NPR defends its interview with a racist

NPR isn’t giving any ground to critics of last Friday’s interview with a white supremacist, during which the Morning Edition host allowed Jason Kessler to theorize on the differences in IQ between whites and people of color.

“Some of the criticism was hyperbolic and unfair,” NPR’s media critic David Folkenflik declared this morning in his explanation of the interview, the most recent in a series of white supremacists given a platform on NPR. I discussed the interview in this space last Friday.

It has been virtually impossible to find anyone who thought the interview was good journalism or good radio.

Until today.

“So much came out of Charlottesville (the white supremacist rally a year ago). It was a moment for race in America. It was a moment for the president. Every time there is some kind of march on Washington, we as an organization try to go for the person organizing it and I had to question why would this one be different? Is it because we don’t agree with their message? We don’t want to hear that message?” said Kenya Young, the executive producer of Morning Edition, during Folkenflik’s presentation this morning.

“No figure, no matter how heinous, should be off limits,” Folkenflik said. “Not Hitler. Not Stalin. Not Pol Pot.”

That’s a distraction. No one has said racists shouldn’t be exposed.

“Rather, what audiences deserve and have the right to demand is for national platforms to use their space responsibly, which means aggressively countering racist lies and propaganda with facts and truth,” Karen Attiah, the Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor, wrote. “Like radioactive material, one-on-one interview formats with white nationalists, if they must be done, should be handled with the most extreme care.”

Folkenflik gave credit to host Noel King for “pushing back” against Kessler, but said there were some big ommissions.

He said listeners didn’t hear King’s question about the killing of a women at Kessler’s first rally, but never offered an explanation on why NPR would’ve edited out such a question.

“Some critics said the interview reflected NPR’s whiteness,” Folkenflik said. “In this case, that’s just wrong. Noel King is biracial; Kenya Young is African American. So is the NPR deputy managing editor who approved the interview.”

In this case, NPR was the victim of its own decision to forego reported stories during Morning Edition, relying instead on the less substantive and less contextual one-on-one interviews with hosts. Folkenflik acknowledged as much.

But the media critic pulled his punches while giving his own background, which he says started at a paper in South Carolina where an editor told him to be careful covering a Ku Klux Klan rally. “Cover what happens. But don’t write long; don’t write flowery. You don’t want to give racists publicity for no good reason. The Kessler interview? A tough call,” he concluded.

NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen says she’ll release her analysis of the interview and the decisions surrounding it today. This post will be updated.

  • Rob

    The NPR interview sounded like a paid infomercial for white supremacist talkng points; doubling down on its boneheaded decision to run the interview puts NPR in the same camp as America’s most infamous double-downer. I’m nervous about what NPR’s next stupid stunt might be.

    • Perhaps they will do interviews with anti-vaxxers and climate deniers. Then they can throw in 15 minutes of free publicity for a young Earth creationist.

      • Barton

        God, please no….

      • jon

        Young earth creationists are totally bunk.

        Newborn earth creationism is where it is at, claiming the earth is 6,000 years old and anything that can be proven to be older than that was just created that way is nonsense. Newborn earth creationists take a more reasonable stance that the earth was created yesterday, along with all of humanity, and all of our memories of the past, every fossil was created as a fossil and every thing that indicates things change over time was only created yesterday.

        Of course, I don’t follow that belief system either… I’m firmly in the position that the earth hasn’t even been created yet, and we are just part of a system that is used to generate the memories, fossil and light from other galaxies for an earth that wont’ be created for another 6,000 years (from our perspective, probably immediately from the perspective of an all powerful creator god.)
        I mean if I’m going to pick a crazy belief system, might as well shoot for the craziest of them right?

        • Jerry

          Isn’t there a theory in quantum physics that postulates that the universe is constantly created (and destroyed) as each moment in time passes? I’d look it up but quantum theory makes my brain hurt and involves too much cat poisoning for my tastes.

