WASHINGTON – National Public Radio host Mary Louise Kelly addressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling her a liar in a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday night that reflected on the role of journalists in holding public figures to account.
Kelly said she is a journalist because “we get to put questions to powerful people and hold them to account. This is both a privilege and a responsibility.”
That was what Kelly was trying to do in an interview with Pompeo last week when she asked if he felt he owed former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovtich an apology for not defending her before she was recalled from her post.
After the interview, Kelly said Pompeo berated her, questioned whether Americans care about Ukraine and challenged her to find Ukraine on a map. On Saturday, Pompeo issued a statement in which he claimed Kelly lied to him about the subject of the interview and about keeping his post-interview comments off the record.
“It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency. This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration,” Pompeo said after the interview. “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.”
He also implied Kelly failed to correctly identify Ukraine on the map.
Kelly said during their interview that she told Pompeo’s staff that she intended to ask about both Ukraine and Iran, and she has denied ever agreeing to keep anything off the record.
“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. And then sharing the answers – or lack thereof – with the world,” Kelly wrote in the op-ed.
Much of the op-ed recounted the portion of her interview with Pompeo that focused on tensions with Iran, as well as an interview she did earlier this month with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
“I write about all this now to refocus attention on the substance of the interviews, which has been overshadowed by Mr. Pompeo’s subsequently swearing at me, calling me a liar and challenging me to find Ukraine on an unmarked map,” she wrote.
“For the record, I did. That’s not the point.
“The point is that recently the risk of miscalculation – of two old adversaries misreading each other and accidentally escalating into armed confrontation – has felt very real,” she said. “It occurs to me that swapping insults through interviews with journalists such as me might, terrifyingly, be as close as the top diplomats of the United States and Iran came to communicating this month.
“There is a reason that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution. There is a reason it matters that people in positions of power – people charged with steering the foreign policy of entire nations – 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.”
This week the State Department barred NPR reporter Michele Kelemen from accompanying Pompeo on a scheduled trip that includes a visit to Ukraine.
The move was condemned by journalists as retaliation for the Kelly interview.
White House Correspondents’ Association President Jonathan Karl said in a statement that the “apparent attempt to take punitive action against a news outlet for its reporting is outrageous and contrary to American values.
“We can only conclude that the State Department is retaliating against National Public Radio as a result of this exchange,” said Shaun Tandon, president of the State Department Correspondents’ Association. Tandon said it was “unacceptable to punish an individual member of our association.”
“The journalists who cover the State Department are dedicated to informing the public and holding this and every administration accountable by asking questions about the issues of the day,” he said.
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In response to Pompeo’s statement that accused Kelly of lying, five Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote him a letter decrying “the corrosive effects of your behavior on American values and standing in the world.”
“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,” they wrote.
President Donald Trump, who routinely attacks the news media, praised Pompeo on Tuesday for his treatment of Kelly, calling it “impressive.”
“I think you did a good job on her, actually,” the president said.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen and Courtney Subramanian