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Politics & Government

NPR Political Editor Domenico Montanaro: ‘If You Ignore Politics, It Can Be Problematic’

Renee Rosensteel
NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro speaks at an even hosted by 90.5 WESA on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.

NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro wasn’t always in the news business. Though, he pursued journalism in college and worked for a newspaper after graduation, he also spent three years as a high school English teacher. 

He stopped by 90.5 WESA and spoke to Larkin Page-Jacobs about his work as a broadcast journalist and how it’s similar to teaching students.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

LARKIN PAGE-JACOBS: Do you see any parallels between your previous work as a teacher and your current job as a political analyst?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: I always started to picture a 12- or 14-year-old who I might have taught and you know need to break down vital information that they should be able to know and understand not presume background knowledge, but to be able to get information out there for them in a clear, concise way so that they can understand what's being said and done so that, you know, there isn't all this confusion. I mean one of the things that is a real pet peeve of mine is when you hear people talk about politics or any complicated subject matter, they presume people know a lot of information ... and they talk in ways that are jargon-y. And I really want to try to avoid that.

PAGE-JACOBS: So what is it about politics? Why are you passionate about it?

MONTANARO: It's funny. I had never thought that I could be a political journalist because I thought that's what everybody wanted to do.

And then I got to graduate school and I realized there's all these people that could care less about politics, didn't want to do it. But I was always a political junkie. And I think the biggest thing with it, it's important. I mean, understanding policy and understanding politics is really vital to what happens in people's lives and nothing kind of irritates me more than people who sort of tune out of it completely and say, "Oh, they're all crooked or they're all corrupt or they're blah, blah, blah." If you ignore politics it is, it can be problematic and eventually it comes back to you and you think, "How did all this happen?" And that's my goal, is on a daily basis to help the people who have 9-to-5 jobs who might not necessarily be paying attention to every minute detail but do need to know what's going on. Try to break it down for them.

PAGE-JACOBS: When you were doing analysis of, say, a debate in the run-up to the election and then maybe some analysis after one of the press conferences that the administration has held, do you feel like you influence the political discourse that came out of that event?

MONTANARO: I don't think we have that kind of power necessarily. You know I think that we have, collectively, the media has the power to shape a narrative and to you know move things in a certain direction. Maybe. But, you know, I don't think I ever personally felt like I shaped something. I think, I don't know that that's true that that's our job. I mean I think that our job is to stick to hew closely to the facts and make sure that what people are saying is true in these debates, because I'm always embarrassed when somebody says to me they see an ad or they hear someone make a statement and they say, "Is that true?" And I'm the one who's supposed to be covering this and I'm like I don't know. So I have to go look it up and figure it out and I think that's the best public service we can do.

PAGE-JACOBS: I know that some people feel that it should be the media's role to call out politicians when they think something is untrue. And I guess I would pose the question to you. Do you feel like it's your job to point out things that are false? Or is it your job to let people decide on their own, or give them information? Where do you see yourself coming into it?

MONTANARO: No. I mean, I think if we know something is factually wrong, we need to say it. I think that it's a big mistake for media outlets to allow information to go on their airwaves or online that's incorrect to be voiced by somebody without some context. I think that kind of context and fact checking I mean your facts better rewrite. They better not be alternative facts that you're putting out there. They better be correct. But if you know something is blatantly wrong and blatantly false, you've got to say it. And sometimes that takes a little bit of time and effort to do and sometimes that means the first pass you might hear somebody say something that's questionable. But I think we have an obligation to come back to it and say whether or not that information was correct or not.

PAGE-JACOBS: Do people ask you to speculate or forecast into the coming year?

MONTANARO: Of course. Yes.

PAGE-JACOBS: Well, what do you have for us?

MONTANARO: These are the worst. These are the questions I hate the most, because I call them the crystal ball questions. "So what do you think is going to happen with ... whatever?" And I have to tell you I, especially after this election, I think that a lot of us need to pull back on wanting to be so definitive about what's coming.

Now, in Washington, there are things that have already been set out as the agenda. So we know that the Republicans in Congress want a vote on this health care bill as early as next week, if they can get the votes. I'm not sure that they're going to be able to. But they want to do it before the April recess because they don't want to go home and hear it from both sides at town halls. So they want to get that out of the way. Then they want to be able to work on tax reform. And we know that President Trump wants to work on an infrastructure bill, big infrastructure because his chief strategist Steve Bannon has said that he believes that that is his key to re-election, because if he can deliver for some of those white working class voters who voted for him who may have voted Democratic in the past, that that might be a key. So, look, if you can get health care, tax reform and infrastructure through, my goodness that would be some accomplishment.