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NPR's Steve Inskeep: truly "fair and balanced'

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Like most everyone in his profession, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep would rather report the news than be the story. But when he came home last month to help WFYI-FM (90.1) celebrate its 40th birthday, the Carmel native found himself answering as many questions about his employer as about his work.

Questions about Republicans’ efforts to defund the news organization and about a scammer who captured NPR’s chief fundraising official, Ron Schiller; disparaging conservatives and the Tea Party; and saying NPR would be better off without federal funding. (Although it was found that Schiller’s remarks had been heavily edited, he and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller lost their jobs.)

Inskeep, though, has learned a few things from the politicians he’s covered. As you’ll see in this interview, which took place at WFYI, he turns the questions around to talk about what NPR does right – winning three Peabodys in March and continuing to provide “in-depth coverage of complicated stories.”

“We’re covering it,” he said, “and they” – meaning so many other news organizations – “aren’t.”

Here’s our conversation:

NUVO: You just got back from Egypt. What did you see?

Inskeep: It was in March, which was an amazing time to go. We wanted to go after the government had fallen. We’d been covering it all along, of course, but it’s a particularly interesting time to go because Mubarak goes and everybody else thinks the story’s over. Actually, the story is just beginning. What’s going to be there next? What kind of country is it going to be? What kind of government is there going to be? You go around and stories just hit you in the face. Everything’s changing and everybody wants to talk.

NUVO: I’m a little afraid, actually, because whatever Mubarak may have been, there was peace between Egypt and Israel and we didn’t have to worry about Egypt. Now, who knows?

Inskeep: What you’ve just said was basically the policy of the United States: Here’s someone who will work with us. End of story. Now something different is going to happen and we don’t know what it will be and it could be bad and we should be realistic about the fact that it could turn out badly. There are forces within Egyptian society that we as Americans would have trouble agreeing with. But we don’t know that they’ll end up in control of the country. There’s the army, which is very powerful. There’s the Muslim Brotherhood and the other Islamist groups, which worry a lot of people but at least say they’ll take part in the democratic process – and we can hope that they do. And then there are the liberal democrats, if you want to call them that, and various business interests and labor interests and lots of groups – including the groups that organized the protests – and you can hope for a pluralistic society where all those groups have different amounts of influence in different ways and nobody dominates.

NUVO: What was the best thing you saw, and what was the most troubling?

Inskeep: You go to Cairo and it’s this awesome city of 20 million people. It’s huge, it’s chaotic, it’s incredibly crowded, the traffic is ridiculous, it’s noisy all the time, it takes you hours to get anywhere. You schedule an interview for 9:00 and at 10:30 they say, “I just can’t make it. I’m turning around and going home. The traffic is too bad.” But by the end of the day, things work out.

You get the sense you are in an ancient civilization. And you feel that you’re in a very sophisticated place, a place that is connected to Africa and connected to the Arab world and a huge part of the Muslim world, but is also connected to the Mediterranean. When you see people on the streets, a lot of them are dressed like you’d see in a European country. It makes you realize this is a country that’s connected to a lot of parts of the world – including the Western world. It’s exciting and encouraging to realize, and I worry a little less about Egypt as a result of that.

NUVO: You’re used to reporting the news. Lately, NPR is making the news. What’s it like to be in the news?

Inskeep: Rather not be, especially for these reasons. It has been a difficult time for a lot of people in this country, so I’m not going to complain about it. I have a great job, and I’m really lucky to have it. And we have a great position in the media and we still do, even with all the trouble that’s taken place. Any indication we get of the number of people listening suggests that it’s going up. That puts us in an infinitely stronger position than most other media, which are seeing their audience go down. Cable TV has just gone through the floor. A lot of broadcast TV news has had a steady erosion.

And lots of other people are desperately, desperately chasing an audience – or revenue. How do we get our audience behind a pay wall? The New York Times has a huge audience and it’s just eating them alive because people are going for free on the web instead of paying for the newspaper. But we have this amazing position in that we offer the product for free and people volunteer to put themselves behind a pay wall by paying for it when they don’t have to. That is an exciting position to be in. NPR has had layoffs, but the people who run NPR have managed to preserve the most essential thing we do, which is reporting.

NUVO: Mike Huckabee said, “Nobody wants to see NPR defunded more than me.” When somebody says that and you have to cover them, how do you do that fairly?

Inskeep: I cover all kinds of people. My job is to report the facts that I find and do it with integrity. Mike Huckabee can say anything he wants about NPR. I’m not really going to talk about the funding. I’m going to talk about our job and what we do. I’m not talking about how it’s funded. He is welcome to do that. He has also been welcome to appear on NPR – and he has.

NUVO: Let’s talk about the scammer. NPR fired those people awfully quickly, and they were judged guilty before they were found innocent. What does that do inside the newsroom?

Inskeep: I wrote about this in The Wall Street Journal. That article said most of what I want to say, but let me just repeat the most important thing: When that happened, I was in Egypt, and I had an occasion that evening – the evening the CEO’s resignation was accepted – to go to dinner with some NPR colleagues in Cairo. The conversation wasn’t about shop talk; it was about Egypt, it was about what was happening in Libya, it was about getting flak jackets to our colleagues who were covering Libya.

