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Pompeo Interview Dispute With NPR Sends Conflicting Message on Press Freedom

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters aboard his plane en route to London, Jan. 29, 2020. Pompeo is to meet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other officials.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s contentious interview with an American news broadcaster, and apparent retaliation after, is “not what a democracy should be doing,” a member of a press freedom advocacy organization said Wednesday.

Last week, Pompeo abruptly ended an interview with National Public Radio reporter Mary Louise Kelly when she changed the topic from Iran to Ukraine and challenged the secretary’s claim that he supported former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Kelly was then called into a private meeting with Pompeo where she said Pompeo “shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted.” She said she became the object of an angry, expletive-filled tirade from Pompeo about being questioned on Ukraine, and was challenged to find Ukraine on a map.

FILE - Mary Louise Kelly accepts the award for best reporter/correspondent/host - non-commercial for "All Things Considered" on "NPR News" at the 43rd annual Gracie Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, May 22, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
FILE - Mary Louise Kelly accepts the award for best reporter/correspondent/host - non-commercial for "All Things Considered" on "NPR News" at the 43rd annual Gracie Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, May 22, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The exchange again raised concerns about attacks on the media under President Donald Trump.

“It’s just an amateur, childish move in my judgment,” said Al Tompkins, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, a press freedom advocacy organization.

Writing in The New York Times Wednesday, NPR’s Kelly described the role of journalists holding powerful people accountable in democracy to be “both a privilege and a responsibility.”

The State Department Tuesday downplayed the impact of the media focus on the contentious interview, as Pompeo embarked on a trip to Britain, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia Wednesday.

Pompeo Interview Dispute with NPR Sends Conflicting Message on Press Freedom
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Yovanovitch, the ousted ambassador is a key figure in the impeachment trial of Trump in which the prosecution charges he abused presidential power by leveraging military aid to Kyiv to gain political dirt on Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who is running for the Democratic nomination to oppose Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Disputed claims

Pompeo later released a statement saying the reporter lied in setting up the interview that was supposed to only be about Iran, and complained that the post-interview conversation was supposed to be “off the record.” But his statement did not dispute what Kelly said about the private meeting.

For her part, Kelly produced earlier emails to Pompeo’s press secretary listing Ukraine and Iran as interview topics. She also contested the State Department’s claim that the private meeting was off the record.

Tomkins also questioned Pompeo’s assertion that his private meeting with a journalist was off the record.

“Most journalists are really circumspect about taking something off the record from the secretary of state. I’m not saying never, but I’m saying rarely would you say, ‘You know what, whatever you tell me I’ll never repeat,’” he said.

FILE - The headquarters for National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington.
FILE - The headquarters for National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington.

Alleged retaliation

The State Department subsequently removed NPR reporter Michele Kelemen from the press pool for Pompeo’s trip.

John Lansing, NPR’s President and CEO, defended Kelly last weekend during an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered program, saying that Kelley “is one of the most respected, truthful, factual, professional and ethical journalists in the United States, and that’s known by the entire press corps.”

Lansing is the former CEO and director of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an independent U.S. government agency that oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

The State Department Correspondents’ Association criticized Kelemen’s removal, calling it “retaliation for her colleague’s interview.”

The White House Correspondents’ Association also called on the State Department to reverse what it called an “ill-conceived decision” to bar the NPR reporter from the trip.

Tompkins said he is concerned the administration’s efforts to restrict and control the press at home give authoritarian governments more latitude to censor the media and imprison journalists without impunity.

“There is a certain viral effect that happens when the president of the United States, when the secretary of state, act this way. It encourages those in other places that have even less press freedoms to do it even more,” he said.

Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, told VOA Wednesday the incident has “not distracted us” from making the U.S. argument for increased sanctions against Iran.

“The secretary has a lot of media with him on the plane going to Europe. So, we’re going to continue pressing ahead,” Hook said.

‘Enemy of the people’

Trump praised Pompeo Tuesday for his handling of the NPR interview, laughingly saying it was “very impressive,” and that (Pompeo) “did a good job on her, actually.”

Trump has repeatedly attacked news organizations for critical reporting of his administration and policies, and has popularized the phrase, “fake news.” He has referred to the press as “the enemy of the people,” accusing The New York Times of treason and suggesting Washington Post reporters “shouldn’t even be allowed on the grounds of the White House.”

These attacks may help increase Trump’s political support among key groups he needs to win reelection this year, but press freedom advocates say they also erode public trust in journalism.

The president also retweeted a conservative critic questioning why the U.S. government should continue funding NPR.

Conservative lawmakers have tried in the past to defund NPR, a nonprofit media organization that broadcasts through more than 1,000 member radio stations in the United States. NPR said it receives only about 2% of its revenue from federal funding, while its member stations often rely on state and federal grants.

In its 2019 press freedom index, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States 48 out of 180, a three-slot drop from 45th place in 2018, as "rhetorical attacks from the government and private individuals alike grew increasingly hostile."

"President Trump has continued to declare the press as the 'enemy of the American people' and 'fake news' in an apparent attempt to discredit critical reporting," says the index, which cites White House attempts to deny journalists access to events of public interest, record-breaking spans of time without press briefings, and the 2018 revocation of a CNN reporter's press pass.