By Mary Guthrie
Photos courtesy of Kailani Koenig-Muenster // NBC News
Covering national news is not for the faint of heart, especially if your beat is U.S. politics and breaking stories. But MSNBC correspondent and Meadows journalism alumnus Garrett Haake (’07) jumps right in, covering stories that accumulate faster than raindrops in a thunderstorm: the impeachment inquiry; the Ukraine investigation and all names associated with it, including Trump, Giuliani, Pompeo, Mulvaney, Yovanovitch, Sondland, Hill and more; the Mueller investigation; Democratic presidential candidates Biden, Warren, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Sanders et al; the trade war; Pelosi, Schiff, McConnell, Graham … if it’s happening on Capitol Hill, Haake is right in the center of the action, relaying updates to millions of viewers on MSNBC and NBC Nightly News.
How did he get from journalism classes at SMU Meadows to Washington, D.C., reporting for the top cable news channel and a major network news program?
As a President’s Scholar senior at Meadows, Haake interned at NBC in New York and graduated summa cum laude in 2007. He worked for a handful of news outlets after graduation, holding successive positions including associate producer for NBC Nightly News; embedded NBC reporter for the Mitt Romney 2012 presidential campaign; reporter for KSHB-TV in Kansas City, Missouri; reporter for WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C.; and, since May 2017, correspondent for MSNBC.
News coverage has accelerated exponentially since Haake began his career 12 years ago. Below, he shares his perspective on reporting, the evolution he has seen in news coverage and where it is heading, his time as a Meadows journalism student and advice for young journalists about to start their careers.
Meadows: Looking back over the past decade or so, what are the main changes you’ve seen in news reporting at the national level?
Garrett Haake: The rise of cable news and news via social media means when viewers tune in to broadcasts like TODAY and NBC Nightly News, they often already know the “news,” or at least the headlines. That puts pressure on us to go a lot deeper, to find new angles to be constantly updating with the most “right now” element to a story. News consumers are conditioned not to have to wait for the very latest details, which means reporters don’t really face a single deadline anymore. Our deadlines are every hour, or every time a reportable piece of news is ready for a tweet.
M: With so many stories developing so quickly now, what do you do to keep on top of the latest details? Do the networks and larger-market stations have teams of researchers to help the reporters keep up, or is it all up to the correspondents themselves?
GH: In local news, even in bigger markets, resources are extraordinarily tight, so reporters don’t get much help. The institutional knowledge of the assignment desk or your photographer can be a huge asset, though. I’m also starting to see more local newsrooms hire data journalists, who specialize in research and quantitative reporting, which I think is a great trend more newsrooms should embrace.
At the network level our teams are much bigger. Producers, researchers and even desk assistants and interns all contribute. It would be impossible to stay on top of all the developing storylines we follow by ourselves. It’s a huge team effort.
M: What are the differences in the way you cover stories now compared to approaches you used in the past?
GH: My approach changes all the time, because I feel like I’m always learning. Covering Capitol Hill, I feel like I’m getting a graduate degree in government every day, and as I get smarter I refine my approach. If there’s any one thing that’s changed, it’s my confidence in challenging lawmakers. Members of Congress, even the president, work for our viewers, and remembering that—and reminding them of it—can help dispel the nerves I still get sometimes.
M: Do you ever get a weekend off, or are you on call 24-7?
GH: Yes, and yes. NBC News does a good job of scheduling reporters so we don’t get burned out. When I’m covering Congress I’m usually not working the weekends. But you never know when a big story will break and a vacation turns into an assignment. When the Odessa shootings happened this summer, I was visiting my parents in Austin. I was the closest correspondent by 800 miles or so, and my quiet weekend with family ended rather abruptly with a call to head to the scene.
M: What are your favorite ways to unwind after your work week?
GH: I’ve gotten into CrossFit over the last two years, which helps me stay sane during the week. On Saturdays I try to turn my brain off; I’ll watch college football, go find a band to see, or check out a new restaurant. D.C. has a booming food scene, so there’s always something new to try.
M: What do you think national broadcast news will be like in 5 to 10 years?
GH: Rumors of our imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. There’s still too much going on in the world, at too fast a pace, for most people to absorb throughout the day. A digest of what happened, and why it matters, is still important. But what may change is how you get it. I think viewers in 2029 will be more likely to watch on their phones or their watch screens, or listen to podcasts.
M: Many Americans are concerned about the current political polarization in our country, and some blame news coverage for the divide. Is there anything media outlets should do to help reduce the gap?
GH: I think the single most important thing we can do to combat this is be very clear at all times what is “news” or “analysis,” and what is “opinion.”
M: What would you like viewers to know about producing and airing national news?
GH: This really is a team sport. The producers, editors, and especially the photographers never get enough credit. If you see me out covering a hurricane, know that there’s a team of at least three or four other people taking all the same risks that I do, without any of the plaudits. And all of us care about getting the final product just right. It’s really impressive from my perspective to watch a whole team pull in one direction to turn an idea or a breaking news event into the polished story you see on air.
M: What drew you toward studying broadcast journalism in college?
GH: I was interested in just about every subject. History, politics, government, economics and world affairs all fascinated me. Journalism seemed like the perfect pathway to satisfying my curiosity about the world, and getting paid for it!
M: What aspects of your SMU education helped you navigate your career? Are there any particular incidences or people who influenced you while a student that had an impact on your career?
GH: I was lucky enough to have some great professors at Meadows who understood how the industry worked, and didn’t hide that from us. Michele Houston took the rose-colored glasses off her classes early when she explained how hard our first few years in the business would be. Lucy Scott and Mel Coffee encouraged students to think big and think creatively about what broadcast news could be, and how to tell different kinds of stories. Being in Dallas proved to be a huge asset too; there was just so much going on, and great opportunities for internships and big stories to cover. As a political reporter, I’m jealous of the students there now – the metroplex will be a critical 2020 battleground with lots of great opportunities to go find stories.
M: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned since leaving SMU Meadows?
GH: Journalism is a profession that rewards hustle, grit and strategic patience. Knowing when and how to just put my head down and outwork the competition took some time to learn, but it’s an invaluable lesson.
M: What advice would you give to young journalists just setting out?
GH: Get your hands dirty. If you want to be a reporter, report. Don’t try to tinker around the edges, just get in there and test if this is really for you. A career in journalism isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine, but there’s just no substitute for going out there and telling stories and breaking news, whether it’s for a local paper, website, on television, or some medium we haven’t thought up yet.
M: In closing, are there any comments you’d like to make about your dog, Shiner?
GH: The old cliché is that if you want a friend in Washington, you should get a dog. I’ve found that to be very much true. I rescued my mutt, Shiner, when I was working in local news in Kansas City, but she’s been my constant companion for more than five years now. I had never owned a dog before, and now I can’t imagine not.