Caitri­ona’s choice: ‘I was in a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion’

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - R14EVIEW -

Jour­nal­ist Caitri­ona Perry made head­lines this year when Don­ald Trump sin­gled her out in the White House. She tells Donal Lynch why she thinks her ad­mirer will last the course

IT was a mo­ment that Caitri­ona Perry could hardly have an­tic­i­pated. In­vited into the Oval Of­fice to wit­ness the first call be­tween Don­ald Trump and the newly-elected Leo Varad­kar, RTE’S Washington Correspondent sud­denly, mo­men­tously, found her­self the focus of a com­ment from Trump that would make head­lines around the world. It be­gan in­nocu­ously enough. Trump told the Taoiseach that: “We have a lot of your Ir­ish press watch­ing us right now.” So far, so not an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent.

Then The Or­ange One pointed at Perry, beck­on­ing her over. “We have all of this beau­ti­ful Ir­ish press,” he purred into the phone like a Miss Uni­verse Em­cee. Then he asked the 37-year-old Dublin woman: “Where are you from?” With poise and calm, she ap­proached the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent and in­tro­duced her­self. “She has a nice smile on her face so I bet she treats you well,” he said to Varad­kar, adding: “He thanks you for the news­pa­pers, Caitri­ona.”

And then we all lost our mind over it. The mo­ment lasted all of 22 sec­onds but it was enough to launch Perry into vi­ral fame. Like the blue dress, ev­ery­one saw what they were al­ready pre­dis­posed to see­ing; for some fla­grant sex­ism, even misog­yny; for oth­ers a re­laxed, un­scripted com­ment that could only ben­e­fit its star­tled re­cip­i­ent.

In the sec­onds it took her to reach the door of the Oval Of­fice, the world’s me­dia drew its breath and for a mo­ment Perry was the focus of the lat­est hys­ter­i­cal in­stal­ment of Trump­watch. Her Twit­ter and In­sta­gram ac­counts were mined. Ir­ish com­men­ta­tors lined up to com­mis­er­ate with her, with The Ir­ish Times di­vin­ing that she was “clearly un­com­fort­able and suf­fer­ing hu­mil­i­a­tion”, while one of her pre­de­ces­sors in the role, Char­lie Bird, mused that any re­porter would sim­ply be grate­ful for an au­di­ence with the Pres­i­dent — what­ever the tone of that au­di­ence. Perry her­self watched it all un­fold but re­sisted the urge to wade in and she ex­plains why.

“It’s al­most a cliche but it’s also true: no jour­nal­ist wants to be the cen­tre of a story. In col­lege you’re taught not to use the words ‘I’ or ‘me’,” Perry says re­flect­ing on the mo­ment.

“In some ways it wasn’t hard to step back be­cause the furore was so huge; it went all around the world. I didn’t read the vast ma­jor­ity of what was writ­ten about it. It is a lit­tle odd when you see so many peo­ple talk about how you must have felt.

“It was a good in­sight for me be­cause usu­ally I’m on the other side of the me­dia. Peo­ple iden­ti­fied with the in­ci­dent based on their own life ex­pe­ri­ence — which, it must be said, is what Don­ald Trump does to peo­ple. I felt I was in a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion — if I said I was un­com­fort­able I would have been call­ing the Pres­i­dent Of The United States in­ap­pro­pri­ate, whereas if I said it had rolled off me, I would have been of­fend­ing all these women who took up the cause on my be­half. I had dealt with that kind of com­ment be­fore, I don’t think that there is a pro­fes­sional woman alive who hasn’t.”

Trump’s ill-con­sid­ered ‘niceties’ con­tinue to make head­lines on a weekly ba­sis — wit­ness the furore last week about his in­sen­si­tive re­marks to a war widow — but Perry says she thought of his re­marks to her as merely awk­ward small talk and says that the con­text — some­how lost in the bliz­zard of com­men­tary — was ev­ery­thing. “I was the only Ir­ish per­son in the room, I was the only per­son who wasn’t part of the White House pool of jour­nal­ists who’d be in and out of his of­fice all day, so prob­a­bly he was just say­ing what came into his head. I don’t think he re­ally meant any­thing by it. You’re in the man’s of­fice, if he says ‘c’mere, who are you?’ then it’s po­lite to an­swer. I knew there was no place for me on the phone call and I was rea­son­ably sure that who­ever was on the call back in Ire­land was also think­ing ‘what is go­ing on?’”

