NPR reporter David Welna snapped pictures of the young man introducing him today at Carleton College in Northfield. The young man was Welna’s son, a student at the college where Welna graduated in 1980. Welna the elder was at the school giving the convocation address to students this morning.
“This is where I learned it’s actually cool to ask questions, no matter who is on the receiving end of them,” he said. “It’s a search for the truth – or at least the truthiness – of the claim being made. But it’s making sense of it and putting it into a narrative that makes sense to others.”
Welna’s roots come from what is now a declining medium – the small-town radio station. “My first brush in journalism was when a reporter from KOWO – the radio station in Waseca – came to school. I was impressed that the reporter had the moxie to take a tape recorder into bars to ask people about the news of the day and then play the tape back on a newscast. Thomas Wolfe was the hottest man in America and was giving a talk at Carleton and my brother and sister went there. It was boiled down and aired on KOWO. It didn’t go over big with the station manager, but I thought it was great.”
The small-town stations and newspapers of America have been the springboards of thousands of the nation’s finest national reporters. “As one of nine siblings, five of whom ended up here, I was trying as much as possible to work my way through school. When I heard the Northfield News was looking for a part-time reporter, I persuaded Maggie Lee, the editor, to give me a shot. I found myself in the tiny newsroom typing up notes about the townies, that always ended up ‘a good time was had by all.’”
Welna earned a Watson scholarship and spent his senior year in Argentina where he learned another valuable journalistic truth: Timing is everything.
“Thirty years ago this month, Argentina’s generals tried to shore up their regime and in the middle of the night, seized the Falkland Islands,” he told students. “Margaret Thatcher was not about to let that go unpunished, and as the British fleet steamed toward the region, it became one of the world’s top stories, and I was one of the few reporters in the area to report it.
“I was ready to jump on the story. The chance to do so was when the BBC correspondent was being deluged with calls from the Mutual Broadcasting Network and he didn’t have the time to keep up. NPR had already lined somebody up and I’d never done radio journalism. I didn’t have a tape recorder, much less a telephone. I called Mutual and said although I didn’t have a tape recorder or a telephone, and had never done radio, I knew the story.
“Mutual’s appetite for updates was insatiable. By the time England took back the islands, I’d earned enough to pay off my Carleton debts,” he said.
But Welna said he was always a public radio fan. “My parents kept their radio station turned to WCAL in Northfield,” he said. “It was the first place I heard a show called ‘All Things Considered,’ produced by a new outfit called National Public Radio. That was before Minnesota Public Radio bought it and turned it into The Current.”
He got the job covering South America and Mexico for about a dozen years before ending up in NPR’s Chicago bureau.
“When I was assigned a story on whatever happened to the family farm, I ended up back in my hometown, interviewing people I’d known since childhood,” he said. “What I found was although I was back in my hometown, I realized it was as interesting a place as anywhere I’d ever been.”
For the last 12 years, he’s covered Congress for NPR.
“There’s a debate which has been raging there for decades and it’s taken many forms, but it really boils down to this: What is the proper role of government in society? Is it taking on the role of doing for people what they can’t do for themselves? Or is it when the government governs least, it governs best? How much responsibility do we have for the welfare of others?
There are not simple answers to these questions, which is why reporting on Congress is the most interesting assignment I’ve ever had.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q: What is your attitude toward what’s going to happen with the great divide? Most governments that separate wealth don’t last long.
A: We’re going to have a national referendum on that question. We have a faith that democracy and the wisdom of people will work things out. I see the various structures of Congress – the rules they go by – conspires to knot things up. It’s true the Founding Fathers wanted the path to be difficult, but what I’ve seen in recent years is ultimately if you want to move forward from wherever you are, you have to find ways to compromise and find mutually agreed upon solutions.
The Democrats had a super majority of 60 and pushed through the health care law. Republicans felt free to attack that law and vowed to repeal it. That’s the danger of something going through without the exercise of compromise.
At the same time, those elected officials who do compromise, often get punished at the polls. People say they’re “sellouts” and can’t be trusted. That’s not how it was supposed to work but that’s where we are right now.
