Broadcast journalist Soledad O'Brien (Getty Images/Slaven Vlasic/NPR)

Press Watch: Soledad O'Brien attacks a Pence puff piece, sets off anti-NPR Twitter rampage

NPR listeners unload their frustrations on Rachel Martin of "Morning Edition" after O'Brien calls out Pence segment


Dan Froomkin
November 27, 2019 6:30PM (UTC)
This article was co-produced with Press Watch, a new website that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

A series of tweets by Soledad O’Brien calling out an NPR puff piece on Mike Pence roused a Twitter rampage against the public radio network that is widely considered liberal, but engages in epic both-sides-ism.

NPR’s 11-minute report on Pence, by “Morning Edition” co-host Rachel Martin, was profoundly empty of skepticism about either Pence’s emerging role in the Ukraine scandal or the ostensible central topic: his “political path shaped by faith.”

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O’Brien tweeted to her 1.1 million followers not to waste their time on the piece because “the reporting is weak and the reporter never challenges her subject.” Then, when Martin’s co-host Steve Inskeep smarmily jumped to his colleague’s defense, O’Brien really let loose — and so did her followers.

Poking the media bear is nothing new for O’Brien, an accomplished broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker — and former CNN anchor — who, as I wrote three weeks ago, has  emerged as a powerful voice for improving political journalism. The Daily Beast subsequently called her “the mainstream media’s most outspoken critic.”

The NPR piece was ostensibly pegged to Trump-donor-turned-ambassador Gordon Sondland’s congressional testimony on Wednesday tying Pence to Trump’s Ukrainian squeeze. Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee that he had mentioned the quid pro quo at a meeting, and that Pence had responded with a nod.

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But in her NPR report, Martin quickly dispatched that troubling accusation by quoting Pence’s response to a Wisconsin reporter that, as I wrote last week, was a classic non-denial denial — and accepting it on face value.

Then Martin was off to the races: “So how did Mike Pence end up here?” she asked. Her answer involved quotes from something Pence wrote when he was 21, from a talk Pence gave at an evangelical church in 2017 about finding Jesus, and from Pence’s former chief of staff when he was governor, Jim Atterholt.

The piece ended with Martin saying Pence “could find his own path to the White House” — and a quote from the Bible.

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The backlash began with this tweet from Yale public health professor Gregg Gonsalves: “OMG: this piece by @rachelnpr on @VP. It represents everything that is wrong with media today and reads like piece written by Pence’s PR firm. Nothing goes challenged here by the reporter, editor (@speakeasyshe). Why? Why? Why? @moorehn @soledadobrien

Gonsalves continued: “Kids in cages, rank homophobia, white nationalism, misogyny, probable involvement in impeachable offenses — but he’s a deeply religious man: ‘For me, for my house, it all really does come down to just wanting to treat others the way you want to be treated,’ he said.”

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(I’m quoting the tweets rather than embedding them because the threads are hard to follow. I’m also quoting them at length because while I think Twitter can elicit extraordinarily valuable media criticism, it’s not designed to present it coherently. Aggregating, and therefore lifting up, valuable critiques from social media is a goal of mine at Press Watch.)

O’Brien responded to Gonsalves’ mention with an amen: “Embarrassing reporting from @rachelnpr. The story isn’t worth reading, so I’ll save you all the trouble. But suffice it to say, the reporting is weak and the reporter never challenges her subject.”

Here are a few choice replies from O’Brien’s Twitter followers:

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From @AM_McCarthy: Journalists on NPR are constantly letting their “both sides” journalism allow any guest to say anything without any push back for blatantly false or misleading information.

From @jimbaldwin123: I stopped listening to NPR when their “expert” on the Kavanaugh hearings was from the Judicial Crisis Network, with no explanation of who that is and no countervailing perspective.

From @TomLglEdtr: “A political path shaped by faith”? If an actual, practicing journalist wrote that, they indeed need to be very ashamed

From @AllMtnKeith: Pandering to the right won’t reduce their hatred of NPR.

From @ItsKey_70sbaby: The media continues to be part of the problem. A newsroom that represents the diversity of this nation may produce different results — unfortunately some reporters are more concerned with access than reporting truth!

From @ErinPalicki: I’m a nobody, and I was yelling at the radio as I was listening to that. A total puff piece, void of any journalism at all.

There are good ways and bad ways for journalists to respond to critiques. One of the bad ways is to be smarmy.

