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.