Here’s why you should believe NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly over Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

January 27, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

On Friday, NPR broadcast a 9-minute interview that host Mary Louise Kelly conducted that day with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It was terse and tense, and Pompeo cut it off after Kelly refused to stop asking questions about Pompeo’s treatment of one of his employees, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Kelly also described the aftermath of the interview, saying that Pompeo summoned her to his private living room to accuse her of dishonesty for asking questions about Ukraine when he believed the interview was restricted to the topic of Iran. Her account of that off-the-air encounter includes sharing with us, the audience, that Pompeo was screaming, animated and used profanity in a tirade accusing Kelly of ambushing him on-air with questions about Ukraine, which he said he explicitly would not talk about as a condition for doing the interview.

After Kelly reported on the secretary of state’s behavior, Pompeo issued a statement that accused her of lying about their interaction, breaking an off-the-record promise and deceiving him about the initial interview. Kelly vehemently denies there was an ambush.

Here’s why there’s plenty of reason to believe Kelly:

  • Kelly has an email record with a Pompeo staffer confirming that she was also going to ask about Ukraine. There’s no evidence of her breaking a commitment.
  • Kelly said she would not agree to go off the record, and — like most reporters of her veteran status — is very reluctant to go off the record, if ever. The main reason to contemplate such an agreement is a belief that it could yield important, sensitive information not otherwise available. Pompeo seemed an unlikely prospect for that special circumstance.
  • Pompeo may have thought taking the matter to his residence changed the rules of engagement. Plus, reporters get cursed at all the time. Such profane behavior is usually on the record, but most of the time not newsworthy. Pompeo may have assumed his temper tantrum would not be a story since it was not recorded. He was mistaken. As the fourth in the succession line to the president, his ability to keep his cool under pressure is of keen interest to the American public.
  • During Kelly’s skilled short recorded interview with Pompeo, she asked clear, rational questions. When Pompeo tried to dismiss her questions about his treatment of Yovanovitch with generalities, Kelly listened closely to his answers and followed up by driving him to identify specific statements in support of the ambassador. It’s a textbook interview: firm, fair and specific.
  • When Pompeo attempted to dismiss her source as anonymous and unreliable, Kelly named senior adviser Michael McKinley.
  • Kelly cited the diplomats who work for Pompeo at the State Department to provide context for why  Pompeo might want to consider answering her questions.
  • Pompeo concluded his statement by saying, “It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine,” implying that when he challenged Kelly to find Ukraine on an unmarked map,  she got it wrong. It seems unlikely that Kelly would confuse Ukraine with Bangladesh, as Pompeo implies in his statement. Aside from the petty nature of the gimmick, he provides no proof that she got it wrong, which she said she clearly identified the country that is central to impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. As with any story, the context it offers and the credibility of the sources are essential for the audience to decide what they believe. The email of the terms of the interview sets us on a course to trust Kelly without contrary documentation from Pompeo. The contentious pattern of behavior toward reporters by the administration is context. So is Kelly’s very well-respected, non-sensational record as a journalist.

Thanks to Kelly’s fidelity to craft, we got a behind-the-scenes look at a high-ranking official’s explosive behavior. It would appear that in this case, Pompeo is having a hard time handling the truth.

Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership. She can be reached at kmcbride@poynter.org or on twitter @kellymcb.