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Domenico Montanaro on Covering Politics: 'Hunker Down' and Get the Facts

Peter Biello/NHPR

Truth seems especially hard to get to these days. "Fake news" articles on social media tend to look like they come from legitimate news outlets, and even the most well-researched story can be derided as "fake news."

Under these conditions political reporters push forward with their work. For a look at how that work has changed we turn to NPR's Domenico Montanaro. He's lead editor for politics and digital audience at NPR and he's here in New Hampshire to discuss leaks, fake news, and a free press at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.


Has the prevalence of "fake news" influence the way you analyze things on the air or in the NPR Politics Podcast?

Well, I think that it's been really important for us to get the facts straight. You know, the fact that fake news and the way it's used isn't even the right way that fake news is supposed to be used, like fake news is a real problem. When a man in North Carolina suddenly believes that Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman is running a child sex ring out of a pizza place in D.C. that's completely made up, and comes in and shoots up the place, you know, that has real life consequences as opposed to the president not liking what we report. So I think it makes it even doubly more important that we have our facts straight, that we have as many sources to back up the information that we're putting on the air so that we're keeping it straight for our audience.

How unusual is this kind of human behavior when we're talking about news consumption. Has it always been this way, and it's just different now because it's digital?

Well, a couple of things have really changed over the last 10 to 15 years. I mean first of all you start with new technology. I mean Twitter didn't even exist before I think 2007. So that comes along and you know revolutionizes the kind of the quickness with which we're consuming information and even the harshness with which people are responding and engaging with each other. in one way it's good because we have a you know kind of a direct line from the audience to some of us which is wonderful -- when it's wonderful right.

And then you bring in somebody like President Trump, who doesn't adhere to political norms or traditions things that, for the most part, they're actually pretty dumb ideas. And he's going to go and blow up the system and that's what his people like about him. You know, they wanted him to go to Washington D.C. and cause a ruckus and create problems because they think that the people who have problem with him are the ones who are the problem. So, but you bring in somebody like that, with the kind of megaphone that Twitter and Facebook provide, well then, things certainly have changed, especially when you've got Facebook not knowing how to figure out or deal with fake news. And now people are finally starting to shed some light on what Russia did try to pull off and what the Chinese have been trying to pull off -- as the CIA director Mike Pompeo has said. We're at the birth of a completely new landscape.

How have you or how has NPR managed to keep the reporters from being distracted or taken in completely by the tweets by President Trump's tweets?

Yeah, well you know the tweets are certainly the shiny metal object. They're sort of like the jangling keys for the dog to sort of go run after, or the pen light on the wall for the cat. And we have to avoid necessarily being that and playing into that role. So we have to step back and say, OK is this newsworthy? We know what the elements of news are. Is this something that rises to the level of news? And what context can we put behind this. I think that's the most important thing.

I think it would be an awful idea to go on air, to go online and just report on a tweet without giving facts or context to put it in the right frame.

How do the reporters you're working with feel about writing stories in an age where people will just on a whim say it's fake news you don't care what you have to say?

That can be deflating. I mean it really can be deflating. But I think you know there's an old saying that Ben Bradlee, the former editor of The Washington Post, used to say during Watergate. And he said, you know, hunker down. You know - you got to let the facts weigh out. Yeah, they're gonna come at you. But you've got to hunker down and do your job. And I think that that's really important and you know we all do this. I don't think we get into this profession because of wealth, fame, and fortune. That's not what we're after. Right. I think we have a real mission to serve the audience and to have the smartest, best, most-thoughtful, curious, and fair reporting that we can put on the air and online. And you know I think everybody just needs a little bit of a pep talk sometimes when it comes to that. We have to believe in the ideals that we got into this profession for to go forward and to do it and make sure we're doing it with sobriety and fairness.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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