Covering national politics is not for the faint-hearted. That is especially true for covering national politics during what is expected to be one of the most polarizing elections in recent history. But one Little Rock native has been preparing for the opportunity her entire career.
Working for CNN as a Washington correspondent, Jessica Dean has been pounding the pavement, covering the progress of former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign for more than a year. Since Biden announced his candidacy in April 2019, Dean has been jetting around the country as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has run his campaign. It’s given her a front-row seat to a tumultuous race, which has seen multiple Democratic challengers and a comeback of tremendous proportions.
But in recent months, Dean has entered unchartered waters, having to navigate the new realities of reporting on an ongoing presidential campaign while the world has been laid low by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At an early age, Dean knew she wanted to tell people’s stories. The Pulaski Academy graduate realized that journalism would allow her access to stories that might be otherwise unavailable to a broader audience.
“When I was growing up in Little Rock, I was a reader. I loved magazines, books, whatever I could get my hands on. It always seemed like the people who had the most interesting stories — personal stories — and got to see so much of the world were journalists. They got to step into people’s lives and talk to people across the spectrum. I always thought that was so unique,” she said.
Combined with a thirst to tell a story first (a habit she calls “obnoxious” but is part of the drive that is key to her success), she began to take her first steps into the field of journalism. She made the jump to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, earning a degree in broadcast journalism.
“I got a broadcast journalism degree because I always loved television. I loved that it was in people’s homes,” she said. “It always was really important to me to remember and appreciate that people were allowing me into their home. I just loved that medium.”
Dean got her start in Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas as a general assignment reporter at KNWA-KFTA. It wasn’t long before Dean graduated to the Little Rock market, joining KATV and later becoming an anchor at KARK.
In 2013, Dean got her shot at a bigger media market — Philadelphia. She joined KYW, Channel 3, the local CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, which is the fourth-largest media market in the United States. She spent five years in the City of Brotherly Love before she got the call for the big leagues.
Dean became a Washington correspondent for CNN in 2018 and was immediately thrust into the world of national politics. Rather than focusing on a range of differ ent topics every day, Dean now focuses on a single subject — the 2020 presidential election and specifically, Biden’s bid to take the White House.
“The difference for me, personally, is that I’m really specific now to one storyline. When I was in local [news], I was covering everything. It really ran the gamut. When I was anchoring, obviously, we covered all the news,” she said. “Now, as a Washington correspondent for CNN, I’m focused on a very specific subject — the 2020 presidential campaign of Joe Biden. I was assigned to this campaign from day one, a little over a year ago. The biggest difference for me is, it is one beat. It is all-in on one thing, whereas in local, I did a lot of political reporting, but I also did other things as well. It’s been fun to really dig my feet into that and really focus on one thing specifically.”
Following the Biden campaign, there has never been a shortage of material for Dean to mine. When he announced his candidacy on April 25, 2019, Biden was pegged as the frontrunner and maintained that status for months.
However, the field became crowded quickly with more than 25 challengers for the Democratic nomination vying for the spotlight at one point or the other.
“I think it became apparent to the campaign that this was going to play out a little bit differently than they thought,” Dean said.
In the wake of bruising debate appearances, Biden had subpar showings at the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in early February 2020. Dean was on the ground, reporting on the campaign and felt that the team’s energy was at a low ebb.
That changed several weeks later when Biden mounted a comeback in the South Carolina primary, winning the state by a landslide and capturing 48.4 percent of the popular vote. In Dean’s mind, this was the game-changing moment for Biden that solidified his hold on the presidential nomination.
“It was a totally different vibe. You could tell that some energy had shifted. I only knew that because I could feel it. I feel honored that I get a front-row seat to history — which sounds cheesy, but you really are right there, and you’re watching it all unfold,” she said.
After Biden’s victory in South Carolina and his successes in the Super Tuesday primaries, many of his major challengers — Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others — began dropping out of the race. It looked like a straight shot to the nomination – until the world turned upside down.
Dean divides her coverage of the Biden campaign into two parts. As important as the South Carolina and Super Tuesday results were, these are not the landmarks. The novel coronavirus pandemic is the dividing line between the way of the past and the way of the future for Dean’s coverage of the presidential campaign.
“Before COVID, we were really in the throes of a really dynamic primary that had wild storylines — Joe Biden’s unprecedented political comeback. Day to day, I was following him. We were flying commercial at this point,” she said. “In the weeks leading up to COVID, in between South Carolina and just after Super Tuesday, it was not uncommon for us to be on two or three flights a day.”
During this time, Dean would travel with a crew and would follow the campaign as it made stops around the United States. From these distant locales, Dean would file reports that would be used across the CNN platform.
“One day, we started the day in Houston. We flew that night to Oakland, got off at 3 in the morning in Oakland to be on for 6 a.m. on the East Coast then flew to Los Angeles that night. We were going every day,” she said.
Dean says she made her last in-person report around March 10. After that time, she began operating remotely — as the rest of her team and network did. While she’s working from home, she is still working — just with a different set-up than usual.
“Post-COVID, it’s all virtual. We’re all working from home. My entire crew is working from home. I have a little studio set up in our living room, at our dining room table that just stays there so it’s always available,” she said.
Going into quarantine hasn’t limited her access to the campaign, Dean said. But it has changed what she covers. The rallies and campaign events, which she would have been covering, were no longer an option. It’s a situation that has little precedent in recent memory.
“I’m still talking to people. I’m still texting with them, but in terms of covering events and talking with people at rallies, that has gone by the wayside. It’s just a really different vibe. It’s a different way of doing our job, and we’re all learning together.
“The thing about coronavirus and this pandemic is that no one has done this before. We’re all kind of in the same boat, figuring it out.”
Dean is still in the boat, navigating the new waters of post-COVID-19 news coverage. As restrictions are gradually loosened around the country, there likely will be a return to something approaching normalcy.
Already there are promising signs, with Biden coming out of his basement headquarters to make appearances after being limited to remote speeches for months. This is only the prelude to the final leg of the presidential election season, when Biden prepares to face President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
Jessica Dean plans to be there the whole way for the campaign. There will be exhausting days, overwhelming days and exhilarating days on the road to November, and Dean wants to be the first to tell whatever story comes her way.
“The high and low points are probably, oddly enough, one and the same. The high points are the days when you’re working 15, 16 hours,” she said. “It’s no wonder that my eyes look so scrunched all the time because I’m tired. You’re definitely tired, and you’re just trying to get through the day in terms of your energy levels. But it’s just so exciting. It’s right where I wanted to be. I wanted to be in this story. I wanted to see it unfold. I want to bear witness to it.”
Photos courtesy of CNN