Aftermath Of An Interview

Jan 28, 2020

This is National News Literacy Week. In that spirit, here are some thoughts on the journalistic ethics surrounding the interview that NPR's Mary Louise Kelly conducted last week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the aftermath, prompted by questions to my office.

A quick recap: Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered, interviewed Pompeo at the State Department on Friday. Seven minutes of the interview centered on the Trump administration's Iran policy. Two minutes at the end were devoted to questions raised about Pompeo's stewardship of the State Department in the wake of Congressional hearings about the administration's Ukraine policy. As the interview shows (listen here) Pompeo objected to the Ukraine questions at the time they were asked, but then continued to answer them until Katie Martin, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department, politely ended the interview.

Had their interaction ended there, I might not be writing about this. It's what happened afterward that thrust this event into the limelight. As Kelly reported, Martin asked her to come to Pompeo's private quarters without her tape recorder, but, as Kelly told All Things Considered, Martin "did not say we were off the record, nor would I have agreed." She continued:

I was taken to the secretary's private living room where he was waiting and where he shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted. He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, do you think Americans care about Ukraine? He used the F-word in that sentence and many others. He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map; I said yes. He called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away. He said, people will hear about this. And then he turned and said he had things to do, and I thanked him again for his time and left.

The next day, Pompeo's office released this statement, which accused Kelly of lying:

NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice. First, last month, in setting up our interview and, then again yesterday, in agreeing to have our post-interview conversation off the record. It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency. This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration. It is no wonder that the American people distrust many in the media when they so consistently demonstrate their agenda and their absence of integrity.

It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine.

Lying is a serious charge and the actions that Pompeo claimed would go against NPR's ethics code, if true. But I have seen no evidence that these claims are true. Both Nancy Barnes, NPR's top news executive, and John Lansing, NPR's chief executive, publicly supported Kelly in the aftermath.

No surprise, we heard from critics who took the secretary of state at his word. Wrote a Georgia listener: Pompeo is "doing the work of the people and I have no reason not to believe Pompeo. When he requested to only discuss Iran, how dare you move the discussion to Ukraine. When he requested to make comments 'off the record' — how dare you bring them to the public."

Kelly provided me with her email exchanges with Martin, Pompeo's press secretary, on the eve of the interview. Here are the relevant parts:

Martin wrote: "Just wanted to touch base that we still intend to keep the interview to Iran tomorrow. Know you just got back from Tehran so we would like to stick to Iran as the topic as opposed to jumping around. Is that something we can agree to?"

Kelly replied: "I am indeed just back from Tehran and plan to start there. Also Ukraine. And who knows what the news gods will serve up overnight. I never agree to take anything off the table."

To which Martin replied: "... your last request that prompted this interview was about the situation in Iran. Totally understand you want to ask other topics but just hoping we can stick to that topic for a healthy portion of the interview. The Secretary knows you were just over there and have experienced a lot of what we were watching from the US. Wouldn't want to spend the interview on questions he's answered many times for the last several months. I just don't think it will yield the interesting interview we are hoping for."

And Kelly replied in the final email: "My plan is to start on Iran and, yes, to spend a healthy portion of the interview there. Iran has been my focus of late as well. And yes — I also would not want to waste time on questions he's answered many times in recent months." 

To highlight the relevant parts, Kelly stated her intention to start with Iran and devote most of the interview to the topic, and she kept to that (almost 7 minutes out of 9). Kelly let the secretary's office know that Ukraine (and possibly other topics) would be raised. Martin did not object to Kelly's stated plan ("Totally understand you want to ask other topics ..."). And Kelly said clearly that, "I never agree to take anything off the table."

Kelly told me there were no other advance conversations with Pompeo where she agreed to take any topics off the table. We can't know what Martin told Pompeo prior to the interview, but I see no evidence that Kelly broke her word. I asked Martin for comment and did not hear back. I will update this post if I do.

I prefer to let the interview and our journalism speak for themselves. - Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered

On the second issue of whether Kelly reneged on an agreement to keep the after-interview remarks off the record, there's no evidence there, either, to support Pompeo's claim. Two other NPR newsroom employees, a producer and an editor, were in the room when Martin asked Kelly to meet privately with Pompeo in his private chambers. Both told me that they heard the exchange and neither heard any mention of "off the record," which, as Kelly said, she would not have agreed to. Kelly said she, Martin and Pompeo were the only ones in Pompeo's private chambers for that portion of the conversation.

At this point I should note that there are no codified rules for the practice of journalism. But there are conventions that journalists and most public officials of Pompeo's rank try to adhere to. "Off the record" is generally accepted to mean that the information cannot be reported in any manner. And it's not enough for an official (or press secretary) to unilaterally declare it so, either before or after the fact. The journalist must agree beforehand that any information to be provided will be off the record.

As Kelly told me, "I was at the State Department on Friday to interview Mike Pompeo, and unless I agree any portion of our conversation is off the record, it's not." Some journalists will agree to go off the record just to hear what the official has to say. Many others like Kelly will not, because they do not want their hands to be tied if they learn something truly important that they then cannot report.

