In the Briefing Room with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins

The chief White House correspondent never misses a beat (or an Alabama game)

Photo: Lexey Swall

Kaitlan Collins, photographed in front of the White House.

When CNN promoted Kaitlan Collins to chief White House correspondent earlier this year, she seemingly earned a second title: chief Crimson Tide correspondent. In May, for instance, the twenty-nine-year-old Alabama native appeared on the network’s morning show. But instead of asking questions about the Biden administration, an anchor asked her about the New England Patriots’ draft picks from the University of Alabama, her alma mater. After some serious in-depth analysis of the players and the relationship between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Alabama coach Nick Saban, Collins ended the segment with: “Roll Patriots.”

That interaction offers a perfect distillation of her life in D.C. and politics. While Collins, far from her hometown of Prattville, circles the globe with the president of the United States, she’s still Southern to her core: This fall, she plans to cover the G20 summit in Rome and also attend a few games in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Here, Collins broadcasts more about her path to political journalism, what it’s really like in the briefing room, her Alabama roots, and where she falls in the mayo-versus-mustard debate.

How does your life in Washington, D.C., compare with your youth in Alabama?

I am from Prattville, born and raised. My family still lives there. You know, you don’t really appreciate the South until you leave. Some people say that D.C. is Southern, but not by my standards. I go to the grocery store in Alabama and my dad’s friends and random people come up and have these long conversations with me. My mom used to pick me up from a friend’s house, and she’d have these long conversations with my friend’s parents. People [in D.C.] just don’t linger. It’s a cultural thing. When I’m with other Southerners here, they get it.

You first majored in chemistry at Alabama. When did you become interested in political science and journalism?

What happened with me is what many people experience: You don’t really know what you want to major in. My sister was a chemistry major at Auburn and actually is a chemist. So, I tried it. But I realized it wasn’t the path for me. We had a tornado that came through Tuscaloosa that was absolutely devastating. We didn’t take finals and went home early. It made me rethink things. And while I was home, I started flipping through the course catalogue. I’ve always been a big reader, and I noticed the journalism courses. When I went back in the fall, in my first two classes, I realized journalism was such a better fit for me and really dedicated myself to it for the next three years.

Were your parents TV news watchers?

Absolutely not. We really didn’t watch it beyond the local news in the morning. And I think that was true for a lot of people in the South at that time. People wanted to know what new stores were opening or what the traffic and construction were like. Under Trump, that changed for a lot of people. But my parents still are not political at all.

I bet they watch a lot of cable news now…

Yes, but it’s actually really funny. When I first started, they were like, “What? You’re going to work for CNN?” They were big Fox News watchers. In Alabama, it’s a given.

Have any Southern journalists inspired you?

I follow a ton of Alabama reporters on social media. Whether they cover sports or politics or local stories, I just love to see what people are reporting on. National news starts as local news, and that’s where you find a lot of great stories. I was also lucky to have great teachers who were also reporters. Rick Bragg would teach one or two classes a semester. I loved hearing what it was like going from the South to reporting on consequential stories for places like the New York Times. He always goes back to his roots, and I realized you can go work someplace outside of the South but bring your Southern mentality to it. He wrote one thing I will never forget—about the difference between mayo and mustard people. It was just so spot-on. I was smiling and nodding along the entire time I read it.

So…mustard or mayo?

Most important: I am a hundred percent a mayonnaise person.

photo: Lexey Swall
Collins relaxes between live shots on the White House lawn, near the CNN tent.

What was it like to step into the briefing room for the first time?

One of the arts of journalism is learning how to ask a question well. I watched and learned from a lot of other reporters. I had been in the briefing room before [as White House correspondent for the Daily Caller], but not as a TV reporter. When you are there for TV, you are in the very front rows, and that is the biggest difference—where you are in the room. [During the Trump administration] it was new that every briefing was taken live by every single network and that everyone was watching. It was trial by fire every single time.

When you’re traveling the world, what Southern foods do you miss most?

That was definitely one of the hardest parts of moving to D.C. I have a friend here who is also from the South, and recently we bought Jim ’N Nick’s cheese biscuit mix because we missed the food! In the South, everyone cooks great things for you all the time, and you take it for granted. When I’m going home for a week of gluttony, I know I have to prepare myself. One glass of sweet tea will send me over the edge these days. But I have it all: fried okra, cornbread, and any barbecue sandwich I can get.

What’s your Alabama game-day routine?

When I make new friends in D.C. and football season comes around, they’ll ask me to do something on a Saturday and I’m like…No, I’m busy every Saturday in the fall. If you don’t grow up in the South, you don’t understand that. My game-day tradition is that every Saturday morning—I mean every game day—I go to Chick-fil-A for a chicken biscuit, coffee, and hash browns. I never miss it. If I’m on the road, I’ll find one at the airport. Traditions are so important—and, yes, I’m really superstitious.

How are you feeling about the Tide’s chances?

We just had an amazing season—probably the best two-year run of our wide receivers in history. People think it’s a given that Alabama will take the championship. I’m excited to see the team play this year because it’s going to be so different since so many players entered the draft after last season.

Last year during the pandemic was one of the only times I haven’t been in the stadium. But the Alabama team came to the White House and Nick Saban was at the podium, and I was like, Wow, my worlds are colliding! Now I’m just so ready to be back in the stadium with a hundred thousand of my closest friends.