Just before we went offline last week, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo went viral for his after-interview encounter with NPR host Mary Louise Kelly (see Oy! NPR Host’s Questions About Amb. Yavonovitch Triggers Pompeo Meltdown). And because bullying behavior is not a bug but a feature in this administration, Pompeo’s treatment of the NPR host was readily approved by the President of the United States. “That reporter couldn’t have done too good a job on you yesterday, huh? I think you did a good job on her, actually.” Such normalized behavior that the whole room broke into laughter and Pompeo even got a standing ovation, and a pat on the back for his effort.
How come the State Department has not given this guy their professional ethos award yet? How long before the Foreign Service Institute start teaching Pompeo’s leadership principles? When are you going to hang up your selfie with somebody who is obviously a “perfect” role model for diplomatic demeanor and professional behavior in this upside down world?
Prior to Pompeo’s trip to Europe and Central Asia (London, U.K.; Kyiv, Ukraine; Minsk, Belarus; Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan; and Tashkent, Uzbekistan January 29 to February 4), NPR reporter Michele Kelemen was notified that she was being removed from the press pool covering Pompeo’s trip. It should be noted that Michele Kelemen is NPR’s diplomatic correspondent and Mary Louise Kelly, the reporter who Pompeo reportedly berated is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR’s award-winning afternoon newsmagazine. Unlike Pompeo (who’s meltdown was triggered by questions about his “defense” of Ambassador Yovanovitch), NPR President and CEO John Lansing came out publicly to defend an NPR employee doing her job. We expect that Mr. Lansing and NPR will pay a price for making that difference in treatment starkly clear.
This is not the first time pettiness was demonstrated by State when it comes to its treatment of journalists covering the agency. In 2018, Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams covering Pompeo’s trip to North Korea wrote about Pompey breakfast of “toast and slices of processed cheese” thereafter known as “the Pompeo cheese incident.” Somebody wasn’t happy with that coverage and Wadhams was subsequently informed by State that he would not be allowed on Pompeo’s plane for then upcoming trip to the Helsinki summit.
It seems writing about unhealthy food intake and dropped f-bombs can get reporters booted off the USG plane.
On February 2, during a stop in Kazakhstan, Pompeo was asked about the NPR incident and the kind of message it sends to countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus, whose governments routinely suppress press freedom. And below is Magic Mike’s response about the “perfect message” it sends:
QUESTION: Okay, let’s turn to the question about rights and press freedom. Last year RFE-RL journalists were physically attacked while doing their jobs, multiple times, and authorities have made no progress to try to find those responsible. Before you departed to this trip you had a confrontational interview with a National Public Radio reporter, and after that trip your department removed another NPR reporter from the press pool. Did you retaliate against NPR? What kind of message does it send to countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus, whose governments routinely suppress press freedom?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I didn’t have a confrontational interview with an NPR reporter any more than I have confrontational interviews all the time. In America that’s the greatness of our nation: Reporters like yourself get to ask me any question and all questions. We take hundreds and hundreds of questions. We talk openly. We express our view; they ask their questions. That’s how we proceed in America. And with respect to who travels with me, I always bring a big press contingent, but we ask for certain sets of behaviors, and that’s simply telling the truth and being honest. And when they’ll do that, they get to participate, and if they don’t, it’s just not appropriate – frankly, it’s not fair to the rest of the journalists who are participating alongside of them.
QUESTION: But what kind of message will it send?
SECRETARY POMPEO: It sends a message – it’s a perfect message. It’s a perfect message about press freedoms. They’re free to ask questions. There were – there’s a reporter from that very business who was at a press conference just yesterday. It’s wide open in America. I love it. I hope the rest of the world will follow our press freedoms and the great things we do in the United States.
Pompeo asking “for certain sets of behaviors, and that’s simply telling the truth and being honest” is one of the most laughable parts of that interview with the 70th secretary of state. Tee-hee-hee! When he makes this kind of point, it makes us laugh and pee-pee in pain. Ugh! Get us some Depend Hiphuggers already, we won’t be able to stop laughing at this for a while!
Since the rest of the world is not stupid, folks can presumably see what kind of “perfect message” the secretary of state is actually sending to the press corps. In the aftermath of “the Pompeo cheese incident”, even if they were wronged, Wadhams and Bloomberg reportedly declined to make any comment. As far as we know, Bloomberg has not been blocked from the plane in other trips.
In the case of NPR, the public radio’s CEO came out to defend his reporter, and Mary Louise Kelly not only reported about the bullying in the post-interview incident but also wrote about it (also see “Pompeo Called Me a ‘Liar.’ That’s Not What Bothers Me)“. The State Department’s response was to bar, not Kelly but another NPR reporter from covering the trip. The message is perfectly clear: if they don’t like your questions, or your reporting, or demeanor when conducting an interview, they will not only kick you out, they will kick out every other reporter from your organization. They will put you in an ice box and they will bury that ice box under the dog house 60 feet down, and throw away the shovel.
So the next time something like this happens, will our media outlets expect their reporters to just take the abuse quietly? Or lose their chance to ask questions from this um … “exemplary” public servant (and great secretary of state in an alternate universe) who gets a standing ovation for behaving badly. We hope they’re thinking about this now because this will happen again. And again.
We’ve seen this happened in other countries, haven’t we? In countries where the government has successfully “trained” the media to “behave” a certain way in its press coverage, and where journalists then “get to participate” — it’s always sunny, life is always great, the people are always free, and their government, of course, is always, always truthful and honest in its island of perfection.
When asked by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service what kind of message an NPR reporter's removal from his pool sends to countries with a poor record when it comes to press freedoms, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo replied, "It is a perfect message about press freedoms." pic.twitter.com/TkpRKhJaY7
— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) February 2, 2020
Acts of retaliation against the media in retaliation for unflattering coverage have become a stock in trade of this Administration. That's why @PENamerica is suing in protest of these flagrant 1st Amendment violations https://t.co/RUvFsYtOub
— Suzanne Nossel (@SuzanneNossel) January 28, 2020
NPR has sent a letter to the State Department "demanding answers" about its decision to deny an NPR reporter press credentials to travel with Mike Pompeo on an upcoming Europe trip, NPR's CEO John Lansing has announced. More: https://t.co/7VtxIBBsxW
Read the letter here 👇 pic.twitter.com/db90wrGxUI
— NPR (@NPR) January 28, 2020