The State Department has yet to explain or defend its highly unusual decision to remove an NPR reporter from an upcoming trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a time when Pompeo is fuming about the public radio network.
NPR’s diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen was supposed to be the radio representative on the plane that will travel with Pompeo to the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in the coming days. He departs for the UK on Wednesday.
On Tuesday afternoon NPR CEO John Lansing said the State Department “has been unresponsive” to its inquiries.
In a new letter, Lansing and senior Vice President of News Nancy Barnes asked Pompeo to reverse the department’s decision and allow Kelemen on the trip; to explain the original decision; and to provide all relevant documents.
Separately, in a memo to NPR staffers, Lansing pointed out that “there are serious issues at stake.”
“Access to those in power is fundamental to our ability to do our jobs. That is bigger than NPR. It is about the role of journalism in America,” Lansing wrote.
On Monday the dispute was brought into public view when the State Department Correspondents’ Association protested the change of plans and said it seemed like the State Department is “retaliating” against NPR for Mary Louise Kelly’s recent interview with Pompeo.
The secretary bristled at Kelly’s questions about Ukraine and, according to Kelly, later shouted at her and challenged her to find Ukraine on a map, which she did. In an angry and extraordinary statement issued after Kelly reported on what he’d done, Pompeo implied that Kelly – a respected national security reporter with a master’s degree in European studies – had pointed to Bangladesh, which is on a different continent.
On Monday evening the State Department did not respond to CNN’s request for comment about the exclusion of Kelemen.
A follow-up request for comment on Tuesday also went unanswered. State has not given any public justification for the move.
NPR is awaiting answers from the State Department as well, according to two sources who work at the organization. NPR has not been told if this is a one-off decision or a full-blown ban.
In the meantime, some staffers are galled by the removal of Kelemen from the trip. But the organization is not covering the matter on the air until it gets more information from the State Department.
Pompeo typically provides just seven seats on his government plane for members of the media. A rotation of journalists, known as a “pool,” represents print, radio and television outlets.
Veterans of the State Department press corps were critical of the department’s apparent action.
“Bullying and retaliation against the press” is “what we denounce in other countries,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell wrote on Twitter.
Other journalists pointed out that the Secretary of State has historically upheld the values of a free press around the world. “Journalists are accustomed to dealing with petty despots. But usually they’re in Congo or China, not running the State Department,” New York Times columnist Nick Kristof tweeted.
The action has echoes of the Trump administration’s actions against two reporters who regularly cover the White House, Jim Acosta and Brian Karem.
Acosta’s press pass was revoked in November 2018, then restored when CNN sued and a federal judge sided with the network. Karem’s pass was suspended in August 2019, then returned when he won a similar fight in court.
Acosta tweeted out advice for Kelemen on Monday evening. “Buy some plane tickets and ask foreign governments for press credentials along Pompeo’s itinerary,” he said. “That’s what I did when my press pass was seized and Trump went to France. Cover him anyway. You won’t get into everything. But try and make them deny you access to official events. Document the process every step of the way. Our great team at CNN got me on the air from an event in Paris thanks to some help from the French government.”
President Trump made a comment about the NPR dust-up at a Middle East peace event on Tuesday. After Trump acknowledged Pompeo and he received applause in the room, Trump remarked, “That was very impressive. That reporter couldn’t have done too good a job on you yesterday. I think you did a good job on her, actually.”