TONIGHT: Sign up now to join a conversation with NPR's Tamara Keith

Aug 31, 2020

The political conventions are over and now the Presidential campaign is in the final sprint. Leading the covering of it all is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. She’s also co-host of the NPR Politics podcast. Keith has been reporting from the White House since 2014, covering the last two years of the Obama Presidency and Donald Trump since day one. She also appears regularly as a commentator on PBS News Hour.

Keith will join public radio listeners Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. for a special online conversation. It’s free, but you have to register advance. Click here to register.

Keith spoke with NCPR's David Sommerstein as she was finishing up convention coverage unlike any other. While she did get to cover President Donald Trump's nomination acceptance speech live from the White House South Lawn Thursday night, most of her convention coverage has been from her home due to the coronavirus pandemic, something that's disconcerting for any journalist used to being in the room to report on what's happening. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: What has it been like covering the conventions where you're so used to being there among people?  What was it like covering them from your house?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, you know, I've had a big pot of tea every night. It's weird. It's totally weird.

In reality, I'm now covering the conventions, much like the average American takes in the conventions. It's a different experience to be in a convention hall surrounded by people. You can sometimes miss something or it will hit in a different way in the room than it does on TV.

Well, now there's only TV or a live stream. So the journalists covering it are experiencing the exact same thing as the public watching on television.

SOMMERSTEIN: What has it been like covering this President, in this political moment, when so many people are debating what the facts actually are and what truth actually is, and where there are narratives and counter-narratives?

NPR's Tamara Keith co-hosts NPR's Politics podcast. She also regularly appears as a commentator on the PBS News Hour.

KEITH: It's incredibly challenging. And the fact that truth has become politicized is pretty difficult for someone who's in the truth business. In journalism, our job is to shine light, to reflect reality back to our audience. In this case, it is this very challenging time where you have a president of the United States who has declared that journalists doing their jobs are the 'enemy of the people'.

Now, I don't take this as a personal insult, but the Fourth Estate is an important institution in our democracy - journalism, shining a light, doing the things that we do, asking the questions, fact-checking.

These are not political acts, or they haven't traditionally been political acts. It puts us in this very weird position because we want to do our jobs. We want to do a good job of covering the news. And at times, that puts us in the position of fulfilling the President's claim that we're 'the opposition party' when, in fact, we're just covering the news.

SOMMERSTEIN: Let me ask you on a personal level: how do you manage the stress that's inherent with being held so responsible in the eyes of so many, people saying you are not following the facts, or you should be finding the real truth, and then waking up every morning to a million responses on Twitter?

KEITH: I believe that it is not my job to make people feel better. It is my job to report the news as it is. Certainly, it is my job to put things in context and to not put things on the air that are untrue, or if I do, to make it clear that it isn't true, and to put it in the proper framing and context.

And yeah, there are people who tell me how disappointed they are in me. And there are people who tell me how much they hate my work and hate what I stand for. And a lot of them I've muted on Twitter, so I don't actually hear that much.

People talk about self care. If you as a journalist spend all of your time thinking about what other people think of you, then it is really hard to do your job. And I have to put one foot in front of the other every single day and report out the biggest story of my lifetime.

SOMMERSTEIN: What stories do you think are under-reported that don't get the attention that they deserve because of the big headlines right now?

KEITH: One thing that I've been very focused on, off and on, is the President's use of executive action. Now, lots of presidents have used executive orders and presidential memoranda. President Trump was highly critical of President Obama when he did that. But President Trump has really taken up this mantle and is doing a lot through executive orders and and presidential memoranda.

But some of these executive actions are basically press releases, and he's not doing what he's saying that he's doing. So following his use of executive action, both rhetorically and in reality, is something that I think that we probably could be doing more of.

The latest thing that I've been watching is that he signed an executive order about a month ago related to prescription drug prices. He's been campaigning on it, really touting his work on this. But he never submitted it to the Federal Register, which means it's not real. We don't even know exactly what's in it.

SOMMERSTEIN: You're going to be speaking to North Country Public Radio listeners. When you have an opportunity to speak directly to public radio listeners like this, what do you like to come across? What do you like to tell them about the work that you do?

KEITH: What I actually enjoy is the questions more than my answers. I learn a lot from understanding what NPR listeners are interested in and how they ask their questions. And I just really enjoy those conversations.