          • jon

            I think the quantum physics idea is that everything is constantly created and destroyed constantly and continually, but each destruction triggers a creation in a system that is, at a universe scale, stable…

            Then there is the discussion of if reality is a hologram (it is) or if reality is just a simulation (it is).

            All of this is of course consistent with my theory that we are just here to create the background for a future reality that will be created inflight with everything we’ve done defining it’s manufactured (by us) past.

    • Gary F

      Interview Wayne LaPierre or Oliver North?

      • The Resistance

        You mean Wayne LaPierre who called the NRA the oldest, largest, and most effective civil rights organization on earth…and denounced Black Lives Matter?
        And Oliver North who see the Confederate flag part of our great heritage?
        I think we’ve had plenty of racists on the air already.

      • Rob

        No haters, please

  • Barton

    Usually these types of follow up reports (from David Folkenflik) give me some relief, some understanding of the reason “why”. This did not. I don’t know that I can explain it, I just felt (and maybe it was a knee-jerk reaction) that he was stretching to find a reason why this interview was okay. And honestly, his name dropping the people involved to prove it wasn’t a “whiteness” issue really irked me. That’s like saying it’s okay to give a serial rapist airtime b/c the person interviewing them was a woman: that doesn’t make it right – it might just make it worse.

    I certainly felt that his last comment on “You don’t want to give racists publicity for no good reason” and how that was a “tough call” really did undermine his whole point.

    • I’ll wait for Elizabeth Jensen’s verdict.

      • Barton

        I look forward to that as well.

  • John F.

    I look forward to reading her analysis. After the initial shock of the airing wore off, I listened to the interview several more times this weekend. I realized that I should have initially commended King for pushing back against Kessler.

    Perhaps NPR should release the entire interview.

    • I don’t know that she really did push back, though. first of all, she led him into an actual discussion in which he ranked the races for IQ and I don’t think that tonal disgust without literal disgust constitutes pushing back.

      She’s hamstrung by this ethical narrative that says journalists can’t simply say to someone, why are you a racist? So you end up with these sort of “wink wink” flourishes that convey what she really thinks without actually saying it. To me, that only confounds the question of what is the value of putting him on in the first place.

      A reported piece would have been far more journalistically sound and I continue to lament that the voices of actual reporters on NPR are disappearing in the morning show.

      • John F.

        While I share your lament, I don’t know what naming him a racist would have accomplished. It is likely that a majority of the listeners already knew he was racist (or could figure it out through his words). It is also likely he would deny that characterization through one of the usual tactics (deflection, false equivalence, etc). I suspect that King didn’t ask the question because she didn’t think it would be productive. Rather than outwardly naming him a racist, I would say that King’s strategy is subtle – let Kessler dig his own grave with his words on national radio. Among NPR listeners, I would venture to say that a majority of people are smart enough to spot a racist through his words. This is just my view and I don’t expect anyone else to share it.

        As far as an ethical narrative goes, I cannot comment. I am not a journalist and do not understand what it like to be bound by what seems like an endless book of unwritten rules.

        • // It is likely that a majority of the listeners already knew he was racist (or could figure it out through his words)

          Which brings us back to the original question: What was the value?

          • John F.

            If the value of the interview is based on preconceived notions of that person by the audience, then what’s the point of interviewing controversial people (much less your politician or social justice activist) if a majority of people already have an opinion on them? Perhaps this a question that journalists need to address.

            To me, the interview has utilitarian value. I seriously doubt that Kessler’s arguments convinced many people to become a racist in this short interview. On the flip-side, the small number of people that didn’t know Kessler is a racist now does. Is it “giving him a platform?” That’s on NPR to make those arguments, which I why I look forward to reading their analysis.

          • I think history has shown that repugnant views enter the mainstream when the mainstream reinforces repugnant views.

          • John F.

            Fair enough on the historical point. I don’t think we are going to agree on whether this reinforced racist views or not, so I will respectfully end my commentary here.

            Also, I need to get back to work.

