Post-traumatic stress, death threats, and character assassinations. If you’re April Ryan, that’s just life as a White House reporter. The journalist and author, who has spent nearly 22 years as Urban Radio’s D.C.’s bureau chief covering presidents, admits that her new normal is “stressful, to say the least,” but backing down from a position she worked fervently to be in will never be an option.
“I went to school for this,” Ryan affirmed impassionedly during an interview with ESSENCE. “My parents, my late mother and father, sacrificed for me. I came from a blue- and white-collar home. It wasn’t easy for them, growing up where I grew up in Baltimore, to put food on the table, send me to school, but they did. And I won’t do a disservice to them, my ancestors and everyone else’s ancestors, by walking away.”
Since the election of Donald Trump, Ryan has gone from headline writer to headline maker, often finding herself in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s daily attacks on the free press. A month after the nation ushered in the 45th president, a clip of Trump asking Ryan to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus went viral. A month later, then–White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s admonishment of her head shaking gave writers another story to report on. And just last month, the commander in chief instructed Ryan to “sit down,” which, combined with strong rebukes of other Black women in the White House press pool that week, generated think pieces from every major news outlet.
“You know, when you grow up living a life of honesty and truth and do unto others what you would have them do unto you, and this kind of stuff smears you from someone in the highest office in the land, you have to say, ‘Wait a minute,’” Ryan said of her thought process in getting over the hurdles she faces regularly. “You have to know how to fortify yourself to be able to go back and deal with the bully every day. My aunt used to say, ‘You have to hit a bully one good time and they’ll leave you alone.’ But you know the way I hit a bully is by telling the truth and exposing the truth. That’s my only record—exposing the truth. And using it—using the truth.”
Daily nuisances abound, and with the new presidency—the fourth covered for the veteran reporter—the need for fact-checking has become increasingly more apparent. But Ryan insists that her place in the White House press pool is something she’s as passionate about today as the day she started. “What I love about the job is being able to inform the world about what’s happening in the highest place, the highest office in the land,” Ryan told ESSENCE. “And that’s what I love the most.”
After more than two decades in the game, Ryan has proved her stamina for the job. But even with a vigor for the work she does, the author of Under Fire: Reporting From the Front Lines of the Trump White House admits that she sometimes needs a timeout from the “foolishness.” In November, while Tamera Mowry-Housley took a short break from co-hosting duties on daytime’s The Real to grieve the loss of her niece, Ryan took her seat at the table.
“I needed a breather; I needed a breather. I needed to distance myself from it so I could go back and objectively cover the president,” Ryan said of her stint on the popular show. Ryan is also on a national book tour.
Other distractions for the mom of two come in the form of mindless activities like going to the movies and hanging out with friends and family. You may even find her on the dance floor or riding around her D.C. neighborhood on a hoverboard.
Of her daughters, Ryan said, “When they’re hoverboarding, they want to get me on the hoverboard. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know!’”
While away from home, Ryan manages to conjure strength from positive interactions with colleagues. “They told me—and this was something that touched me about both of them—‘You showed us how to stand,’” Ryan recalled about a recent conversation with Yamiche Alcindor and Abby Phillip, fellow correspondents in the White House press pool. And that touched me. In the midst of it, the president was coming down, and I still stood and I kept my hand up and kept going.”
It’s probably no secret that Ryan also draws from a very clear understanding of her self-worth and being keenly aware of the line of freedom fighters who came before her.
“You’re not going to write my narrative. You’re not going to write who I am because I’m not what you say I am,” Ryan declared. “My mother told me, ‘It’s not what they call you but what you answer to.’ I don’t answer to that.”
When the tension gets thick, the death threats alarm her and the stresses of the job seem too much to bear, Ryan reminds herself, “I stand on the shoulders of greatness who dreamt of me being here. We are the fruit that Harriet Tubman tried to save. I’m who Rosa Parks sat down on that bus for. I’m the person who Dr. King gave his life for. I’m the person that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner died for. And I’m just going to walk away?”