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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


‘Chorus of pressure’: Washington Post opinion columnist Catherine Rampell’s rise to journalistic prominence

‘I hope my legacy is that I nudged policy in a slightly better direction – that is what I aspire to do every time I write,’ Rampell says
Lauren Weitkamp/La Follette

Catherine Rampell’s parents still have a copy of the ‘Nosy News,’ a school newspaper she started when she was in third grade. The small newspaper was just the start of Rampell’s reputable and reformative career in journalism.

Rampell went on to become an economic and political commentator for CNN, a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and a talented and influential opinion columnist for the Washington Post, advocating for policy reform through her twice-weekly column.

Being a journalist, Rampell said, is the coolest job in the world.


“You get to spend all of your time doing something really engaging, and I hope, at least in my career, potentially making a difference on policy or improving people’s lives,” Rampell said. “It’s the writing aspect of it. It’s the reporting aspect of it. And it’s the accountability and public impact aspect of it that really appealed to me.”

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Rampell is the University of Wisconsin La Follette School of Public Affairs’ spring journalist in residence and will give a virtual talk May 2 about her extensive data-oriented reporting on economics, immigration, public policy and politics. May 4, Rampell will be a keynote panelist at the 2022 La Follette forum on American Power, Prosperity and Democracy in Madison.

As a prolific columnist, Rampell’s work centers on providing a solid argument with potential solutions. From there, she builds an argument that’s entertaining, interesting and accessible to the general public.

“[The column] is 750 to 800 words,” Rampell said. “So I can’t solve all the world’s problems in that space. But I do try to be oriented towards not just complaining about something.”

In 2014, Rampell became one of the youngest opinion columnists in the journalism world. Leading up to her breakout, Rampell wrote unsigned editorials at her Washington Post internship in 2007, where she built a great relationship with her boss. Rampell then worked at the Chronicle of Higher Education for four months before running an economics blog at the New York Times from 2008 to 2014. This timing was key, as the Great Recession began in 2008, allowing her to showcase her knowledge of economics.

“This is always the conflict that journalists have,” Rampell said. “Your big breaks are often at the expense of relatively bad news.”

By the time Rampell’s former boss from the Washington Post asked her to write a full-time opinion column, she was more than qualified. Aside from her impressive resume, Rampell was influenced by Maureen Dowd and William Safire’s opinion columns in the New York Times.

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Ultimately, Rampell wants to leave a legacy of someone who used their journalism to nudge policy in the right direction – a legacy she is already living out.

“The pieces that I’m proudest of are not necessarily the ones that got the most traffic or otherwise got the most attention, but where I can say, ‘this person’s life improved because I used this platform I’ve been blessed with to shine a light on their issue.’” Rampell said.

One such story, titled ‘Biden can easily lift the refugee ceiling. So why hasn’t he?,’ exposed an unfulfilled promise from the Biden administration to lift the restrictive criteria set during the Trump-era for refugees seeking residence in the United States. The requirements ruled out most people from Africa and almost all refugees from Muslim majority countries.

Though Biden promised to change these rules, he never signed the paperwork. Confused by this, Rampell extensively researched this issue and interviewed many individuals affected by the policy. Biden signed the paperwork and lifted the refugee cap within two months of Rampell’s article being published.

I’m not obviously solely responsible for that, but I do think that I was writing about it in a higher profile platform than then many, relatively early on,” Rampell said. “I like to think that that helped at least build this chorus of pressure for the president to change.”

Rampell felt the effect of her work on individual lives. One man who had been in the refugee system for a decade was able to get a ticket to the U.S. when Biden lifted the ceiling. The man sent Rampell an email thanking her for her advocacy and for covering an issue it seemed nobody else cared about.

Some feedback is not as positive. As an opinion columnist covering hot topics such as politics, immigration, public policy and economics in the polarized national political climate, feedback on her work is common.

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“There’s peer pressure and your friends are gonna be mad at you,” Rampell said. “People who thought you were their ally are going to be mad at you. And you just have to say, ‘It’s worth it.’ I’d rather stick to my principles than live in fear of people being angry at me.”

Rampell said she has grown a thick skin throughout the past eight years, especially given many of her critiques are on the basis of her gender. Rampell is constantly reminded she is a woman, she said, and has recieved rape threats and emails with sexist expletives. Rather than let these critiques get to her, she said it proves she is good at her job.

“I should be flattered that they’re taking the time to call me all the names that they’re calling me,” Rampell said.

Rampell’s advice to young journalists is to “know something about something.”

In other words, she suggests pairing writing talent with in-depth knowledge of another subject. She even discourages students from majoring in journalism, instead suggesting that they pursue it as a side hustle. Rampell also encourages people to focus on multimedia skills and coding — skills that will stand out against other job candidates.

“There are a lot of journalists who can write a pretty sentence and interview people,” Rampell said. “But there are many fewer journalists who have some subject matter expertise in areas that are really in demand.”

Rampell is excited to visit the “beautiful city” of Madison, which she last visited in 2019 to speak at the Cap Times Idea Fest. Other than Madison’s appeal as a city, Rampell is excited to talk about and listen to the topics that will be discussed at the forum May 4, specifically inflation.

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“This is a conference where we’ll be talking about some big policy issues that are of interest to me,” Rampell said. “[Other topics will include] the state of the economy post pandemic, how economic factors are potentially influencing politics as we head into the midterms and some other greater geopolitical concerns.”

More information about Rampell’s virtual event May 2 can be found here and the 2022 La Follette Forum on American Power, Prosperity, and Democracy will be held at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center May 4 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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