I don’ know how things are going to shake out after the November election. Everyone is holding their breath. Things in Congress are stalled. Most of the votes they’re taking are message votes, designed to score points for November.
The debt ceiling will have to be raised, the payroll tax cut expires, the Bush tax cuts expire, the child tax credit, all of these things are going to have to be done in a lame-duck session of Congress.
It is the mood on the Hill right now that things are as bad as they’ve ever been.
Q: How has your liberal arts education affected your journalism?
A: I strongly encourage people not to study journalism. That’s something you can learn anywhere. What is really important about a liberal arts education is the ability to learn how to write well.
I often don’t know what the story is when I go in each day. To be able to jump into scientific issues, arts issues, legal issues and be able to make something of it quickly… in some ways my Carleton education was basic training for the job I have now.
Q: What’s your editing process? How much back story do you include?
A: The debate is always how much prior knowledge should we include? When you get to things like the Bush tax cuts. By now, we assume – especially people who listen to NPR – have heard about them. There is a verbal shorthand we use. In many ways what we do is update the information that people already know about something. We talk about new twists. You can’ report things completely out of context but there is a tricky balance with giving people the back story.
Q: What do you believe will happen with the Supreme Court decision allowing corporations and organizations to pour more money into campaigns?
Reversing a Supreme Court decision is a pretty tall order, especially with a Congress this divided. We’ll know a lot more after November how much the Supreme Court screwed up or how much it didn’t. I expect the challenge to the Citizens United decision to continue.
Q: NPR has come under fire for having a liberal bias. What is your position on this?
A : There’s a binary approach to how news is covered. Stations on the right have a point of view that favors a conservative stance and is openly embraced. That means everyone else has to be on the liberal side of things. There are some that actually embrace the liberal view. But NPR’s approach is that we try to play it straight. I try to do stories from Capitol Hill that no matter whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, you’ll think it’s a fair portrayal. I try to have voices from both sides of an issue because I believe in what Thomas Jefferson said that a well-informed people deserves its own government.
The tendency seems to be that people are ‘nichefying’ and people are going to the corners to find the information that agrees with their position and there’s not enough of an attitude that you’re willing to listen to competing arguments and you’ll come to a position based on those arguments.
I hear from lawmakers and their staffs; I know I can’t sandbag somebody without hearing about it. There’s never any unfailing reference point that you can look to to see what is truly unbiased, but you try to get close to the calculus.
Q: There are debates on issues such as gay marriage. How do you think these fit? The fact that it’s so connected to party lines?
A: You’re referring to “the social issues,” where religion is often a factor. We just a big debate on Capitol Hill about the proper role of religion in policymaking over the Obama administration decision to require institutions affiliated with churches be required to provide contraceptive health services free of charge.
Quite apart from the question of deficits and a looming debt, I’ve lived in societies such as Argentina and Cuba, where that kind of debate was very much stifled. Given the choice between a raucous debate on the issues and then not having one, I would choose the former. If nothing else, we raise other people’s awareness of these issues.
On the issue of gay rights, you’re seeing Republicans – especially in the Northeast – coming around on this issue. Often it’s a matter of family members who are gay.
I do feel that gay rights is in many ways kind of the big civil rights issue of the early part of the 21st century much as the civil rights in the ’50s and the ’60s were for African Americans, but it’s a slow process. President Obama still hasn’t endorsed gay marriage. He says his position is still evolving. I suspect if he’s re-elected, we’ll see that evolution speed up.
Q: You spent a lot of time in Latin America. Have you seen a shift toward the U.S.?
A: The shoe is on the other foot. It’s the U.S. right now struggling with unemployment and debt and institutional crisis. These are the problems that racked Latin America. Now, those countries are doing very well – Mexico, excepted. To the extent that the U.S. has become mired in its own problems, it seems like there’s less time to meddle in Latin America’s.
I would love to go back to Latin America and revisit some of the issues back then and talk about how much things have changed. But even last weekend we heard about Secret Service agent consorting with prostitutes, but what went on there was a meeting between the U.S. and Canada and Latin American countries.
Things have come full circle; they’ve switched around. Latin America is doing well and it’s the U.S. that’s in trouble.