CNN Reporter Discusses Her Journey to the White House Beat

Athena Jones shares details with GW’s Women’s Leadership Program about building a journalism career during challenging times in the industry.

January 30, 2017


CNN White House Correspondent Athena Jones told members of the Women's Leadership Program to take calculated risks early in their careers. (Photo by Matt Hodgkins for GW Today)

By B.L. Wilson

CNN reporter Athena Jones did not become a member of the network’s team covering the White House by standing still.

“In my experience, you have to be willing to move around, to change jobs, to go where you can get the most out of a position,” Ms. Jones told George Washington University students at the traditional Thursday night symposium hosted by the Women’s Leadership Program.

“It can often be the best way to move up title wise and salary wise. Sometimes you’ve got to move around to get the respect you deserve.”

After sharing pizza with a room full of students at Post Hall on GW’s Mount Vernon Campus, Ms. Jones led them through the circuitous path her career as a journalist has taken, starting as a congressional intern, graduate school student, freelance reporter at NBC and CNN and as an unpaid intern with Bloomberg News in Latin America that evolved into a paid position.

“I got a chance to move to Chile, sight unseen. I never knew a soul. I had a one-way ticket. That decision was not an easy one,” she said. “It was three to five months and be prepared to come back after maybe just three months.”

Instead, Bloomberg News sent her to the other side of the Andes to work as a reporter in Argentina. The point, Ms. Jones said, is to take calculated risks, especially at a time in life when you are young and have time to recover from personal and professional setbacks.

“If I had crashed and burned, I had plenty of time to regain my footing, and I still would have benefited from the experiences, still would have learned some things about myself,” she said.

It was also a combination of calculated risks and hard work that led to her job as a reporter for CNN.

Her career with the electronic media began with NBC as an “embed” during the 2008 Democratic primaries. She covered the Hillary Clinton campaign under a contract that could have ended if and when the candidate lost. Instead, Ms. Jones was reassigned to the campaign of then Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). That led to her becoming a White House producer for NBC and ultimately a reporter for CNN.

It has been a demanding life for Ms. Jones since joining CNN’s White House coverage team. She said Thursday was her first day off after 10 days of getting up at 4 a.m.

During a question and answer session with students, Ms. Jones was asked how her experiences would prepare her for the months ahead.

She said that she has a sense of how a White House is run in general, but “…a president that likes to tweet a lot can disrupt the whole day.”  She mentioned Mr. Trump’s allegation that up to 5 million people had voted illegally in the November general election.

 “That’s a scandal of epic proportions,” she said.

There was no way she said the media could ignore the allegation of voter fraud.  But it meant that journalists could not focus on executive orders Mr. Trump issued that day about building a wall along the United States border with Mexico, immigration and a host of other measures.

“They want very much to direct the conversation because some things can happen outside their control,” Ms. Jones said. “But this was completely within their control. It’s not clear whether anyone is trying to control the tweets.”

Ms. Jones said that she does not think journalists have figured out how to deal with an administration where facts are moving targets and words uttered may take on different meanings.

“We are going to try every day to focus on the truth and make sure that the truth is revealed in an environment where a lot of people are questioning what is truth,” she said. “I hope it may change journalism and make us all better.”

This was Ms. Jones second invitation to share her experiences with the 80 first-year students in the Women’s Leadership Program, according to director Mary Buckley, who is also associate professor of dance. Other speakers have included actor and dancer Debbie Allen, Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith and former Undersecretaries of State Tara Sonenshine and Bonnie Cohen.