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"The Room Where It Happened"

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NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly shares what it's like to cover politics in the Trump era

National Agenda student Nick Kilmer joined the Q&A portion of the  National Agenda 2020 event on October 28 as an "audience surrogate" presenting questions from the online audience to National Agenda Director Lindsay Hoffman and guest speaker Mary Louise Kelly.

​National Agenda student Nick Kilmer joined the Q&A portion of the  National Agenda 2020 event on October 28 as an "audience surrogate" presenting questions from the online audience to National Agenda Director Lindsay Hoffman and guest speaker Mary Louise Kelly.

By Eleni Finkelstein, University of Delaware senior and intern for the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication

Watch the video. Read the transcript. To learn more about the National Agenda student experience, read "Keeping the Conversation Going" by CPC intern and National Agenda student Sean O'Connor.

NOVEMBER 18, 2020—For National Public Radio journalist Mary Louise Kelly, "The Room Where It Happened" was not the secret dinner table meeting from Broadway's Hamilton. Instead, it was the 7th floor of the State Department in Washington, D.C., where an unexpected map quiz on Ukraine ultimately landed Kelly in national news, this time as the subject rather than the reporter.

On October 28, the University of Delaware welcomed the journalist, broadcaster, and spy novelist to the National Agenda 2020 webinar series, "We Are the People," hosted by the Center for Political Communication. As co-host of National Public Radio's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine All Things Considered, Kelly reports news about the White House, national security, and current political events. She gave the audience the inside scoop about her confrontation with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January 2020. She also explained the difference between on and off the record, how she decodes fake news, and how she manages political fatigue and election stress.

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When Kelly met with Pompeo last January, she had only ten minutes to conduct an interview about Iran and the threat of nuclear weapons. Toward the end of the interview, Kelly asked about the Trump administration's firing of the United States ambassador to Ukraine. Pompeo refused to talk about Ukraine, and Kelly and her five-person crew were escorted out of the Secretary of State's office. Moments later, an assistant returned to usher Kelly back into Pompeo's office where he "screamed and swore at me for about ten minutes and challenged me to find Ukraine on a map."

Kelly reported the post-interview conversation because Pompeo never clarified that it was "off the record." "You're on the record until you explicitly agree that you're off the record and in a case like that where I wasn't just hanging out in his office or bumped into him at the neighborhood Starbucks, I had come to the State Department to interview him," said Kelly. "They cut the interview short and then summoned me to continue talking. And so, in my mind we're on the record unless I agree that we're not."

Kelly called the State Department for comment before she reported on her interview and ensuing dispute with Pompeo. Pompeo responded with a written statement that accused Kelly of lying about how the interview would be conducted.

"I think it made significantly more news that he dropped a statement the next morning on State Department letterhead calling me by name a liar, and saying I had lied to him twice, and suggesting that I had actually pointed to Bangladesh instead of Ukraine on the map."  Kelly, who has a master's degree in European studies, told the National Agenda audience that the situation "spoke to the ways this administration speaks to the media." She said, "I decided that the best response would be to show up and do the work again on Monday morning to try to put an excellent show on the air and let the interview stand for itself."

When dealing with sources such as intelligence agencies, Kelly said she negotiates with sources, offering to publish off-the-record information as "deep background" and say "NPR has learned…" to avoid identifying sources. If she reports information from an anonymous source, the purpose is to protect the source while sharing important information; the audience must trust that NPR has vetted the source.

Kelly also discussed tips for detecting media bias in the news: confirm that the source consistently delivers accurate information; check how quickly the source gets to the point in the headline; and verify whether the source supports the headline at all. Biased media often use clickbait headlines to draw in the reader, even if the story has very little correlation to the headline.

Kelly has seen firsthand how media can skew stories to favor different audiences. "It's not just about reporting on two sides of the story. For almost every story there are more than two sides."  

While it is often difficult, Kelly emphasized her commitment to nonpartisan news reporting. "My job is to be curious...and bring you every night what I've managed to find out."

During the pandemic, Kelly has been working from her home office to co-host All Things Considered on NPR every afternoon. To manage the stress of constant news cycles, the election, and a pandemic, Kelly reclaimed the time she has saves on commuting to go for runs outside to take care of herself. Kelly said she avoids social media on the weekends, follows trustworthy news sources, and stays open-minded to others' views. For younger news consumers who may be feeling the first effects of election fatigue and other stress from the news, Kelly suggested taking breaks when needed to protect mental health and scheduling a time to catch up on missed news. "It never ends, we can't possibly keep up," she said, regarding the constant news-cycle updates.

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About National Agenda

The 2020 edition of the University of Delaware's National Agenda program, "We Are the People," calls attention to the power of us—the citizens of the United States—as well as the liberties granted to us by the Constitution. Even in this tumultuous time, our right to vote in elections remains one of the most important acts we can perform as Americans. The 10th annual National Agenda speaker series tackles the issues facing the nation, with insight from a humorist, Hollywood producers, political insiders, and national journalists. In light of COVID-19 restrictions, National Agenda 2020 is presented as a series of webinars on Zoom. It is a free online series and open to the public. Lindsay Hoffman, Ph.D., UD associate professor of communication and political science, directs the program. It is made possible with support from the Office of the Provost and the College of Arts and Sciences. Learn more at cpc.udel.edu/nationalagenda.

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