Smile-gate, as it de­buted to groans, was all the more re­mark­able for the gen­eral anonymity of for­eign cor­re­spon­dents in Washington and their rel­a­tively lowly place in the me­dia peck­ing or­der — made even more lowly by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which, Perry ex­plains, im­me­di­ately made se­cu­rity clear­ance more dif­fi­cult for for­eign jour­nal­ists. But while she re­mains pro­fes­sion­ally tight-lipped on her ac­tual opin­ions on the bom­bas­tic re­al­ity star around whom the po­lit­i­cal plan­ets now spin, she un­equiv­o­cally sees that this is a good time to be beam­ing news back to the hun­gry eyes back home.

“What a time to be do­ing this. It’s been fan­tas­tic to be here for the elec­tion night, the in­au­gu­ra­tion and ev­ery­thing that has hap­pened since — as a re­porter you wouldn’t want to be any­where else.”

There is part wide-eyed won­der, part flinty de­ter­mi­na­tion, in her tone when she says this. While she now oc­cu­pies one of the big­gest jobs in Ir­ish jour­nal­ism it felt, in some ways, like an in­evitable pro­gres­sion for such an am­bi­tious young tal­ent. Col­leagues in RTE gush about her and she op­er­ates deftly within the bur­den of be­ing a sober voice of record dur­ing a pe­riod in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics which seems equal parts silly and dan­ger­ous and in which even out­lets like CNN have de­scended into un­seemly ex­cla­ma­tion marks.

Her ap­point­ment this past week as co-pre­sen­ter of the Six One news (along­side Keelin Shan­ley) seems like a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion — she has been in Amer­ica for the stan­dard four years now — but it will mean her leav­ing Washington and mov­ing back to Dublin around the Christ­mas break time. “It will be bit­ter­sweet to leave Amer­ica but the Six One is such an iconic show and so many great names have sat in that chair, so I’m re­ally thrilled,” she says, “I’ll be in a stu­dio and ask­ing the ques­tions rather than an­swer­ing them, it’s a mas­sive change.” Grow­ing up in Knock­lyon, a mid­dle-class sub­urb of south Dublin, she says class­mates would de­scribe her as “ex­tremely driven and hard work­ing”.

She had no con­nec­tions in me­dia, al­though all these years later a younger cousin is a motor­ing jour­nal­ist with the Lon­don Times and an­other ed­its the Done­gal News.

“As long as I can re­mem­ber I wanted to be a broad­cast jour­nal­ist,” she says. “I was fas­ci­nated by the news me­dia. It was dif­fer­ent when I came out of col­lege. I think jour­nal­ism now is re­ally un­der threat — when I came out of col­lege there was no Face­book and Twit­ter and news web­sites were still in the ex­treme early days.” She started at New­stalk and worked her way up var­i­ous staff jobs un­til land­ing the big one four years ago. She wel­comed it as the cul­mi­na­tion of years of hard work but it did re­quire a big upheaval for her­self and her hus­band, who made the move with her. “It was ex­cit­ing to up­root,” she ex­plains. “You’re pack­ing up your whole life and it’s not like you’re 21 and you’re mov­ing for ad­ven­ture. It’s been fan­tas­tic though, we’ve made amaz­ing friends here.”

Mov­ing from be­ing a big fish in the small pond of Ire­land to know­ing next to no­body in the US capi­tol would daunt other jour­nal­ists — Char­lie Bird spoke frankly about the dif­fi­cul­ties he en­coun­tered — and Perry says the first year in Washington was char­ac­terised by a pe­riod of “hy­per net­work­ing”.

“I found that peo­ple here are very open to fol­low­ing through on re­quests to meet for a cof­fee. Big

‘I binge sleep at week­ends, but if I can get five hours sleep I’m happy’

Home­ward bound... RTE’S Caitri­ona Perry is head­ing back to Dublin

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