The St. Olaf College Office of Alumni and Parent Relations hosted an event for students and alumni that covered the state of journalism and the experience of being a reporter in 2020. The panel, sponsored by Ole Connect and moderated by Associate Director for Alumni Professional Networks and Affinity Groups Beth Anne Thompson ’88, featured four St. Olaf alumni who’ve led distinguished careers in journalism: Jason DeRose ’97, Cat McKenzie ’92, Gretchen Morgenson ’76, and Anna Palmer ’04.
For an hour and a half, these four journalists shared their thoughts on 2020 and answered questions from an engaged audience. The discussion included their personal experiences while reporting during the pandemic, responding to the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing racial justice activism, covering the Trump administration, what they learned while students at St. Olaf, and more.
Watch the full conversation:
Jason DeRose ’97
Jason DeRose ’97 is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News based at NPR West in Culver City, CA. He edits news coverage of religion, belief, and identity from member station reporters and freelancers in seven states. DeRose has had a long career in public radio, working in various roles across the country and at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. While at St. Olaf, DeRose was an English and religion major, participated in the Great Conversation program, and was an active contributor at the campus classical radio station WCAL.
DeRose on media consumption and education:
“I think of it as plumbing. How the water comes to me can be in a PVC pipe or a lead pipe. What is actually conveyed to me? Is the thing that was shared with me on Twitter or Facebook a well-reported story from the Wall Street Journal or NPR, or is it from an organization you’ve never heard of? Is it from a PR machine for a party? I think that’s important to know.
I strongly believe we need better media education in this country. Many states have mandatory K-12 sex education, and I think we need something like that for media education. That is what you will have to interact with your entire life. You may or may not do calculus after taking calculus, but you will constantly be engaged in civic life and interacting with media.
That’s where, at the local school board level, they really need to think about how they’re creating citizens. It’s great to understand chemistry, but what you really need to understand are the civics that are going help you figure out whom to vote for.”
Cat McKenzie ’92
Cat McKenzie ’92 is executive producer of GMA3: What You Need to Know and ABC News Live, where she is the lead for special projects and breaking news. She has been the executive producer of several primetime news specials as well, including Juneteenth: A Celebration of Overcoming. Throughout her career, McKenzie has worked at many new stations across the country, including CBS affiliate WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. She originally came to St. Olaf for music, but ended up majoring in speech communications, and worked at WCAL Radio and led the St. Olaf Political Awareness Committee.
McKenzie on the murder of George Floyd and the impact it had on the nation:
“What made a change was — let’s take a look at Minnesota. We’re known for being ‘Minnesota Nice.’ We don’t burn down police stations, right? We take you a casserole when you move in. The people that were marching were not one color. You saw Blacks, Whites, Asians, and Hispanics all marching together, all holding hands, all saying ‘enough is enough.’ You also had a situation in Minneapolis where it had happened one too many times.
The great director Ava DuVernay pointed this out: the angle of the camera. It was the first time we saw one of the killings where you saw both the face of the person being killed, and the killer looking right into the camera. There was no doubt what was happening on that video. Period. So when you put all those things together and mix it up in a bowl, you get what happened. That’s why there was such a change.
And the fact that we were in a pandemic, and people had been stuck at home all summer and winter. This was the thing that was going to make them get out. This was the thing where they said ‘I’m willing to risk getting a virus that has no cure or vaccine yet, that might kill me, because my life is actually worth more and I’ve got to make the world better for those coming after me.’”
Gretchen Morgenson ’76
Gretchen Morgenson ’76 is the senior financial reporter in the Investigations unit at NBC News, and former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. In 2002 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on Wall Street. She has also won three Gerald Loeb Awards and is a co-author of Reckless Endangerment, a best-selling 2011 book about the origins of the 2008 financial crisis. At St. Olaf, Morgenson was an English major. She has served as a member of the Board of Regents since 2012.
Morgenson on the the best types of sources:
“A lot of journalists — starting out or new graduates — that want to know how the world works and how I pursue what I do, often think that the great ‘get’ or the goal of a story is to get the CEO to talk to you. I am here to tell you that the best stories I’ve ever done in my life came from low-level employees or people who were seeing something going wrong at their organization and were wanting to raise their hand and identify it.
You have an idea that the CEO is the person that is going to give you the best information because they presumably know a lot about the company they are running and have it all at their fingertips. It’s really the opposite. You’re never going to get anything fresh from the CEO. It’s all very managed, and it’s a dance. The truth is probably not going to come from that corner office. Cultivating people who really have the same goals as you do, to get something significant — the truth — out to the public, those are the richest sources.”
Anna Palmer ’04
Anna Palmer ’04 is CEO and Founder of Punchbowl News, a new membership-based news community that was recently profiled in the New York Times. She was the senior Washington correspondent for POLITICO, and has covered congressional leadership, the lobbying industry, presidential campaigns, and the politics of governing for more than 15 years. Palmer is the co-author of the best-selling book The Hill to Die On: The Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump’s America, which was the inside story of Congress in the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. From 2016 to 2020, she was the co-author of the top-rated POLITICO Playbook franchise, which chronicled President Donald Trump’s first term, and his relationship with top Congressional leaders. At St. Olaf she was an English and political science major, and led The Manitou Messenger (now called The Olaf Messenger).
Palmer on covering President Donald Trump and his administration:
“It was an exhausting four years to be in the media in Washington. I didn’t get into this business to be the enemy of anybody and I don’t think any of my colleagues did. I think the relationship [Trump] had soured pretty quickly with the media on day one with the lies about how many people were at his inauguration. There was this constant fact-checking … You want to be fair, you don’t want to be negative on anybody, but at some point there he made things purposefully contentious.
I’ve sat in the Oval Office with him and interviewed him. His public portrayal — that the media is terrible and the enemy of the state — and how he would act during a sit-down interview was very different. He’s a showman. He’s a salesman. He was in the entertainment business for years and can be very solicitous. And you see these two different sides of the coin.
Any person who is in public office understands how to use the media to their benefit. They got there because they know how to get into headlines and stories to push their positions through the media. So I have a lot of complicated feelings about the President, particularly because of what happened on January 6 to a place I’ve spent the majority of my career in. I do think he played a massive role in the friction and that adversarial relationship. Every president feels they get treated poorly by the media, but he took it to the next level, on steroids, to how adversarial he was.”