U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

State Department removes NPR reporter from official trip

Incident Details

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Pool

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo departs early on Jan. 29, 2020, from Maryland for an official trip to Europe. The State Department removed an NPR reporter from this trip in apparent retaliation to Pompeo’s dispute with another NPR reporter.

— REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Pool
January 27, 2020

In apparent retaliation for an NPR reporter’s interview with Mike Pompeo, the State Department removed a different NPR reporter from accompanying the secretary on an official trip abroad.

During an interview on Jan. 24, Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and a former national security correspondent, asked Pompeo about U.S. policy and Iran and his role in the Ukrainian affair, particularly the dismissal of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

NPR reported that an aide cut off the interview immediately following Kelly’s questions on Ukraine. Pompeo then leaned in, glared silently at Kelly and left the room. A few moments later, the same aid asked Kelly to follow her into Pompeo’s private living room at the State Department without a recorder, not specifying that the conversation would be off the record.

“He shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the [9-minute] interview itself had lasted,” Kelly told her “All Things Considered” co-host Ari Shapiro. “He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, ‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’ He used the f-word in that sentence and many others.”

“He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes. He called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine, he put the map away. He said, ‘People will hear about this.’ And then he turned and said he had things to do,” Kelly said.

The following day, Pompeo issued a rare official statement — a medium typically used for condemnations of human rights violations or announcing sanctions — denouncing Kelly and the media as a whole.

In the statement, Pompeo accuses Kelly of lying to him twice: both in setting up the interview and when agreeing to have their post-interview conversation off the record.

“It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency,” the statement reads. “This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration. It is no wonder that the American people distrust many in the media when they so consistently demonstrate their agenda and their absence of integrity.”

NPR Senior Vice President for News Nancy Barnes and President and CEO John Lansing came to Kelly’s defense, citing her integrity and professionalism, and stood behind NPR’s reporting.

In an interview with “All Things Considered,” Lansing acknowledged that tensions can and do arise when journalists press officials on hard questions. “But this goes well beyond tension — this goes toward intimidation,” Lansing said. “And let me just say this: We will not be intimidated. Mary Louise Kelly won’t be intimidated, and NPR won’t be intimidated.”

Kelly also wrote about the incident in an opinion article for The New York Times, in which she recounted the interview and said, “Journalists don’t sit down with senior government officials in the service of scoring political points. We do it in the service of asking tough questions, on behalf of our fellow citizens.”

Five Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — ranking member Bob Menendez (NJ), Cory Booker (NJ), Ed Markey (MA), Jeff Merkley (OR) and Tim Kaine (VA) — wrote a letter castigating Pompeo’s statement, The Hill reported.

“At a time when journalists around the world are being jailed for their reporting — and as in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, killed — your insulting and contemptuous comments are beneath the office of the Secretary of State,” the letter reads.

Pompeo was echoing language often used by President Donald Trump, who has previously referred to the press as “unhinged,” and blamed an absence of “journalistic standards, for waning public trust in the media. Trump has also affirmed critiques of NPR and praised Pompeo’s actions in regards to Kelly.

On Jan. 27, the State Department Correspondents’ Association released a statement in response to the department’s decision to remove NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen from Pompeo’s plane, asserting that the move was “retaliation” against the outlet and urging it to reconsider the decision.

“The removal of Michele, who was in rotation as the radio pool reporter, comes days after Secretary Pompeo harshly criticized the work of an NPR host. We can only conclude that the State Department is retaliating against National Public Radio as a result of this exchange,” said Shaun Tandon, the association’s president.

“The State Department press corps has a long tradition of accompanying secretaries of state on their travels and we find it unacceptable to punish an individual member of our association.”

NPR’s Lansing and Barnes wrote to the State Department on Jan. 28 asking for confirmation of Kelemen’s removal from Pompeo’s official trip and clarification around NPR access. The letter also asked for copies of policy and procedures regarding pool reporters, as well as correspondence regarding the Kelemen decision.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].