From her booth inside the White House, Tamara Keith talks about how she got to a national stage

November 4, 2015

Because NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith (’01) says she likes to ask questions that are “slightly off,” she gets this one when her J-School calls to profile her: “Why in the world would you go to journalism school “_ when Cokie Roberts told you not to?”

“She did not tell me not to go to journalism school,” Keith immediately corrects. What the senior political analyst and former NPR congressional correspondent told a young Keith was, “Don’t major in communications.”

Keith, who had written to several NPR personalities asking for advice on going to college, did not major in communications. She didn’t choose journalism right away, either. “I actually majored in philosophy at UC Berkeley in undergrad, and then I got a master’s degree in journalism in part because I was 19 years old when I graduated from college and nobody was going to take me seriously,” Keith says. “I needed to buy some time.”

“I actually got a much stronger grounding in journalism than I would have if I hadn’t gone to the J-School,” Keith says. “Sourcing, or the ethics stuff, or, you know, Bill Drummond’s J200 class where every day we were doing one or two articles a day. I don’t know that I could do the job I’m doing right now if not for that class and that experience. I mean, Bill Drummond’s J200 class required us to be read-in” — having read all the papers, listened to the radio, watched TV, gotten up to date on the latest news — “and well dressed by like 7 or 8 in the morning. And what do I have to do now? I have to be well read, read-in, and well dressed every day. I have to do stories about random things I know nothing about very, very quickly. So getting all those reps in was invaluable.”

Keith mentions that it’s a good thing she got in to UC Berkeley — both as an undergrad and as a graduate — because it’s the only place she applied. She seems practiced at deflecting the praise she earns for things like completing that philosophy major in three years and becoming the youngest person to enroll in the J-School. When the J-School reaches out to do this profile, Keith writes, “I’m pretty boring. Super driven. Lucky, etc.”

Her drive, luck, etc. have brought Keith, most recently, to the presidential campaign trail as one of the most listened to political reporters in the country. Tracking Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House gets Keith out of the White House — NPR’s stuffy little booth there defies the expectations of glamour a J-School student might have of such a high-profile job — but it’s also a dream come true.

“When I was in J-School, someday I wanted to cover a presidential campaign for real,” Keith says. “That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a really, really long time. This is the first time that I am all in, doing it. And it’s pretty exciting.”

Keith sees it as an advantage that she hasn’t covered the Clintons much before, noticing that reporters with more Bill and Hillary experience seem to have “baggage” and what Keith calls “Clintons PTSD.” She also hopes to set NPR’s Clinton coverage apart by looking for stories “outside the bubble” of the campaign, its buses and scheduled events. For example, when Clinton was in Nevada for an immigration announcement this spring, Keith “did that same-day story, but also stuck around.”

“I interviewed this guy for what I thought was a different feature, about Dreamers and their parents. Turns out he was one of the people [Clinton] met with,” so Keith turned it into a campaign story. “I had this great scene with him at work, cleaning swimming pools and talking about how he got there and his family’s experiences. I was able to do a story that had more depth and human element than if I had just taken the press release and booked my flight.”

Whether Clinton makes it to the Oval Office or not, Keith expects she will return and cover the next administration “for at least a couple of years.”

“I started covering the White House at a really sucky time to start covering a White House,” Keith says, calling President Obama’s second term “the beginning of the end. Not as much happens. Not as much policy gets made. It’s the B team and the C team. So it will be nice to cover a new administration. I would like to meet the A team, work with the A team.”

When it’s her turn to ask a question in the White House briefing room, often a national stage and sometimes live in prime time, NPR listeners may notice Keith’s offbeat approach.

“I have sort of a different philosophy about question asking than a lot of people do,” she says. “My goal when I’m asking questions is to surprise. My goal when I’m asking questions is not to prove how smart I am. It’s not to prove how much I know. Sometimes I ask really dumb-sounding questions because I know I’ll get a better answer.

“My general philosophy is short questions. Short, direct questions, and/or short, direct, funny questions, or just slightly off, like with phrasing that is not the standard phrasing. Like asking a member of Congress, shortly before a fiscal cliff, ‘Is this going to be fiscal Armageddon?’ That’s not the technical question, that kind of throws them off the game a little bit and then they have to actually think. Because I want them to think. I don’t want them to use talking points. They’re very well prepared, they are ready to use their talking points, and if you can phrase it in such a way that they have to think just a little bit “_ you’re likely to get a slightly more human, slightly better, less scripted answer.

“I’ve had lots of practice because I covered Arnold Schwarzenegger in California,” Keith continues. “He was masterful. He was so good at just tearing apart your question. Like if you had one little imprecision in the way you asked it, you would give him an out. So that was really excellent preparation for what I have to deal with now.”

By Jenna Lane


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