Devroy Forum marks 20 years, speaker extolls the value of accurate reporting in the Trump era

Ann Devroy’s brother: legendary reporter would be ‘proud’ of the fellowship and its recipients


Photo by Kendall Ruchti

Jenna Johnson, this years Devroy Forum speaker, is a political reporter for The Washington Post tasked with covering Donald Trump.

It’s been two decades.

It’s been little more than 20 years since legendary reporter and UW-Eau Claire alumna Ann Devroy passed away, a span of years that has seen more lows than highs for the field of journalism.

Amid the struggles of a profession still trying to rediscover itself in the information age, a constant bright spot has been Devroy’s memorial, a fellowship co-sponsored by the university and The Washington Post, where each year the vital role of journalism is cherished and reaffirmed.

Neil Devroy, Ann’s brother, said his sister always displayed a desire to help young journalists and foster growth in them. This stemmed from her time as an intern at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, where senior journalists took her under their wings, and Ann enjoyed passing along the gift of mentorship.

Thursday’s Ann Devroy Memorial Forum in Schofield Hall featured 11 of the total 20 journalist-scholars who took part in residencies at the Washington Post in her honor, a continuation of Ann’s spirit of mentorship, Devroy said.

“Ann would be so proud of all these scholarship winners. She was always one of the first people to grab on any intern at The Washington Post and help them figure out the ropes. She always felt this was something she needed to do,” he said. “She’s up there right now, smiling.”

Jenna Johnson, a political reporter for The Washington Post tasked with covering then-candidate Donald Trump and the speaker at Thursday’s forum, said Devroy was the consummate reporter and her dogged pursuit of the truth serves as a model for the profession.

“When you imagine what a White House reporter should be, that was Ann Devroy,” Johnson said. “She was competitive, tough, aggressive, skeptical and brilliantly sharp. She wanted to know what was really going on in the White House and fought to figure it out so that she could tell the American people. She strived to be fair and accurate with her reporting, which enraged presidents.”

Rarely has the press been under as much scrutiny, or needed that toughness and aggressiveness, than the 2016 presidential election, Johnson said. She described the grueling campaign trail — one where she crisscrossed 35 states, attended 170 rallies and spoke with thousands of Trump supporters — and noted the difficulty in covering a politician as unpredictable, open with his emotions and blatantly deceptive as the nation’s 45th president.

Mikhail Patros, a senior kinesiology student, said Johnson’s address to Thursday’s forum shed light on the Trump presidency and the public’s need to stay engaged with politics.

“It’s a unique topic. We don’t know what’s going on, so they have to figure it out,” he said. “She described it perfectly, in that there’s multiple personalities to this president compared to Obama, who showed very little.”

Johnson said she was among the first journalists tasked to follow Trump, who was initially viewed as entertainment or a sideshow to the primaries during the “Summer of Trump,” but quickly realized his campaign represented a surge in anti-establishment fervor that propelled the real estate mogul into the highest office and signaled a wave of populism across the globe.

While Trump’s falsehoods are well documented, Johnson described a series of poll results that indicated the American public still places more trust in the president than the media. This distrust shows itself in outright hostility to journalists, a phenomenon Johnson saw extensively during her time as a correspondent in the election.

Johnson told the audience that to understand Trump supporters is to understand a group that feels abandoned, forgotten and betrayed. She said this has promoted her to be more transparent with her methods in order to give her audience an opportunity to judge her coverage for themselves.

While the angst of Trump supporters stole the headlines, Johnson said she’s also never seen this level of support from strangers.

Under threat of violence, be it hostile crowds or ugly emails, or even attacks on the press by an administration, Johnson reminded the auditorium journalists have faced stiff opposition in the past and their mandate to the public remains as relevant as ever.

“It’s been this way for generations. It’s not supposed to be cozy, it’s supposed to be aggressive, there’s supposed to be tension,” Johnson said. “This isn’t the first press corps to be called liars, this isn’t the first time that we’ve had our reporting attacked or called fake. I’m going to remember that when it gets tough, Ann didn’t let it get her down and I’m not going to let it get me down either.”