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Politics & Society
by Lorrie Lynch, July 30, 2010
CBS News radio reporter Mark Knoller is a font of presidential information, a fastidious compiler of facts that shed light on how American chief executives do the job.
Though he is 58 and covering a White House schedule so complex that even the men and women keeping to it sometimes forget where they’ve been or whom they’ve seen, Knoller says his own memory is sharp. He plays no brain games nor takes special supplements to keep the neurons firing.
“I find that doing my job every day gives me the intellectual acuity I need for this,” he says. “But there are occasions that I forget: ‘When was that trip to that location?’ I’m glad I’ve got the diary so that I can look it up.”
The diary, as Knoller calls it, is really a computer database of statistics about each day in the life of the president, deconstructed by events and activities. Want to know how many times President Obama used a particular phrase? Knoller knows. He has notes and details on speeches, meetings with members of Congress, bill signings, family outings and much more.
Logging in information
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Knoller covered the White House on and off through the presidencies of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He was assigned full time to the White House in George H.W. Bush’s final year, covered the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and now Barack Obama’s.
Knoller began logging stats during President Clinton’s first term. “I remember trying to figure out on how many previous occasions [Clinton] had made trips to California, and it was difficult. We didn’t have the Internet, and access to instant information was not easy. I remember going through Facts on File, going through the printed copies of presidential documents and trying to piece together the record of how many trips [the president] had previously made to that state.”
Such details can provide insight, says Knoller, who was an Associated Press reporter before landing at CBS and has earned several awards for his reporting. “I thought, ‘I need to keep records on this’ because it was an interesting nugget to say [in a story] that President Clinton is making his fourth or 15th or 23rd visit to California. It certainly added insight to the importance he placed on the state and its 54 electoral votes.”
Trips, meetings and more
A New York University graduate who originally intended to go to medical school, Knoller—from a cubicle in the White House press room—now keeps many separate lists, but each began with his desire to know a particular fact. “I thought, ‘Gee, it would be interesting to know how many domestic trips [the president] has taken, how many foreign trips, how many times he traveled to France and Germany, how many times a year does he go to Camp David, how many vacation days does he spend a year. It just started adding up.”
And he logs it all in. “At the end of the day I take an hour and I write down everything the president did and said, meetings he had, places he went, and it is in a searchable database.” Knoller rarely takes days off, but when he does, he still keeps his diary.
Only Knoller has access to his digital database. But lucky for his White House reporter colleagues, he is a generous man in that competitive arena.
“There’s a lot of data that I’m keeping and I don’t have occasion to use it every day or even every week,” he says. “So if a fellow reporter says, ‘Do you know how many times he’s done this or gone there?’ it just seemed to me I could help out a colleague. It didn’t seem like I was giving away something all that valuable—and in most cases my colleagues credited me.”
Outside of work, however, Knoller isn’t given to making lists. “There would be nothing on it,” he says, “except maybe ‘pick up dry cleaning.’ ”
Lorrie Lynch is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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