Former Denver reporter Eli Stokols left Fox31 in favor of Politico in early 2015, and since then, he's seen his star rise on the national journalism stage. He was recently named a White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and from this high-profile position, which is earning him plenty of TV-commentary time on MSNBC, he has a close-up view of the Trump administration, for better or worse.
Stokols describes President Donald Trump as "someone who clearly has a connection with a big subset of the electorate, but who also speaks in a way that is just so unique and so laden with obvious hyperbole and falsehoods. As a reporter, you're always asking yourself, 'Am I covering this right? How explicitly do we have to say what he's saying is not true?'"
At Fox31, Stokols developed a specialty in political reporting and quickly earned a reputation for incisive and even-handed coverage of figures on both sides of the aisle. This work made him eager to take a swing in the big leagues.
"I was looking for the right opportunity to do what I was doing in Colorado on a national level," he notes. "It's kind of a strange jump to make from local TV, but Politico was the perfect platform for doing that, because it really introduced my journalism to folks in Washington. It's a really powerful and innovative platform — a place where you could write big stories and little stories, and where there are a lot of smart people to learn from."
During his Politico tenure, "I got the opportunity to cover the presidential election," Stokols continues. "But you never anticipate a race like this one. When I walked in the door in the spring of 2015, they said, 'Why don't you cover Jeb Bush? He's probably going to be the nominee.' And when I started doing that, he had a big press corps. More reporters were assigned to him early than any other candidate, and I think that spoke to a perception widely held in media circles about how things work — the idea that having the most money and the biggest network would overcome Bush fatigue. But we were all proven wrong."
That's putting it mildly. According to Stokols, "It was a wild ride from start to finish, and how I had to cover the campaign went through so many iterations, starting with Jeb and then diversifying into Marco Rubio and Donald Trump. Then we got into the primaries and realized this Trump thing was real."
Not that the situation stabilized after Trump took control. "You'd get comfortable talking to a group of campaign staff, and then that campaign staff would be replaced," says Stokols, who admits to frequent internal debates over "whether we were normalizing this conduct or overreacting by leaning in too much to certain stories about outrageous things he was doing. I mean, to start out covering Jeb Bush and wind up covering a candidate like that...."
In retrospect, Stokols allows, "Jeb Bush was like a manatee — a giant, slow-moving, almost extinct sea creature who was very easy to spot in the water and easy to stay with. It wasn't going to swim away from you too fast. And Trump was totally different. It wasn't as simple as going to a campaign rally or measuring debate performances and all the conventional metrics. He was so unpredictable, and there's no end point at the moment. This is still happening: The administration is all over the place. They throw a lot out there, and it's difficult to keep your head above water at times. But it's also fostered a lot of collegiality in the way journalists are working collaboratively to make sure the administration is having to answer tough questions."
Moving from Politico, which has been excoriated by the Trump administration, to the Wall Street Journal, regarded as a more conservative publication (as well as a first-rate one) would seem to help Stokols with access to White House decision-makers. But he's not sure if that will prove to be the case.
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"To be honest, this is an administration that's really trying to get its legs under it," he maintains. "I think journalists at every organization are having a hard time getting through to people, getting phone calls returned, trusting everything administration sources are saying. I don't know that it's that much different based on where you're working."
In the meantime, Stokols has become a go-to commentator on cable-news programs such as MSNBC's The 11th Hour With Brian Williams and Hardball With Chris Matthews. He concedes that his broadcasting experience, which makes him appear far more comfortable on camera than a lot of other print reporters pressed into such duty, may have something to do with his popularity. But in his view, "they want people on their shows with deep experience inside the administration, inside government agencies — reporters who are bringing something to the table beyond punditry, reporters who are plugged into what's actually happening."
His goal in such settings is to "get past the kind of platitudes of punditry and anodyne comments offering conventional wisdom. You try to get a window on what's actually happening based on what you're hearing in your reporting — try not to sugarcoat it or water it down."
And then there's the need to separate fact from fiction. In Stokols's words, "It is a reporting challenge like none other when you're dealing with such an asymmetrical target as Donald Trump."