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The reporter on the Hill

Alexander Panetta, the Washington, D.C., Canadian Press correspondent, gets the stories Canadians need to hear.
March 29, 2017
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By Lucas Napier-Macdonald

Alexander Panetta, BA (comm. studies) 00, often wrestles with what news to report to his countrymen.

Certain stories, like the election of Donald Trump, are obvious must-tells for the Canadian Press Washington, D.C., correspondent.

“I didn’t struggle with the story I had to tell on November 8,” he says of the 2016 vote. “It was a ground-shifting event for people back home.”

Alexander Panetta Alexander Panetta at Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017.

Others, however, aren’t quite as straightforward. As a foreign correspondent for a Canadian outlet, Panetta must often neglect big American news because he thinks another story has greater implications in Canada.

On March 24, for instance, every live TV camera in Washington covered a house committee announcing plans to question Trump’s former campaign manager about ties to Russia. Panetta, on the other hand, was writing about Trump approving the Keystone pipeline, an oil expressway that will plough all the way from Alberta to Texas.

As the reporter puts it: “The number three or four or five story in Washington is sometimes the number-one Washington story affecting Canadians.”

Likewise, back in December, all the major dailies covered the death of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. That day, Panetta reported Trump’s announcement that a “buy American” clause would be added to his proposed $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

“Three-quarters of our exports go to the U.S., and now our fundamental trade relationship is up for discussion. If Canadian journalists aren’t asking about this in Washington, there’s a chance nobody here will,” he says.

To Americans, the potential renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is not a big story, at least not yet, Panetta says. Very few of his American colleagues are probing their politicians with questions about it. Yet it has huge implications for Canadians. Their lumber, dairy, digital, rights, pharmaceuticals and about a dozen other things would be affected by any alterations.

The reporter says that he is doing his best to be the eyes that Canadians need in the States, especially now.

A Montrealer abroad

So how exactly does a son of Italian Montreal schoolteachers find himself, all for the very same job, visiting the Amish during a presidential election, travelling to two dozen countries, including four trips to Afghanistan, stepping into the oval office, and addressing Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — the last twice, and with panache?

In 1996, fresh out of Montreal’s Marianopolis College, Panetta enrolled in Concordia’s Department of Journalism. As part of his orientation, representatives from The Link student newspaper visited his classroom, bringing with them a sign-up sheet on which students could tick off sections of interest. Panetta selected every single one.

“That day checking a bunch of boxes, not giving it much thought but being willing to do or try anything, that really changed my life,” Panetta says.

He became sports editor for The Link, a position that “desperately” needed filling, he recalls. After graduating, he scored a sports editor job at the Chronicle, the now-defunct Montreal West Island newspaper.

In 2001, CP hired him as its Quebec City correspondent, and then quickly promoted him to Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa in 2003. He worked that beat for six years until returning to Montreal to be CP’s news editor, in 2009. While doing that, he accepted a position at Concordia, teaching writing and reporting classes to Graduate Diploma in Journalism students.

He came back to Montreal because he missed the city, he says. However, when in 2013 the Canadian Press called offering him the D.C. spot, he couldn’t resist.

“For four years, I was editing copy. I was young, though. When this opportunity to go to Washington came up, I jumped on it,” he says. “To get the chance to be a foreign correspondent and to move to an interesting city, I mean, come on!”

Through it all, he always remembered his orientation and The Link’s classroom visit.

“When I was teaching at Concordia, one of my lessons was check every box,” Panetta says. “You just never know which one will lead to an open door.”

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