Was what Kelly learned in that private session fair game? Most certainly. Pompeo is the country's top diplomat. As such, his demeanor at all times is relevant information.

One other email jumped out at me, from a listener in Nantucket, Mass., who has occasionally written to my office with thoughtful questions.

Her take:

I did not want to write this comment but I felt compelled to after listening to Mary Louise Kelly interview Secretary of State Pompeo. I have to ask what is the role of the journalist? When I listened to both of them, very carefully, I heard Ms. Kelly hector and badger the Secretary of State, her voice obviously very emotional. On his side, I heard someone who was trying to control his emotions, yet not giving in to answering her repeated questions about Ukraine. Did Ms. Kelly seriously expect Secretary of State Pompeo to answer these questions or was she asking them for rhetorical effect? Was she trying to prove what a bad guy he is? Whatever she was trying to do, she succeeded in making herself the story. The relationship between the media and the White House has become toxic, and this interview did nothing to reduce the friction and animosity on both sides. I am not excusing the behavior of the Secretary of State in the aftermath of the initial interview, but I've also seen reporters bait White House officials to get an angry response that they can use to show how terrible they are.

I asked Kelly if she wanted to respond and she declined, saying, "I prefer to let the interview and our journalism speak for themselves."

And that's exactly how, in my experience, the vast majority of journalists feel. Most reporters fervently do not want to become the story, and when they do, they work to focus the attention back on their work itself. As an aside, I think NPR has been admirably restrained in how it has handled this situation in its reporting, not making it a major focus of attention.

But I'll take a stab at responding to the listener's concerns. What was the purpose of the interview? I often fall back to this American Press Institute definition of the purpose of journalism, which is "to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments." (Certainly, some news outlets also have commercial motives, but NPR is a non-profit, and the mission statement for its newsroom says it exists "to serve the public and democracy.")

When a journalist asks an elected or appointed official for an interview, the goal is to get information that can be reported to the public. In this case, Kelly wanted information about U.S. policy toward Iran, including an issue that should be of vital importance to all: How the U.S. intends to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. She also had questions about Pompeo's stewardship of the State Department, and who is running U.S. foreign policy, which citizens have every right to know.

The interviewee has an agenda, as well, usually to explain a policy or make a point, often of a political nature. Pompeo clearly wanted to explain his position on Iran in the wake of the administration's killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. He did so in answer to her second question.

Were Kelly's follow-up questions about Iran or Ukraine emotional and badgering, as the comment from the Nantucket listener heard? I certainly don't hear them that way. She asked very specific questions about policy in the case of Iran, and when she didn't get a direct answer, she asked again, as any good reporter would do. She cited evidence. She was intimately familiar with the subject, just as you hope the Secretary of State would be, since it's his department's policy.

And it's important to note that, despite Pompeo's subsequent claim, Kelly indicated to Pompeo's press secretary that she also would ask about Ukraine. Pompeo had every right to decline to answer. He did not. He said he wouldn't answer, but then kept answering. As any good interviewer would do, Kelly kept asking. That's not badgering, either. The questions weren't rhetorical; just look at his answers, which were illuminating.

For a very detailed deconstruction of Kelly's excellent interviewing techniques, read this analysis from John Barth, chief content officer at public radio producer PRX.

Is the relationship between the news media and the current White House "toxic"? It's certainly strained, to put it mildly. The president has repeatedly attacked the press and its motives.

Nonetheless, the State Department wanted to get its message out via an interview on NPR. It's not the role of the media to reduce animosity or to increase it. Instead, it should be NPR's role to report with the goal of giving citizens the information they need to make informed choices. Sometimes that requires pointed and repeated questions, whether or not the official being asked those questions likes it.

The vast majority of emails my office received expressed support for NPR and Kelly. A Virginia listener wrote that she was "deeply grateful for Ms. Kelly's clear-headedness and courage in sticking to her purpose and trying to get answers to legitimate questions of public importance. And I appreciate the editorial choices the NPR team made in presenting the interview, especially including the 'coda' and the context it gave the story."

I strongly agree. This was exemplary, ethical journalism. But as happens too often these days, this example of good journalism has gotten caught in the downward spiral of a polarized political environment — and the ultimate damage is to the public's right to know what its government is doing.

Addendum: NPR's Michele Kelemen, who covers the State Department, was scheduled to be the radio pool reporter accompanying Pompeo on his upcoming trip to Ukraine, among other places. Over the weekend, she was told by the State Department that she would not be allowed to travel with the secretary on the trip. The State Department has not yet given a reason for the action.

The State Department Correspondents' Association protested the decision, noting: "The removal of Michele, who was in rotation as the radio pool reporter, comes days after Secretary Pompeo harshly criticized the work of an NPR host. We can only conclude that the State Department is retaliating against National Public Radio as a result of this exchange."

Late Tuesday, NPR released a letter from Lansing, NPR's chief executive, to the State Department, asking for a clarification and explanation of the decision.

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