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‘A point of comparison’: Francine Kiefer on how one beat informs another (audio)

Francine Kiefer on how one beat informs another

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The first thing that struck me about Francine Kiefer was her intensity. She was the Monitor’s congressional correspondent at the time, and I remember thinking I’d never seen anyone get so excited about their beat. She happily gushed about the staff at the press gallery, readily gave advice on getting quotes from members of Congress, and constantly assured me that the Hill overwhelms everyone at first.

I was also struck by how Francine could sustain such passion after decades on the job. She’s been a reporter for about 30 years, most of them with the Monitor. Besides Congress, she’s covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, and multiple White House administrations.

She’s since moved to Southern California to become our West Coast bureau chief. But I’m very grateful to have benefited from both her energy and her wisdom while our paths crossed in Washington. In this audio special, Francine and I talk about how she balances experience with openness, adapts to a changing reporting landscape, and takes a personal interest in her readers.

“Rethinking the News” is a podcast that aims to make room for constructive conversations across a range of perspectives, and bring Monitor journalism straight to your ears. To learn more about the podcast and find new episodes, please visit our page. 

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AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

Samantha Laine Perfas: Welcome to “Rethinking the News,” a podcast by The Christian Science Monitor. Here, we create space for constructive conversations across a range of perspectives, to give you the information you need to come to your own conclusions. 

My name is Samantha Laine Perfas. I’m one of the producers. This holiday season, we’re doing something special. We’re talking to veteran Monitor staff and amazing new additions to our roster about how they bring a fresh, balanced perspective to their reporting, and find the humanity and compassion behind today’s headlines.

Today, we’ve got Francine Kiefer. She’s been a journalist for more than 30 years. She’s spent most of them at the Monitor. Over the years, Francine has covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, as well as the White House and Congress from Washington, D.C. 

Our staffer Jessica Mendoza talks to Francine about how her experience gives her an edge, what she’s learned from covering women leaders over the years, and why she responds to every reader email she gets. 

[Music]

Jessica Mendoza: Hi, everyone. I’m Jessica Mendoza, multimedia reporter here at the Monitor. Today, I’m talking to Francine Kiefer, our West Coast bureau chief. She’s had the position for coming on two years now. And two things struck me the first time I met Francine. I was visiting D.C. She was our congressional correspondent at the time and we met at the Capitol because she’d offered to give me a tour. And as we walked, I remember thinking, ‘I’d never met anyone who could get so excited about Congress,’ whether she was talking about the people in the press gallery or the frescoes on the walls or the kinds of stories you can find just by being there. And as I got to know her better, I realized that that energy was just something Francine carries with her. She pours it into every story she writes, and it’s what makes her such a joy to work with. But what really makes her story sing is that she brings experience along with that energy. France, you were with The San Jose Mercury News for a while and you spent about five years covering the Hill for the Monitor. How do you bring your experience to bear in a year like 2020 when so many unprecedented events are happening?

Francine Kiefer: I am excited as a journalist, and I am excited about reporting from the West Coast because I have a point of comparison and historical context that other correspondents here may not have. You know, now that I’m back in California, I can see the changes over time. And that has alerted me to important trends. One of those is the incredible rise in Latino political power. Back when I lived in California 25 years ago, undocumented immigration was just a huge and controversial issue. At the time, Pete Wilson, a Republican, was governor and he was running for reelection. And I remember an ad that he ran. It showed unauthorized immigrants darting past the San Diego border crossing, literally running between cars on the California side. And a really ominous voiceover announced, ‘They keep coming.’

It was hugely controversial. And at the same time, Governor Wilson backed a ballot initiative that cut off the undocumented from important state services, basic things like public schools and most health care. And that ballot initiative passed by a wide margin. But here’s the thing about that. That galvanized Latinos in the state to become citizens, to vote, to seek elective office. And today, a quarter of the state legislature is Latino. Los Angeles has had two back to back Latino mayors. The state attorney general is Latino and attitudes have just turned 180 degrees. And there are new laws that benefit immigrants. It’s really a remarkable change. So when I moved back, I was just struck by the difference and I wrote a cover story about it. And that story won first prize this year in magazine writing for the Los Angeles Press Club.

But Jess, I know you mentioned my experience. But every reporter, no matter how senior they are, runs into new things that they know nothing about. And you just have to learn as you go. Like with this year’s pandemic. Like, in September, my editors, they wanted me to cover the Amy Coney Barrett hearings on the Hill for the Supreme Court. And I looked into returning to Washington. But upon inquiry, I quickly realized it made zero sense to return to D.C. Because of the pandemic, only ten journalists were going to be allowed in the hearing room. There was no guaranteed workspace because so many chairs had been removed from desks in the Senate press gallery. And I just thought, I can’t work really well under those conditions. So instead, I reported from my home in California. I watched the hearings on C-SPAN. I relied on pool reports from the limited number of reporters who were on the Hill. And I called experts I knew from having covered the Kavanaugh hearings a few years ago. So that was a combination of having to find a workaround and relying on my experience at the same time.

