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NPR's Scott Detrow to speak at WITF's Premier Circle Dinner

Written by Tim Lambert | Nov 15, 2016 12:45 PM
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Scott Detrow (center) stands with members of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade and the Iraqi Army in summer of 2009.

This was a different Donald Trump.

On August 18, the Republican presidential candidate gave a measured speech to a crowd of supporters in Charlotte, North Carolina. After a month of off-the-cuff comments, acting confrontational at every turn, and generally being a loose cannon, Trump even offered a vague apology about the things he's said during the campaign.

To NPR's Scott Detrow, this was a capital "M" moment in the 2016 presidential race -- a moment that could change the dynamics of Trump's bid to win the presidency over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Detrow, a political reporter at NPR for more than a year, now finds himself in the midst of one of the most bizarre campaigns in American history. It's a spot he's worked toward since beginning his career at WITF in the fall of 2007.

"I feel like it's been the fastest year of my life," he said.

For an idea of how grueling the campaign trail can be, consider Detrow's schedule for one week in September. He was in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and then back to New York. His workload? He filed several 40 second stories for NPR newscasts, wrote four minute stories that aired on Morning Edition or All Things Considered and talked with hosts on both those shows about the latest news from the road.

Covering the fast-paced world of presidential politics can be a challenge for a journalist. The demands of the 24-7 news cycle could drain stories of context, fact checks and more detailed reporting. For Detrow, he leans on the experience he gained through a variety of roles when he worked in central Pennsylvania.

The Fordham University graduate was a part of the WITF newsroom for a little more than five years. He started as a reporter/All Things Considered (ATC) host in 2007. Then, he was promoted to state Capitol bureau chief before joining the collaborative project StateImpact Pennsylvania. He also spent several weeks in the summer of 2009 as WITF's first and only war correspondent, covering the Pennsylvania National Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade training and deployment in Iraq.

"Every, single day on the campaign trail, I see value in all three of my WITF jobs, particularly the Capitol job and StateImpact. Working out of the Capitol for several years was probably one of the most important periods of my life. Obviously, I met my now-wife doing that, so that helps a little bit, but just learning about how to cover the news every single day," he said laughing." StateImpact Pennsylvania was the flipside of the coin. That taught me how to take the time to do the right reporting, find the right facts, but also write it in an interesting way that brings people along with you."

He points to the 2008 Democratic primary in Pennsylvania between then Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for stoking his interest in politics. For the first time in years, the commonwealth mattered in a national election and Detrow pushed to be the one who covered it at WITF as much as possible.

"It was the historic nature of that race. The dynamics made it clear that a Democrat was probably going to win that year. Someone running to be the first black president versus someone running to be the first female president," he said. "The stakes of it felt like more than just an election itself. It felt like which one of us is going to be the historical figure that's remembered hundreds of years from now. You could feel that at every event."

Fast forward eight years, Detrow is now covering the Trump campaign and the feeling among voters has changed primarily to anger.

"Republican voters are angry at the stagnation of the economy. They felt like they've been left behind. They feel like they've been let down by government," he said. "You can just feel the room crackle with frustration and anger. I say that a lot because you really do feel an edge in the crowd when Trump will start criticizing Hillary Clinton or talking about the economy."

Detrow brings a conversational style to his reporting, but is always willing to try new approaches in the constantly changing journalism landscape. He has long realized the importance of digital journalism. During his time at WITF, he was an early proponent of using Twitter, began his own Pennsylvania politics blog while covering the Capitol and as part of StateImpact Pennsylvania, produced some of the commonwealth's best explanatory, data-driven journalism on how government decisions on energy policy affect people's lives. He always pushed boundaries and explored new ways to deliver news and information to the audience, while upholding the highest journalistic standards. His reporting has earned some of broadcast journalism's highest honors -- two National Edward R. Murrow awards and a share of a national duPont-Columbia Silver Baton.

WITF listeners haven't forgotten his work, either. They are quick to tweet a message of support when they hear his stories on NPR and often bring his name up at station events, like News and Brews. Many get a kick out of hearing one of their own on the national network.

"I'm very attached to central Pennsylvania," he said. "I came back to Harrisburg and got married there, so that says a lot."

While embedded with the 56th Stryker Brigade in Iraq, Detrow painted a picture of what life was like being deployed in a war zone. Sometimes, it was absurd - like when a guardsman, who was 10-year veteran of the state police, noticed a Jeep in Iraq with an expired Pennsylvania inspection and emissions sticker. Other times, he broke news, such as how guardsmen and women weren't receiving their stipends because a state budget impasse.

"We always have these ideas of what the experience is like for soldiers who spend you know...nine months or a year deployed in a war zone. When you kind of try to envision what the day-to-day life is like for them over there, it's kind of a blank slate," he says. "My goal was to fill that in a little. We did stories on just how boring life on base was. But we also did stories where we road on patrol and just how tense that was. I just saw how it went from mundane to everybody freaking out in the span of a second. To me, that just shows just how tense and how hard that assignment is for those guys."

Two incidents he chronicled stand out. In one case, a U.S. patrol shot a flare across the road and led the group of soldiers he was with to think they were under attack. The other was a foot patrol that was interrupted when a car disobeyed a U.S. soldier order to stop. It finally did - at gunpoint.

"That still might be one of my favorite stories I've ever done...just the interview with that guy afterwards. He's clearly decompressing, chain smoking and just walking through what he did and thinking through his actions," he said. "That's a moment that sticks with me. He was cool-headed in that situation, but it could have turned out differently. I just remember seeing it happen, backing against the wall and then looking down at my notebook and realizing I had subconsciously written in all caps, 'GUN.'"

Detrow left WITF in early 2013 to head up KQED's Sacramento bureau chief. NPR hired him last year to cover tech issues during the presidential campaign. But, his job shifted and he was soon covering the crowded Republican primary. Then, he was contributing to the NPR Politics podcast, including a hilarious take on why the politics of the Star Wars universe makes no sense. But, the biggest surprise came when he was asked to serve as the networks' national host for live primary coverage.

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Scott Detrow at work in the NPR studios.

"At first, it was the scariest experience I've ever had in my life. I was surprised at how quickly it became something that was normal and I just did it." he said.

A highlight was hosting coverage of the Indiana GOP primary. As the night wore on, word began to circulate that Texas Senator Ted Cruz would drop out of the race, essentially making Donald Trump the Republican nominee for president. Suddenly, NPR's plan to provide one hour of live coverage changed and an additional two hours was added.

Detrow said he never would have imagined doing some of the assignments he's been given. But, he's grateful for every chance he's had to grow as a journalist and travel the country talking to voters. Most importantly, he's thrilled to be a part of the NPR politics team, working with the likes of Don Gonyea, Tamara Keith, Sam Sanders and Asma Khalid.

"I've learned so much from my co-workers. I feel like I'm always being challenged in a good way. Everybody is supportive for this really bizarre experience," he said. "I feel like we're in a submarine together with the daily deadlines, daily travel and just the weirdness of covering the campaign."


Detrow will be the special guest speaker for this year's Premier Circle dinner on November 17. The annual event celebrates WITF's most generous donors. 

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