Interview: Jonetta Rose Barras

Jonetta Rose Barras has practiced an in-your-face form of journalism during her 20 years covering Washington, DC.

Jonetta Rose Barras has practiced an in-your-face form of journalism during her 20 years covering Washington, DC.

For the past three years, Barras has worked as the political analyst on the Kojo Nnamdi Show's popular DC Politics Hour on WAMU-FM, a local NPR affiliate. She also writes a column for the Washington Examiner and is a regular contributor to the Washington City Paper.

PRWeek: How has WAMU reacted to your work as a political analyst on the DC Politics Hour?

Jonetta Rose Barras: I think that they initially were a little bit uneasy with my style and a little bit uneasy with my presentation. But as that has become a little bit more polished, I think people have become more accepting. They like the kind of jugular style of journalism I bring to the show. I don't take any prisoners, essentially. And I do demand people answer the questions they're asked.

PRWeek: Have local politicians expressed reluctance to come on the DC Politics Hour because of your in-your-face style?

Barras: Yes, but not just them. There are sometimes advocates who are reluctant to come on because, if they say something stupid, I will challenge them. And I'm very honest. I can be very diplomatic like the next guy. But I tend to be purely honest about what I think and what I feel because I don't want there to be any confusion about my position on an issue. Sometimes people hear me doing an interview and they think, 'I never want to be in the room with her.' Like when we had [DC Councilman] Adrian Fenty on, when he announced [his candidacy for mayor]. I just ate Adrian Fenty for breakfast that day. I raised all the questions other people had been raising but were too polite to ask. And I tend not to be polite. It was a real intense interview for only five minutes but he handled himself very well. A politician who fares well in an interview with me is perceived very differently in the community after the interview because they know I'm not showing favors. I'm not pulling my punches. I'm asking hard questions and that's what WAMU hired me to do. If they hung in there and handled themselves well, they get plusses for that in the community.

PRWeek: How would you rate local press coverage in DC?

Barras: I would rate the press the same way the rest of the country rates the press, and that is that it has become quite mediocre. I think that many of my colleagues aren't aggressive about ferreting out the truth of an issue and this whole notion of being unbiased has compromised in some ways their ability to present the real, full story to the public. When I look at it where it was when I came into the business and where it is now, I would have to say there's been a decline.

PRWeek: What's to blame for this decline?

Barras: I think mainly it's because of the editors. There were editors at one time who really knew communities well, lived in some of these communities, and were active with people. They were engaged. I think today's editors are less engaged, and, therefore, they don't push their reporters to go the extra mile.

PRWeek: Can you describe any experiences with DC PR people?

Barras: Recently, medical malpractice has become an issue in Washington. The former spokesperson for the mayor now works with Ogilvy, and that firm was serving as the agent for the medical society and people pushing for stronger medical malpractice reform. I went to their press conference and was persuaded by the material that they presented and the arguments presented by the doctors that there really does need to be reform on this issue.

There was a hole in their argument because there was no discussion about what to do about the insurance companies themselves. But I had to thank the PR agent for sending me the information and getting me connected to the issue in a way that fully informed me to a point that, when we had an opposing view on the radio show, I could challenge that view.

PRWeek: What is your general opinion of the PR industry?

Barras: I think PR pros are critical to the public information process when they are candid and open. I think PR has gotten a bad name with how the Bush administration and the feds have used PR agents and PR companies, and I think that has sullied the reputation of the industry. They still have that cleaning up to do. But when an organization is up front about who it represents and what it's doing, I think it aids in the process of educating the public and helping people to form an opinion about a particular aspect of how the world operates.

PRWeek: How do you compare working as a radio commentator to your work as a newspaper columnist?

Barras: I'm still in my infant stage in radio. There are things in analysis that I would think about after I've gotten off the air. 'I should have said this. I should have said that.' And that's partly because when you're on the air, you're receiving comments from the public or your guests, and you're having to fuse those into your thinking and articulate it an intelligent way so that you're not babbling. It's a very complex process done in a matter of seconds. And one has to be really skilled at that. I don't see myself as being particularly skilled at that yet, certainly not as skilled as I am in my writing, which allows more time to reflect. That suits me very nicely because I used to write poetry and I wrote fiction. So for a person who has that background, you want to have time to reflect and engage the thought process itself and to anticipate what the reader might say back to you when they're reading it.

Name: Jonetta Rose Barras

Radio show: DC Politics Hour on WAMU

Title: Journalist, commentator

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