In yet another egregious act of the executive branch, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made headlines when he allegedly shouted down NPRs Mary Louise Kelly.
There seemed to be some dispute over the fairness of the interview between Kelly and Pompeo. Kelly allegedly sent Pompeo’s secretary the topics she would discuss, including Iran and Ukraine, ahead of the interview. Meanwhile, Pompeo said he would not take questions regarding Ukraine and wanted the interview to focus on Iran.
When Kelly asked Pompeo whether or not he owes Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, an apology for her ouster in 2019, Pompeo bit back against the question.
“You know, I agreed to come on your show today to talk about Iran. That’s what I intend to do,” Pompeo said.
However, after the interview, Pompeo allegedly invited Kelly to his private living room. According to Kelly, Pompeo began berating her on her questions. She said he shouted at her for around the same time as the interview itself.
“He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine,” Kelly said.
Kelly said Pompeo asked her, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”
Kelly alleged he used the F-word “in that sentence and many others” and asked her to find Ukraine on an unlabeled map.
It’s real convenient Pompeo had an unlabeled map of Ukraine just laying around in his living room especially if he alleged he only anticipate to be interviewed on Iran. This reeks of a setup.
Let’s be frank. Journalists should be clear and transparent about their intentions when interviewing subjects. However, journalists are not answerable to public officials. Stretching back to the American Revolution, the role of journalists has always been to bring those in power to bear. It doesn’t work the other way.
If Pompeo’s problem was Kelly’s questions, the conflict could have been resolved by talking it out. If we are to assume Kelly is telling the complete truth about the private encounter, then it should be safe to also assume Pompeo’s intent was intimidation and scare tactics. In a world that stretches from Jeffrey Epstein Facebook memes all the way to the vile butchering of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the implications for Kelly are terrifying, to say the least. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say people have been killed for less.
As somebody who is on one side of the glass window, however, it becomes very easy to blindly side with journalists whenever they come under pressure or critique. On the contrary, this should not be an age of the executive branch versus all journalists.
Maybe Kelly didn’t proof the subjects with Pompeo, and caught him off-guard. Maybe she is not telling the truth, or maybe she even misrepresented the encounter. After all, getting shouted at by the secretary of state would scare the daylights out of anyone, enough to perhaps implicitly bias any future recount of what was said. These are questions the public needs to ask themselves.
After all, some journalists are grossly incompetent. Some are dishonest. And some work for Buzzfeed and Vox. Society should not group all journalists into a singular class of citizens and presume they all share the same motives — good or bad.
Because of its unique position as an institution unanswerable to the government, it becomes very hard to hold journalists accountable. Before the founding fathers penned their protests to King George, “misbehaving” journalists could be shot, hung or executed in whatever way you like. After that, the accountability came from editors, and not governments. In this way, journalism was an industry filled with the young who learned from the tradition-wizened old.
But with the rise of digital-native websites that allow anyone with the money and business know-how to start a news media company, it becomes harder to oust unethical journalists from the sphere; especially those who know how to play the social media crowd with clickbait.
Journalism, like all institutions, must be able to be critiqued and commented on if it is ever to improve. But it does not fall to people like Mike Pompeo or Donald Trump to critique journalists. It falls to journalists to introspect and be willing to call out the wrongs.
I do not think Kelly, in this circumstance, did anything wrong or out of the ordinary. More power to her if she managed to piss off Pompeo with pressing questions that milked an F-word out of him. But I do think we can use this circumstance as a conversation-starting on who should be critical of journalists and how they should be critical of them.
Modern journalists and commentators from within the industry should, themselves, lead the way in civil deliberation of the facts and how to improve modern journalism as we know it.
"Your World Today" is a weekly column written by the editor-in-chief of The Slate. It represents solely the subjective opinion of the individual who wrote it. For Staff Editorial opinions, see this week's "The Slate Speaks."