The latest assault on freedom of the press

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On Jan. 24, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abruptly ended an interview with NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly after she asked him a series of pointed questions about Ukraine and — following his statement that he has defended all State Department personnel — if he could point to his remarks defending Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. A few minutes later, a State Department official asked Kelly to accompany her (without a recorder) to Pompeo’s private living room. Inside the room, according to Kelly, Pompeo berated her, frequently using the f-word. “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?,” he asked, and challenged her to identify the country on an unmarked map.

The following day, Pompeo issued a statement claiming Kelly had violated “the basic rules of journalism and decency,” saying she lied to him about the subject of the interview and broke a promise to keep their subsequent exchange off the record (Kelly disputes both). Other than implying that Kelly (who has an advanced degree in European Studies from Cambridge University) mistook Bangladesh for Ukraine, he did not dispute Kelly’s account of his post-interview comments.

A few days later, the State Department barred NPR reporter Michele Kelemen from accompanying Pompeo on a trip to the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Department did not give a reason for its decision.

Americans across the political spectrum should be denouncing the intimidation of a journalist. They aren’t.

To be sure, five Democratic senators condemned Pompeo’s behavior as “insulting and contemptuous.” Sen. Bob Menendez declared that, “As the United States’ chief diplomat,” the Secretary of State “should know that freedom of the press is a fundamental human right, a foundational pillar of democracy, and an indispensable check on authoritarian overreach.” And the White House Correspondents’ Association called the “retaliation” against NPR “outrageous and contrary to American values.”

In the hyper-partisan, siloed world in which information is disseminated and issues are framed, however, millions of Americans have not learned that email exchanges between Kelly and aides to Pompeo demonstrate that the NPR reporter did not agree to limit her questions to Iran and ask no questions about Ukraine. Although her plan was to spend “a healthy portion” of the interview on Iran, she said “I never agree to take anything off the table.” She specifically mentioned Ukraine as a topic. Kelly insists as well that no one ever asked her to keep Pompeo’s post-interview comments off-the-record.

Perhaps, not surprisingly — given its brazen-it-out and never-apologize modus operandi — comments from Trump world are, at best, disappointing.

During an appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House on Jan. 28, President Trump pointed to the “great” Pompeo, inducing a standing ovation from the assembled guests. “That reporter couldn’t have done too good a job on you,” Trump (who, in November 2015, mocked Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter with a physical disability, and has often called the press “the enemy of the people”) said, “I think you did a good job on her, actually.”

In covering the incident, Fox News reported that NPR stood behind its reporter, but then changed the subject, reminding readers that in December 2018, her news organization had been forced to issue a lengthy correction after falsely accusing Donald Trump Jr. of lying to the Senate about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

And presidential impeachment lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who patted Pompeo on the back at the White House as Trump praised the Secretary’s “very impressive” behavior, emphasized that he “thoroughly disapproved of the way he has reportedly treated a reporter,” only to opine (in a non-sequitur, usually applied to excuse the actions of demagogues and dictators) that if Pompeo “can help bring about peace in the Middle East, I’ll forgive him.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Kelly summarized what’s at stake. Committed to the free and unfettered flow of information, journalists sit down with senior government officials to “ask tough questions, on behalf of our fellow citizens,” she wrote, and then share their “answers — or lack thereof — with the world.” Freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution so that people in positions of power “will be held to account. The stakes are too high for their impulses and decisions not to be examined in as thoughtful and rigorous an interview as is possible.”

These values, which are fundamental to democracy, it seems clear, are under assault. They deserve the visible and vocal support of every American.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.

Tags Alan Dershowitz American journalism attacks on reporters Benjamin Netanyahu Bob Menendez Donald Trump female reporters Marie Yovanovitch Mary Louise Kelly Mike Pompeo new media NPR Press freedom Reporter removed Ukraine

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