Many local media organizations, especially broadcasters, have affiliations with national networks. Sometimes this affiliate relationship is transactional, the local outlet simply buys programming, or agrees to air programming, produced by a specific national network. In public radio, a more fundamental relationship exists between National Public Radio (NPR) and each of its member stations. This relationship is rooted in a shared governance structure at NPR in which representative station managers serve on the NPR board of directors and all station managers, regardless of the size of the station they represent, have a vote on the makeup of the NPR governing board. Also central to this relationship is a shared set of values -- values that drive policies on issues ranging from journalistic standards to fundraising practices. These shared values are an absolutely essential element of the local station/NPR partnership since stations must stand behind NPR produced content that routinely airs on local station airwaves. As you might imagine, this requires a fair bit of trust between NPR and local station management—a trust that has been earned by several decades of thoughtful discussion, candid communication and constructive criticism. Recently, two prominent NPR journalists found themselves in the news—and their comments reminded me of the symbiotic relationship we have with NPR and the fundamental values we share.
Mary Louise Kelly
Following a contentious interview with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, All Things Considered co-host Mary Louise Kelly wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. Much of the op-ed recounted the segment of her interview with Pompeo that explored tensions with Iran, referencing an interview she had conducted earlier with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif following the killing by U.S. forces of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. But, Kelly also wrote about the importance of an independent press and the role journalists play in our democratic society. Kelly wrote:
“I write about all this now to refocus attention on the substance of the interviews, which has been overshadowed by Mr. Pompeo’s subsequently swearing at me, calling me a liar and challenging me to find Ukraine on an unmarked map.
For the record, I did. That’s not the point.
The point is that recently the risk of miscalculation – of two old adversaries misreading each other and accidentally escalating into armed confrontation—has felt very real. It occurs to me that swapping insults through interviews with journalists such as me might, terrifyingly, be as close as the top diplomats of the United States and Iran came to communicating this month.
There is a reason that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution. There is a reason it matters that people in positions of power—people charged with steering the foreign policy of entire nations—be held to account. The stakes are too high for their impulses and decisions not to be examined in as thoughtful and rigorous an interview as is possible.
Journalists don’t sit down with senior government officials in the service of scoring political points. We do it in the service of asking tough questions, on behalf of our fellow citizens. And then sharing the answers — or lack thereof — with the world.”
In a recent Time Magazine profile, Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep was asked about the notion that the appetite for thoughtful and thorough reporting is somehow governed by political inclination. Inskeep gave little credence to such an idea, responding:
“I think the whole thing about who is liberal and who is conservative, who is biased, is a way of not talking about the facts of the story at hand. It’s a way of telling people, ‘Don’t think about the facts. Don’t listen to this person because I say they shouldn’t be listened to.’ The reality is that everybody who is politically engaged in America has some kind of opinion about something. As a journalist, I try to never have a final-final view of anything. Almost everybody you talk to has an opinion, which doesn’t mean they’re invalid. The question is do they make an argument that makes sense? Do they show their work? Are there facts to support what they’re saying? And that’s what we should actually be looking at, regardless of the political background of whoever we’re listening to. Do they make sense? Do they prove their case? Do they connect dots that obviously don’t connect?”
The times in which we live require a renewed commitment to our democracy by informed, engaged citizens. Central to this effort is a strong and free press—a press that illuminates issues with facts, tests claims and assumptions, pushes for real answers to clear questions and steadfastly holds those in power accountable. Each day, JPR strives to achieve these goals, advancing the quality of our civic discourse through our own independent reporting and through our partnership with NPR. Thank you for the crucial role you play in this effort by supporting our work.
Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.