One brave political reporter raises the bar for her timid colleagues

Mary Louise Kelly with producer Becky Sullivan in North Korea in 2018
Mary Louise Kelly with producer Becky Sullivan in North Korea in 2018 (NPR photo)

Mary Louise Kelly stood her ground.

Kelly, who is the host of NPR’s All Things Considered and a veteran national security correspondent, made the best of her on-the-record interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by posing tough questions and calling him out when he answered with lies.

Then, after he summoned her to his office, tried unsuccessfully to challenge her competence, and cursed her out, she went public.

It’s not often that supporters of accountability journalism have the occasion to celebrate the courage of Washington’s elite political journalists – and from NPR, no less. Too many political reporters choose to pull their punches to maintain access.

But read, for instance, former PEN America Center president Francine Prose’s appreciation of Kelly in the Guardian:

A model of inquisitorial technique, she calmly talked over him even when he was loud and insistent. She knew when to reframe his assertion as a question, when to pose her query in the simplest possible terms. She knew when to cite the facts that contradicted Pompeo’s claims.

Media critics applauded.

Just in case you haven’t heard or read the interview, here is how it ended. It is a great example of  best practices:

POMPEO: I’m not going to – I appreciate that. I appreciate you want to continue to talk about this. I agreed to come on your show today to talk about…
KELLY: And you appreciate that the American public wants to know, as a shadow foreign policy, as a back channel policy on Ukraine was being developed, did you try to block it?
POMPEO: The Ukraine policy’s been run from the Department of State for the entire time that I have been here, and our policy was very clear.
KELLY: Marie Yovanovitch testified…
POMPEO: I’ve been clear about that.
KELLY: …Under oath that Ukraine policy was hijacked.
POMPEO: I’ve been clear about that. I know exactly what we were doing. I know precisely what direction that the State Department gave to our officials around the world about how to manage our Ukraine policy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for your time. Thank you.
KELLY: Secretary, thank you. Thank you.

And here is Kelly describing the epilogue:

What is happening there is an aide has stopped the interview, said, we’re done; thank you. And you heard me thank the secretary. He did not reply. He leaned in, glared at me and then turned and, with his aides, left the room. 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.

Pompeo issued an outrageous statement on Saturday, falsely accusing Kelly of having lied to him, and citing her conduct as “another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration.”

Several news reports established that Kelly had not lied at all. Journalists jumped to her defense:

It’s great to see a reporter stand up to an administration official. And it’s important to note that unlike so many of her fellow reporters, she kept every part of her interaction with Pompeo on the record.

The takeaway from this interaction is particularly valuable because Pompeo has emerged as the second-glibbest – if not first-glibbest – liar in the Trump administration. As secretary of state, and CIA director before that, he has lied about pretty much every important thing imagineable, including of course the still-never-explained decision to assassinate Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Kelly reminded us of what journalist are supposed to do: stand up to power; represent the public and its right to know; call out lies; don’t back down.

(I do feel obliged to put Kelly’s modest heroics in context. We should all be aware of and outraged by the incredible ordeal my friend and former colleague Glenn Greenwald has gone through — culminating in bogus criminal charges – for exposing the extraordinary corruption of the Bolsonaro regime in Brazil. Don’t miss Edward Snowden’s Washington Post op-ed, in which he writes that “The most essential journalism of every era is precisely that which a government attempts to silence.”)

The Non Heroes

Which brings us to the bulk of the Washington political press corps, and their profound timidity.

Here, for instance, in their story about former national security adviser John Bolton’s book manuscript, you have New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt writing that “The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton could undercut a key element of his impeachment defense.”

It “could” undercut?

No, it does undercut.

How hard is it to write “The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton undercuts a key element of his impeachment defense”?

Or consider the coverage of Trump’s tweet that Rep. Adam Schiff “has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country!” Schiff called it a threat. Sheryl Gay Stolberg, in the Times, described it as “an extraordinary back-and-forth.”

Or consider the little problem with David E. Sanger’s latest story in the Times, as identified by media critic Eric Boehlert.

Both the Times and the New Yorker seem to think that a wink and a nod to the truth is enough.

But the situation is not entirely hopeless. Every so often, we see baby steps towards acknowledging the vast asymmetry between the two impeachment arguments.

And after four days of abysmal bothsiderism, the main Washington Post story about Saturday’s arguments — by Elise Viebeck, Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade — provided in its third paragraph precisely the essential context their readers needed and deserved:

Yet, in arguing that the case for Trump’s removal was partisan and misleading, lawyers for the president omitted facts, presented claims that lacked context or minimized evidence gathered by House investigators. Their most sweeping arguments did not specifically defend Trump but instead framed impeachment as no more than a politically motivated effort to remove him from the ballot in November.

It can be done!

And now, the amazingly timed Bolton book-leak offers reporters a golden opportunity to finally eschew false equivalence when it comes to the matter of calling witnesses. How can the Trump team possibly cite the lack of direct evidence in their defense — and refuse to allow any direct evidence at all?

Reporters should relentlessly ask that question, and call attention to the defense’s inability to answer it.

We’ll see if they can summon up the courage.



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