NUVO: So, eyes on the ball.

Inskeep: Eyes on the ball. I would call home and we had discussions about the next day’s program. It’s obviously a blow to people – why would I pretend otherwise? – and there’s a risk of a big distraction. But I’ve been proud of the way NPR has covered this story. David Folkenflik, our media correspondent, has covered this story very honestly and very professionally. Secondly, everybody else has continued to do another program the next day. You didn’t hear, “Oh, gosh, everyone at NPR is distracted. Let’s have several days of dead air.” There’s a show the next day, and it’s just as long and it’s just as good.

NUVO: In an ideal world, would NPR not get federal money?

Inskeep: In an ideal world, I’d like to focus on my job. My job is to find information and pass it on without regard to what somebody may do about it tomorrow.

NUVO: I gather you don’t feel there’s a bias at NPR.

Inskeep: Don’t take my word for it. The Pew Media Center has studied tons of NPR’s coverage. They looked at the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency. They found NPR’s coverage, if anything, to be more neutral than other media. The number of positive stories in other media were way above what NPR did. We were a little more levelheaded about the whole thing. You go back to the 1990s, and in study after study, what you find on NPR is a wide range of voices and a surprisingly large number of Republicans. Sometimes more Republicans than Democrats. And consistently fair coverage. That’s what outsiders find when they study large numbers of stories. There are stories not to like, and there are mistakes that people make. But (critics) rarely have evidence for what they claim. They just have the claim, repeated often and loudly. And I will say one other thing: We get accused of conservative bias too.

NUVO: George Will, when he was talking about federal funding for NPR, said something like, “News and entertainment – as if we don’t have enough of that. So why should we pay for it?” What’s your response?

Inskeep: That’s a really interesting argument to make. Again, you’re asking me to comment on the funding. I’m not going to comment on the funding. I’m going to comment on what we do and who uses it. There are more and more media outlets doing less and less journalism. Less and less of a certain kind of journalism – let’s be fair. There are lots of places that take information they find on the web, rewrite it and sell it as their own. There are lots of TV outlets that will give you exciting pictures of whatever is the hottest story of the moment. There is, by many accounts, less serious, in-depth journalism that looks at important issues in the world. I would reply to anybody who says there’s lots of stuff out there and there’s no need for what we do, why is it that everybody else’s audience goes down and ours keeps going up? I would respectfully suggest that it could be that we’re providing a service that other people aren’t providing.

NUVO: Social media – how has that changed your job?

Inskeep: It adds new dimensions to it. I love doing it. I’m on Twitter all the time – maybe too much. The Twitter gets kicked over to my Facebook account, and people comment back all the time. I have made it part of my journalistic technique. I will very frequently tweet that I’m going to interview someone prominent, tell what the interview is about and ask if there’s anything they’d like to know. Frequently, people will come up with questions.

If you read the transcript at npr.org that we did with President Obama last December, one of the hardest questions in the interview came from a tweet from someone. This was a guy who was upset that the president had agreed in that big tax compromise to extend the tax cuts for the wealthy for another two years, even though he (Obama) opposed it. The guy said, “Would you please explain how keeping tax rates the same as they’ve been for a decade for the wealthiest Americans would create one single job.” The president immediately said, “It doesn’t.” It was a sharp, to the point question and the president had to admit the guy was right. Then the president’s job was to explain why he agreed to this compromise.

Very often, there’s an average guy sitting out there thinking about a news story and saying, “There’s this really obvious thing and I just don’t get it.” When you finally put their question to a politician, you realize the reason he doesn’t get it is that it doesn’t make any sense.

NUVO: I didn’t get this question through Twitter, but I asked a friend what she wanted to ask you. Her question was this: You have noted Langston Hughes as a writer who inspired you. Can you describe a moment where you laughed to keep from crying?

Inskeep: (laughs) I felt that during the financial crisis, when the Dow went down to 6,000 or whatever it went down to and the whole world seemed to be falling apart, it was especially important for me to be in a good mood and to be amused, even if I had to be cynically amused, about the things that were going wrong. Laughter is a sign that you’re not defeated yet and you have to have a broad historical sense of things. However terrible things are now, our grandparents had it worse. And however terrible things are now, time will pass and things will get better. And even if things never get better, I’ll tell you the truth about that, but I’m going to keep laughing about it.

NUVO: Last question: Stephen Colbert says the truth has a liberal bias. Do you agree?

Inskeep: That’s a good joke, but the truth is the truth. And I think that you find out the most important thing to finding out the truth is time. The most important thing I’ve learned as a journalist is that many of the things that seem obviously, blindingly true today are not. And if you wait a day, three days, a year, you’ll find out that the story is different. Look at the Gulf oil spill. We thought it was going to destroy the Gulf of Mexico. It may well have done something weird to the Gulf of Mexico, but the oil has somehow vanished. Something else happened other than what we expected there.

NUVO: It’s rush to judgment.

Inskeep: Yes. Thank you. The truth comes out over time.

NUVO: It goes back to the question of the people who were fired over the scammer. Why didn’t NPR investigate before they fired people?

Inskeep: That’s a fair question you ask. I won’t answer it, but that’s a fair question you ask.

NUVO: You’ve learned a lot from covering politicians.

Inskeep: (laughs)

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