Apparent slur in radio interview deserves more explanation

NPR listeners heard an interview this week that pretty well shows the challenge a radio host is faced with when an interview takes a sudden turn.

On Morning Edition on Wednesday, the morning after the New York primary, host David Greene was interviewing Carl Paladino, an honorary co-chairman of Donald Trump’s New York campaign, about the Trump victory the night before.

Have a listen.

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It ended with this from Paladino during a barrage of criticism about the Obama administration:

People that get onto this bus, the Donald Trump bus, are people that are very, very frustrated with their government as it’s been. That’s the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what kind of person is the exterminator, OK? They want the raccoons out of the basement.

“I felt sucker punched,” Karen Loeb of Eau Claire, Wis., said when she wrote to NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen. “The interview ended. It had most likely gone in a direction you hadn’t intended or anticipated. I can understand that. I would hope you and NPR will follow this up with some analysis of what he said, that it’s hate speech. It was such an ugly way to end the interview, and Paladino definitely had the last word, and he shouldn’t.”

Unlike a lot of interviews you hear on Public Radio, this one was live. Had it been pre-recorded — and situations like this are exactly why news programs do that — it likely would’ve never seen the morning light.

But it did. So now what does a radio host do?

Jensen writes in her occasional column that she thinks Greene lost control of the interview and should have pushed the guest harder to stay on topic. She also says her survey of her colleagues shows disagreement among them on the question of whether it was a racial slur (Paladino says it wasn’t intended as such). And, she says, it’s not a bad thing for people to hear the kind of rhetoric that whips up the crowds in this election season.

But there’s still the question of what a news organization does with what appears to some as racism.

Says Jensen…

Did NPR have an obligation to call it out as racism? Sarah Gilbert, the executive producer of Morning Edition, said of the interview: “An informed electorate draws conclusions about candidates by listening to what they, and their spokespeople, have to say.” My feeling, too, is that listeners can make their own determination about what Paladino’s comments say about Trump. But I am in agreement with listener Loeb about some sort of follow up.

Gilbert told me a next-day story was not planned because the show had a full schedule this morning with its live broadcast from Tennessee. Fair enough. But Paladino’s comments have been widely picked up and criticized elsewhere. It seems odd not to even acknowledge an exchange that happened on NPR’s own air and there are other ways of adding to the debate. Public radio talks often about its capacity to create dialogue within a community of listeners. Even finding a minute or two for some on-air listener letters would have provided some counterbalance to Paladino’s views.

The trouble with expecting listeners to draw their own conclusions is they don’t have the benefit of the answer to an important question that isn’t asked: “What did you just say?”