Jess: Congratulations on that award. I think I sent you a message about that before, but haven’t properly been able to congratulate you. So yay! It’s really heartening for, I think, a lot of young reporters to know that experience takes you very far, but that it’s okay to try things differently and to innovate and to adapt. But speaking of changing and adapting, a lot of big moves for women in leadership in 2020, among a lot of other changes that are happening this year. But you’ve been writing about women leaders from across the political spectrum for years now. What have you learned from covering them?

Francine: I think it’s interesting that when women members of Congress are trying to recruit other women to run, they mention the realities of trying to balance family life with weekly commuting to Washington. It’s very hard to manage without incredible support from a partner or a spouse. And that points to a deficit of child care and family care, which continues to be a challenge in this country and which I think continues to hold women back from running for political office.

But the second point was in talking about the qualities that women bring to political office. In interview after interview over the years, I’ve talked with women and men about the difference that women make in government. And the answer I hear most often is that they are consensus builders. They are problem solvers. I heard that just recently after the election when I talked to the former congresswoman, Mimi Walters, a Republican from California. And in the course of our conversation, she mentioned that her experience resolving squabbles among her four children was really important in her role as a member of Congress.

And I think it’s fascinating that while some women don’t want to talk about that, you know, they don’t talk about their womanhood, Nancy Pelosi doesn’t shy away from the relevance of her motherhood or her grandmotherhood. She likes to tell people that she raised five children under the age of six, and she uses those skills to keep her diverse caucus in line. And that’s a cantankerous caucus. And, you know, I’m curious to see what kind of a leader Senator Kamala Harris will be as vice president. When I worked on a profile about her, I talked with a staffer who had worked for her for many years, knew her really well. He said she did not shy from rebuke, but afterwards softened it with a hug. I’ve noticed the most successful women leaders seem to have that magic combination, a spine of steel and a compassionate heart that they express.

Jess: I love that. I love that you’re able to share stories from different women that you’ve written about. And 2020 has been a really difficult year for so many people, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere. People don’t trust the news as much as they once did. There’s a lot of suspicion and division. How do you think about journalism and its role in this environment? And how has working at the Monitor specifically shaped your approach?

Francine: One of the things I love about the Monitor is that when you Google it, we come out in the center in terms of bias ratings. One of our core values is fair and balanced coverage. And I take that really seriously. Really, it’s front and center in my approach to rethinking the news. Sometimes I find people don’t want to talk with me because they fear bias. And then I take the time to explain a little about the Monitor and its long history. That it was founded as kind of a beacon of objectivity and hope at a time of very sensationalist and even fabricated journalism.

So I explain a little bit about the Monitor and then I promise to send people a copy of my story so that they can judge for themselves whether I’m being fair and balanced. And in fact, I send copies of my story to every single person I interview, even if they never make it in. And I also answer every email I get from readers and I pay particular attention to people who are criticizing me. I don’t know. I think taking the time to listen and explain and follow up just shows respect for people, you know, no matter how they think.

Here – here’s an example. About a month ago, I got an email from a reader who said my Arizona story was biased in favor of Democrats. And for some reason, I felt compelled to share with her exactly how I went about my reporting. That I’d gone to two Democrat events and two Republican events, that I had talked to Democrat political consultants and Republican consultants. And that, you know, yes, my story started with Democrats, which could have given the impression that I was biased toward Democrats, but I was only starting with them because I was looking at the proposition that the state was turning blue. And the second half of my story then dealt with the Republican view of that. And then I went on to explain to her that my purpose wasn’t to favor a particular party or predict a winner.

You know, she wrote back to thank me and then tell me that she had shared my email with several of her friends. And I found that so gratifying. I find that it’s individual effort and respect in our interaction with each other that helps bridge this divide. We can’t wait for leaders to do it. We have to practice it ourselves. 

[Music]

Sam: Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, share it with your friends. Just search “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts. And to support more work like this, subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor. We’re offering discounted subscriptions this holiday season. Visit csmonitor.com/holiday for the details. This special rate will be active until early January, so sign up now! Again, that’s csmonitor.com/holiday.

This episode was produced by Ibrahim Onafeko, Jessica Mendoza, and me, Samantha Laine Perfas. Editing by Ibrahim Onafeko. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2020.

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