moment that encapsulates the experience of covering the Trump White House. But if she had to choose, it would be in March, fairly early in the pandemic, when she took the mic at a press briefing and calmly asked President Trump why the White House had dismantled its pandemic-response office. “Well, I just think it’s a nasty question,” the president fumed. A few weeks later, in response to a question Alcindor asked about the availability of ventilators, he chided her again: “Be nice. Don’t be threatening.”
Trump’s abrasive remarks to Alcindor went viral, with many pundits interpreting such comments as heavily loaded references to her race and gender. But Alcindor wasn’t cowed. “My take: Be steady. Stay focused. Remember your purpose. And always press forward,” she tweeted in response. “I felt obviously targeted because the president made it very clear that I was a target,” she tells Rolling Stone. “[But] at the end of the day, I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be in this moment.”
Such resolve and clarity of purpose have sustained Alcindor throughout her journalism career. The child of Haitian immigrants, she was inspired to enter the field as a teenager by the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of whistling at her. “I wanted to be a professional witness,” she says. “I wanted to be someone who was bringing the hard truth to America, who was forcing the country to look at the flaws of these promises that we make to treat every man and woman equally and how we don’t live up to that a lot of times.”
Social, racial, and economic inequalities were brought into sharp relief in 2020. Through her reporting, Alcindor has borne witness to injustice in all forms, interviewing everyone from Amazon workers to Mexican immigrants seeking asylum to black and brown families on the South Side of Chicago who have been hard hit by Covid. To these stories, she often brings to bear her own life experiences as a woman of color and the child of immigrants, such as a piece she wrote about immigrants experiencing PTSD over Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the election results. “I know firsthand how immigrants who had come to America seeking a democracy that was functioning were feeling when they were seeing this democracy tested,” she says.
Alcindor, 34, came to PBS NewsHour in 2018 from The New York Times, where she’d covered the Trump and Sanders campaigns. One of the primary lures was the fact that her mentor, the late Gwen Ifill, had served as a NewsHour anchor for years. Alcindor credits Ifill with encouraging her to become a broadcast TV reporter. “I feel like there’s something about people knowing that someone who looks like me, who is a black woman with curly natural hair, can be on TV questioning the president,” she says. “So I definitely cherish her [for] instilling in me a sense of confidence to be exactly who I am.”
Now Alcindor is herself in the position of serving as a guidepost and mentor. “I have a 10-year-old daughter who would watch Yamiche on TV at these press conferences and was so enthralled to see a black woman standing up to the president,” says writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who worked with Alcindor at the Times. “I’d text Yamiche and say, ‘It means so much to see your strength and professionalism on TV in the face of a man who did not show that in return.’ ”
Having never covered a sitting president before, reporting on Trump was something of a learning curve for Alcindor. “I had to learn how to jump in, how to really press my question, how to not be cut off,” she says. Alcindor was also forced to contend with curveballs she didn’t anticipate, such as members of the Trump administration and the White House press corps contracting Covid, forcing her to consider her safety every time she set foot in the White House. Though she cut back on her hours in the briefing room, she ultimately made the decision to continue on the beat. “When I think of my life’s mission, I really didn’t think it was a choice not to go at all,” says Alcindor. “Because I knew that this was a country that needed answers.”
With Trump gone, she no longer has to deal with a compulsively mendacious, racist president, but she thinks the aftershocks of the Trump administration and the chaos of 2020 will linger for decades to come. “I think gone are the days where if the president says one thing, we just assume that’s the reality, [and that’s also true] about the racial reckoning in this country,” she says. “Gone are the days where police say one thing about how a shooting occurred and we just take that at face value. I think now we have to dig deep, and it’s really about boots-on-the-ground reporting. Those are lessons of the Trump era that I hope stick around.”