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NPR Criticized For Interview With White Supremacist Jason Kessler

Aug 13, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 10:18 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, an interview that ran on this program last Friday sparked a great deal of criticism. The interview was with Jason Kessler, an organizer of the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., a year ago. He also planned yesterday's Unite the Right rally here in Washington, D.C. Many commentators criticized NPR, saying we gave Kessler a platform to broadcast hateful views. NPR put out a statement saying it stands by the airing of this interview. NPR's David Folkenflik put on his media critic's hat to take a look and a listen.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: A couple dozen protesters, far outnumbered by counterdemonstrators, police and reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON KESSLER: White people deserve to be able to stand up for their rights.

FOLKENFLIK: By almost any measure, Kessler's protest in Washington yesterday was a dud. NPR's critics say the same of the Kessler interview. Some of those criticisms are hyperbolic, even unfair. Others raise uncomfortable questions about the era we're in and NPR's ability to meet the moment. Here's how Kessler presented himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KESSLER: I'm not a white supremacist. I'm not even a white nationalist. I consider myself a civil and human rights advocate focusing on the underrepresented Caucasian demographic.

FOLKENFLIK: Host Noel King conducted the interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NOEL KING, HOST:

In what ways are white people in America underrepresented?

FOLKENFLIK: The segment wrapped up a weeklong series inspired by the Charlottesville protests featuring the city's new black female mayor and the mother of Heather Heyer, an anti-racism protester killed that day. Kenya Young is executive producer of MORNING EDITION.

KENYA YOUNG, BYLINE: So much came out of Charlottesville. It was a moment for race in America. It was a moment for the president. Every time there is some kind of march on Washington, we as an organization try to go for the person who's organizing it. And I had to question, why would this one be different? Is it because we don't agree with their message, that we don't want to hear that message?

FOLKENFLIK: Many critics said NPR conferred credibility on Kessler by giving him a platform. My feeling, as somebody who tries to think hard about the media, is that almost no figure, no matter how heinous, should be off limits - not Hitler, not Stalin, not Pol Pot. But you've got to be very, very clear about what you want to accomplish and how you'll achieve it. King did push back quite a fair amount.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: How is the First Amendment under attack in your case? You've also invited a former grand wizard of the KKK, David Duke. You've invited a public neo-Nazi supporter. Why are these people invited to your rally? I'm citing the National Park Service, sir.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet there were some big omissions. Listeners did not hear King's questions about the killing in Charlottesville, what Kessler sees in President Trump or the history of white racism. The interview was taped, cut back from nearly 70 minutes to under seven. For listeners, of course, what matters is what's broadcast. Some critics claimed the Kessler interview reflected NPR's whiteness. In this case, that's just wrong. Noel King is biracial. Kenya Young is African-American. So is the NPR deputy managing editor who approved the interview.

Yet what insight do such interviews offer that a reported story could not? Further, can a news organization with a reputation for civility, striving for fairness and inclusion, constructively interview someone who rejects those values? On Twitter, King wrote, yes, there will be soul-searching, but this interview was done with intent, deliberation and thought.

My first professional experience was at the daily paper in Charleston, S.C. I covered two Klan marches, the point of which was to stir enough controversy to get coverage. I was an intern. The editor in chief stopped by my desk. Cover what happens, he said, but don't write long. Don't get flowery. You don't want to give racists publicity for no good reason. So the Kessler interview - a tough call. For NPR News, I'm David Folkenflik.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH'S "RULER REBEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.