Eileen Eagar was a single mom, working at a steel mill in Chicago. Feeding her two kids sometimes meant going out on a date, ordering the biggest steak on the menu and bringing the leftovers home.
When we met her in the fall of 2016, she had married, moved to Arizona and started a career in real estate — the “best darn” realtor in Tucson, her husband wrote in an advertisement for her.
Eileen fought for prime real estate at her real estate office — a desk on the first floor, big window overlooking the street. So she was frustrated when her boss made her close the blinds.
It was the death threats.
Eileen says they came after she went on NPR and explained why she supported Donald Trump.
That was in October when our program, Morning Edition, was visiting four states — Arizona, Ohio, Georgia and Florida. We called the series “Divided States.” Our goal was to listen and foster conversation around the presidential debates.
We spoke to 16 voters for the project — a diverse group that included backers of Trump and Hillary Clinton. Some were passionate about a candidate, others reluctant. They were generous with their time and — like Eileen — thick-skinned when their views triggered angry reactions.
The structure of the series was simple. Ahead of each debate, we aired profiles of four voters from the state we were visiting. The morning after the debate, we brought them into a studio and listened as they worked through what the candidates said.
Our profile of Eileen Eagar included this exchange I had with her:
EAGER: The Muslims want to come here and change, many of them, what we're doing. If they believe in the Quran, that's what they want to do. And their goal, many of them, is to kill us.
GREENE: Now, you say many of them, their goal is to kill. Do you really believe that, that it's many? Because some have said that, you know, there are very isolated cases of extremist Muslims but that to suggest it's many would be, you know, basically, you know, discriminating against an entire religion.
EAGAR: Well, I think that we need to look at what's happening in the United States right now. These bombings and shootings that we are seeing, it's these radical Islamists that are coming in, and they are trying to frighten us. And it's a plan that has been in place for 10 years or longer. It's a caliphate. So what I want — I love these people. I have a couple that came to us. They spoke at our meeting last Tuesday.
GREENE: These are Muslims?
EAGAR: Well, I don't know. I don't know.
EAGAR: But I welcomed them into my home. They are from Iran. They are probably Muslim, but they say that they do not believe in it. But they were here in my home at my meeting, so I am not against them. I want them vetted. I am against the ones who are extremists and we cannot sort them out.
GREENE: I saw a few studies that suggested that the majority of mass killings in the United States are carried out by white men and not by Muslims. Does that — does that put your fears at ease at all?
EAGAR: No because I don't believe it.
The next morning, when Eileen came into a studio in Phoenix for the roundtable with fellow voters, she was carrying a stack of printed-out emails and tweets. She said that she had been called a bigot and stupid and that death threats had worried her boss so much he decided to temporarily close the real estate office. When it reopened, Eileen’s blinds were shut for three days.
“So we complain about what Trump says about people,” she said on our air. “Let me tell you something — your listeners have said things to me in their emails and their tweets that are so much worse than anything that Trump has ever said to anyone at any time. And I just couldn't believe that people were that nasty.”
I have a few takeaways from my time with Eileen Eagar.
I am glad we had her on. An election is about candidates, issues and voters. One of our most fundamental duties as journalists is to listen. And I believe our audience in 2016 heard a wide range of viewpoints that spoke to who we are as a nation right now.
I am glad I challenged Eileen Eagar about her views. It is my job to check facts in a conversation like that. It is my job to ask tough questions. It is not my job to advocate or to bully her into changing her mind.
But more broadly, the reaction to our interview with Eileen speaks to what I believe is a moment of reckoning for our profession.
We were beaten up by many listeners for airing voices like Eileen’s. They felt we were promoting bigotry. They accused us of “normalizing” hate.
Those emotions have only intensified since the election. But none of this will come close to stopping me from doing my job.
We cannot allow the anger in this moment to change who we are. As journalists, we seek the truth. We are not advocates for a particular person or position. We are watchdogs who rigorously report on facts and use the truth to confront power. And we are listeners who foster dialogue and allow people — like Eileen Eagar — the freedom to think out loud.
Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, wrote recently that the news media will likely try to “normalize the incoming administration, basically to pretend that everything is OK.” He went on to write that “democratic norms have been and continue to be violated, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge this reality is, in effect, complicit in the degradation of our republic.”
Hard to call these times normal, indeed. And you have heard on our air about a political movement in this country that caught pollsters by surprise, a president-elect who has questioned the need for daily intelligence briefings and a foreign government that appears to have tried to sway an American election.
But with all due respect to Krugman, it would be far more dangerous to our democracy if the news media abdicated our fundamental role.
I am happy we heard from Eileen Eagar on our air in 2016. Like every voter, she is entitled to her opinion. And other voters are entitled to disagree — publicly and passionately.
I am happy if the raw, honest conversations in our “Divided States” series provoked debates and fostered valuable dialogue.
We should and must do more of this.
We learned in this election that we can’t lean on polls to define the political narrative. We learned so much more by reporting — going places and listening. And while it is impossible to predict where this story goes in the next four years, we do know the tremendous value of being in communities for sustained periods and talking to people.
Our final stop in the “Divided States” project was Florida. It is where we met John Palys, a 30-year-old Hillary Clinton supporter who said his candidate was treated differently because she is a woman.
“As a gay man, I can relate to women in some way,” he said. “I see that she’s held to a higher standard or she’s you know, called out on things that — all of these other men in politics, it just passes by with them. But with her, it’s always a scandal.”
John shared a studio with three fellow Floridians — another Clinton backer and two Trump supporters. They exchanged views about immigration, race, and religion. And there were tense moments.
There was also a spontaneous group hug. I asked the voters about it.
“Well, I think this is what makes America great,” John said. “We all have different backgrounds, different viewpoints. And we can disagree, but we want to try and find common ground. It's not something you always find in day-to-day politics. But that's what real Americans want.”