Christi Parsons: White House Correspondent
Updated: Apr 16, 2018
This article was originally published in the summer 2017 issue of Tuscaloosa Magazine as a part of their Six Intriguing People feature.
Christi Parsons has interviewed many celebrities and politicians in her career, a path paved by her deep, Southern, storytelling roots. The Tuscaloosa native and former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association is drawing from those roots — and her experience covering the day-to-day events of former President Barack Obama’s presidency — to take a break to write a memoir.
“It’s the story of a white girl from Alabama who covers the first black president,” says the University of Alabama and Yale Law School graduate.
“I think people from the South can relate to the idea that race relations are complicated in this country, and people who say otherwise are just out of touch.”
Parsons, White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, says she has a unique perspective as a member of the White House press corps, which she says is composed heavily of reporters from the Northeast.
“I grew up in the South and went to a public university in the South. I’m really different from a lot of people in the Washington press corps in that way. I always felt like I was processing the story of the first black president differently than everyone else.”
White House reporter Michael Memoli partnered with Parsons the last two years of the Obama administration, and he says that reporters can be extremely competitive in Washington, even within their own news organizations, but that Parsons was always willing to help a fellow reporter.
“Her Southernness definitely emerges from time to time, sometimes in more conspicuous ways than others,” he said with a laugh. “The closest she will come to saying something negative about someone? She’ll just say, “Well, bless their heart.” Whereas someone who grew up like I did, in New Jersey, we might use a four-letter word.”
Parsons said the trajectory of her career was shaped by Alabamians, particularly her mother, a journalist, Marie Parsons, who retired from teaching journalism at the University of Alabama, and her late father, Joe.
“They raised me in a household where I was really exposed to a wide range of views about the world,” she says.
“My mother is a journalist who comes at the world with a notebook and questions, and my father was a polite Southern gentleman who loved to tell stories, and he liked to listen to stories, so that’s sort of an Alabama way of growing up. I think a lot of Southerners can relate to that.”
Parsons credits her UA German professors, as well as journalism professors Frank Deaver, the late Marian Huttenstine and Jim Oakley, a retired newspaper publisher.
“Every single publisher in the Alabama Press Association was an influence on me. They are brave people who believe in telling the stories about the places where they live,” she said. Parsons, a former reporter for The Tuscaloosa News, said her father could sit on their porch for hours regaling the neighborhood with stories.
“If you poured some iced tea or whiskey in a jar, you knew if you sat down near his rocking chair he would start telling a story. I was always aware of the impact of my storytelling. You can hurt people and you can help people, and sometimes people don’t like what you write, but if you have to face those people at the Piggly Wiggly or church or whatever, then you learn the importance of getting it right. The town of Tuscaloosa taught me how to be a journalist.”
Memoli said that when Parsons was elected president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, no one ran against her because “they knew she was going to beat everybody because of the respect people have for her.”
And sometimes, he pointed out, the politicians she covered learned from her.
“She happened to be on Air Force One the day after she was elected president, and it was the same year Obama was running for re-election. He came back to congratulate her and asked for her advice,” Memoli said.
“He was kidding, of course,” said Parsons, who holds a note in history as being the reporter to ask the last question at Obama’s final presidential press briefing. “He knew a journalist like me would never actually give advice. But when you cover someone for 20 years, you do develop a strong reporter-source relationship in which you can joke around a little bit. The important thing to me is that he would always take my questions. No matter where we're traveling in the world or what the subject matter was, if he saw my hand up or heard me shouting out a question, he would usually stop and answer.”