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NPR CEO Defends Journalist After Pompeo Lashes Out Over Ukraine Interview


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NPR’s Michel Martin asks NPR’s CEO, John Lansing, to respond to an All Things Considered interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Audio Transcript


MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We’d like to revisit a story that first broke yesterday and has continued developments today. Yesterday, my colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered, met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department to discuss the Trump administration’s policies regarding Iran and Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Do you owe Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch an apology?

MIKE POMPEO: You know, I agreed to come on your show, today, to talk about Iran. That’s what I intend to do. I know what our Ukraine policy has been now for three years of this administration. I’m proud of the work we’ve done. This administration delivered the capability for the Ukrainians to defend themselves. President Obama showed up with MREs. We showed up with Javelin missiles. The previous administration did nothing to take down corruption in Ukraine. We’re working hard on that. We’re going to continue to do it. I just don’t have…

KELLY: I confirmed with your staff last night that I would talk about Iran and Ukraine.

POMPEO: I just don’t have anything else to say about that this morning.

KELLY: I just want to give you another opportunity to answer this because, as you know, people who work for you in your department, people who have resigned from this department under your leadership, saying you should stand up for the diplomats who work here.

POMPEO: I don’t know who these unnamed sources are you’re referring to. I can tell you this.

KELLY: These are not unnamed sources.

POMPEO: When I talk to my team…

KELLY: This is your senior adviser, Michael McKinley, a career foreign service officer with four decades’ experience, who testified under oath that he resigned in part due to the failure of the State Department to offer support to foreign service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry on Ukraine.

POMPEO: Yeah, I’m not going to comment on things that Mr. McKinley may have said. I’ll say only this. I have defended every State Department official. We’ve built a great team. The team that works here is doing amazing work around the world.

KELLY: Sir, respectfully, where have you defended Marie Yovanovitch?

POMPEO: I’ve defended every single person on this team. I’ve done what’s right for every single person on this team.

KELLY: Can you point me toward your remarks, where you have defended Marie Yovanovitch?

POMPEO: I’ve said all I’m going to say today. Thank you. Thanks for the repeated opportunity to do so. I appreciate that.

MARTIN: But following the interview, something happened that most journalists consider highly unusual. Here’s how Mary Louise Kelly described it yesterday to her co-host, Ari Shapiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KELLY: Moments later, the same staffer who had stopped the interview reappeared, asked me to come with her – just me, no recorder, though she did not say we were off the record, nor would I have agreed. 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.

MARTIN: Now, the secretary of state did not respond yesterday. But earlier today, he responded with this statement. And I’m going to read it in its entirety.

It says, quote, “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 his 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,” unquote. That’s the statement in its entirety.

Now, we have heard from many journalists and analysts today – both here at NPR and from around the country – who feel that this attack on Mary Louise Kelly’s veracity and integrity, personally and on the media generally, demands a response. So we have requested one from NPR CEO John Lansing. And he is here with us now in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JOHN LANSING, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I want to make it clear that we requested that you speak with us and that no NPR executives had anything to do with this decision. So with that being said, we’d like to ask – what is your response to the secretary’s statement?

LANSING: Well, my first response is that Mary Louise Kelly is one of the most respected, truthful, factual, professional and ethical journalists in the United States. And that’s known by the entire press corps. And I stand behind her. And I stand behind the NPR newsroom. And the statement from the secretary of state is blatantly false.

MARTIN: I want to point out that NPR’s senior vice president of news, Nancy Barnes, also put out a statement earlier today, saying Mary Louise Kelly has always conducted herself with the utmost integrity. And we stand behind this report.

John Lansing, how do you understand the secretary of state’s statement? Let’s sort of unpack it here. I mean, I want to point out that he did not dispute the facts of what she reported.

LANSING: He did not dispute the facts as she reported them based on the conversation that occurred after the interview when he had the expletive-filled rage. I think that’s important to point out. I think it’s also important to point out that Mary Louise Kelly has an email chain with Katie Martin, an aide to the secretary of state, confirming that she would be discussing Ukraine. So that’s a provably false statement. And it’s also important to point out that no journalist would agree to go behind closed doors with the secretary of state and agree to go off the record. That would just be something no honorable journalist would do.

MARTIN: Do you have the impression that the administration feels that because they asserted this – you know, that he claims that he asserted that this was off the record that that somehow is dispositive? I mean, do you have the impression that their view of it is whatever they say goes no matter what the other party agrees to?

LANSING: That’s not the way the rules of the road work between a – the duty of a journalist and the duty of a government official is to get the truth out to the American people. And if there’s something that’s going to be off the record, it has to be agreed upon by both parties.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of – and forgive me if this is a sensitive matter. Do you feel that gender may be a factor here? Because, you know, other journalists have had contentious interviews with the secretary of state that have not resulted in this expletive-filled, enraged response. And so the question becomes – do you think that gender’s an actor here?

LANSING: I think it’s a question worth asking. I don’t know that we can know the answer to that. Others may know the answer to that, having had more personal firsthand experience with the secretary. But I can’t say that for sure. But whether it was aimed at a woman or a man, it was outrageous and inappropriate.

MARTIN: I want to ask based on your background, both in domestic news and in international news. Prior to coming to NPR, you were the chief executive of the government agency that oversees Voice of America, Radio and Television Marti, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where your goal – the goal of these entities is to spread American values, American press values and standards throughout the world. And I’d like to ask if you have experience with journalists who work for these entities being treated, similarly. Is there something unusual about this for people who think, perhaps, this is just the normal course of business?

LANSING: It’s not unusual for there to be tension between government officials and journalists because journalists are – as I said, their duty is to ask difficult questions. And it could be painful, sometimes, to have to answer difficult questions. And so the idea that there’s tension there is common, both in the international media space and in the domestic media space. But this goes well beyond tension. This goes towards intimidation. And let me just say this. We will not be intimidated.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I’d like to ask – this is a question that some of the people who cover the news media have been asking. What is the appropriate way for journalists to address an administration where briefings with a group – groups of journalists, on-the-record briefings have become increasingly rare and we have heard from journalists who cover other entities, other departments, that name-calling, screaming, you know, attempts at public humiliation have become something that other journalists have been acquainted with?

Is there a new standard here that journalists should – or new approach that, perhaps, journalists should take? I mean, it’s – it has been considered appropriate to seek comment from the decision-makers, directly and on the record. Is there anything that should be done, differently, in your view, going forward?

LANSING: Look. I think our role as journalists is to not become the story. The story is not about us. It’s not about NPR. It’s not about journalism. Journalism is the same now as it was before, and it’s seeking and reporting the truth. It may be more difficult now.

But I will say this. In the case we’re discussing with Mary Louise Kelly’s reporting, she did everything by the book. She had – she pre-approved the subject matter through emails that were confirmed, she asked fair, well-researched and honest questions that, frankly, the American people deserve an answer to. So I have no idea what the problem was after that. But as far as Mary Louise Kelly, she operated as a journalist, a highly professional journalist would and should.

MARTIN: That is NPR CEO John Lansing. And I want to say, again, that no NPR executives were involved with the decision for you to come onto this program, and no NPR executives will be involved in the editing of this interview. John Lansing, thank you so much for joining us.

LANSING: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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