      • Rob

        Almost as disturbing as the Kessel interview was Bob Garfield’s On The Media chat with Mark Randazza, a First Amendment attorney representing Alex Jones and other haters and white supremacists.

  • AL287

    The temptation to put in your two cents is overwhelming when you’re under attack.

    When print media was a major news source it tended to eliminate the need to embellish. Opinions were limited to the editorial page. Reporters reported the news and it better be true and verifiable through several sources.

    If a story had issues with veracity, the paper printed a retraction (at least reputable ones did and do).

    Discrediting news sources is the first step towards dictatorship and authoritarian rule. Keep the populace in the dark.

    NPR made a mistake in giving this guy a megaphone to broadcast his bigotry and racism.

    Admit the mistake instead of analyzing it to death. It just makes you look bad.

    Those responsible should be made to take responsibility and stop passing the buck.

  • Jeff

    This explained it for me. Popper’s Paradox of tolerance:

    The paradox states that if a society is tolerant without limit, their ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant. Popper came to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.

    And by extension that includes giving voice to intolerance.

  • Tyler

    I have been extra attentive to the news (and Twitter) since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination (this was probably a huge mistake). What I’ve noticed is that the media as a whole seems to be doubling down on giving equal or outsized exposure to minority viewpoints.

    (What I mean by ‘minority’ is not minority **groups,** but a minority of people that share a viewpoint; Nazis, for example.)

    In the last two weeks, both NPR and CNN have given interviews with self-described racists. My Twitter list exploded with people expressing outrage that their news source gave voice to a racist **while retweeting the CNN/NPR interview.** Tens of thousands of retweets.

    THAT’S the point. The medium is the message, not the message. Dollars come from clicks and retweets. Every time Trump says something about NFL players (or North Korea, or Iran, or whatever the controversy du jour is), outrage Tweets line the pockets of Twitter, CNN, NBC, Fox, etc. I believe there was an unspoken agreement among the media presidents that this would be the case. Not a patriot left among them.

    • Rob

      Pro tip: get off of Twitter. And let Twitter know that one reason you’re getting off is that Alex Jones still has Twitter privileges. You could also tell the company that as long as T.Rump has privileges, you aren’t interested in having an account.

      • The Resistance

        …and while you’re at it, let your representative know that you don’t approve of official White House statements, littered with ALL CAPS, exclamation points!, and typoes, being made on Twitter or any other unsecured social media platform.

        You may also need to remind them that they still maintain oversight over the executive branch of government.

  • Sybil Twilight

    Somewhat related column from Sunday’s Guardian discusses how the idea of balance has damaged our “news reporting”.

    “Do you know what I’m sick of? Balance. Unless you’re walking along a very
    narrow handrail above a famous alligator pit, balance is overrated.
    Balance gave us last week’s This Morning slot where they invited observational cosmologist Dr Sarah Bosman to debate with a flat earther called Martin Kenny.
    “Martin Kenny,” ITV explained on Twitter, “believes the moon landings
    were faked and humans couldn’t possibly land on the moon as it’s not
    solid, whereas Dr Sarah Bosman dismisses these conspiracy theories as
    nonsense. What do you think?”

  • lindblomeagles

    I think Folkenflik , in a round-about way, is trying to make a First Amendment pitch to all of us, the listeners — i.e. “Even if speech may be offensive, we should guard against censuring such speech because it encourages more speech to be labeled “offensive” and thus no longer free to be spoken (or heard). The problem with Folkenflik’s “waltz through theory” explanation, in this case, is he ignores decades of proven reality. As I stated before, we didn’t hear anything new – the racist Jason Kessler said what we’ve all heard before, which is “whites are being annihilated by massing people of color.” The KKK, the Nazis, the Alt-Right, have all said the same thing Kessler did. And, just like racist speakers from the past, Kessler offered no facts to back up his hysterical claim. The racists never do. We get David. You want ratings. That’s what your impassioned mumbo jumbo was defending – a day where you can say we have radio’s ear this morning.