“Thanks, @soledadobrien,” Inskeep tweeted. “It’s useful to have such a clear example of this style of discourse: literally telling people, don’t think, don’t look at evidence, just react to how I labeled someone. Citizens can listen and judge @rachelnpr‘s profile themselves: https://n.pr/2XA8Zvb

O’Brien shot back: “Or, conversely, I saved busy people a lot of time by pointing out that in this article the reporter fails to challenge her subject and that it is poorly reported. When npr does good work I highlight it. When it’s not well done I point this out, too.”

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Inskeep maintained his tone: “Thanks. Appreciate your kind words, and welcome criticism. It helps when it’s specific. You haven’t identified any inaccuracy. Do you really dislike the reporting, or just its subject? I listened. Learned things about my home state VP I didn’t know. And can make up my own mind.”

O’Brien then responded with a long and thoughtful (if horribly typed) thread, as follows:

Hi @NPRinskeep First, thank you for the opportunity to go on at greater length about what I believe is a poorly done story, and an interview where the reporter fails to push back on her subject, and instead allows the VPs proxy to be an unchallenged apologist.

Apologies for the long delay, been stuck in a studio all day, or I would have gotten back sooner. First, @rachelnpr commits a frequent media error in conflating Black evangelicals and White evangelicals.

She uses the term ‘evangelicals’ as in “how important keeping the evangelical vote is…” but she means white. Not Black. Small but important point

My biggest complaint with the piece, which I listened to in the shower, then read the online blurb, is how uncritically she quotes Atterholt and allows him to speak unchallenged. For example:

Coming out of the Access Hollywood tape chunk — Atterholt says Pence wasn’t pleased. Martin fails to dig in (push on hypocrisy, ask if Pence compromised his values. ). She moves on to ‘did it make sense it joined the ticket’.

She says he’s loyal — but fails to point out the times when Pence has contradicted the President (ie: not so loyal). I’m quoting Marting here:”this is the calling, this is the work” While never digging into the ‘work’ — she absolves Pence of any culpability

… for policies that run counter to Pence’s own beliefs — which ahe spent the first 3/4ths of the story laying out. She claims — without facts to back up — about ‘godly infuence and counsel’ on the President. Is thst right? Specifically, where?

Ultimately — as I said in my one annoyed tweet, she reports this story poorly. The overt hypocrisy of the VPs position could have made this story a fascinating conundrum. Instead — it reads like a classic puff piece. With nothing challenging the premise the VPs CoS puts forward.

He’s Godly, aw shucks, and he forgives it all, darn it, and I’m not going to press on the overt conflicts between the vp’s beliefs and President’s policy. That’s a fail. Thank you for pushing me to respond more fully and with more details, altho I think others did

Again — apologies for the long delay and I hope everyone has a great night.

Oh — to answer your question. Do I dislike the reporting — or the subject? That’s amusing — as if I cannot distinguish between the two. A really strong piece on the moral quandry of a very religious man who is vp to a person who is immoral, a liar and a bigot would have been amazing.

A couple hundred more replies from Twitter followers ensued. Among them:

From @rajrealestate: Really hope that Steve reflects on this detailed thread from Soledad and, instead of continuing the convo online, is willing to discuss this criticism with his colleagues @NPR This is a tough era to be a reporter but high quality journalism is more import

From @we_are_toast: I was a listener and contributor to NPR for decades until they changed under Trump. People they know are going to lie to their audience come on and tell 10 lies by the time their interviewer can begin to debunk 1. Bowing to right wing pressure to appear balanced is not journalism

From @edwardpowell: NPR has been as big a disappointment as any media during this crisis.

From @One_Curmudgeon: NPR very adept at both presenting the administration’s viewpoints and letting them blatantly lie throughout lengthy interviews.

Recognizing that O’Brien had responded with the specifics he asked for, Inskeep then changed his tone and responded in kind:

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Yesterday I questioned @soledadobrien for what I considered an overly broad critique of this story on Vice President Pence by @rachelnpr: https://npr.org/2019/11/22/781552687/for-pence-impeachment-inquiry-will-test-a-political-path-shaped-by-faith… O’Brien has graciously taken up the invitation to specify what troubled her. Her thread is here, with my responses.

@soledadobrien questions a line that Pence has strong backing from “evangelicals.” Should’ve been “white evangelicals.” Fair point, as @rachelnpr has said; black evangelicals vote differently. NPR has long written with nuance about all religious groups; could’ve added a word.

The larger complaint by @soledadobrien is that the story fails to adequately probe the contrast between Pence’s publicly stated beliefs and the president he serves with. I respect this, though I heard it differently. The entire story explores that contrast.

The reporting on the way Pence has always mixed faith and politics contained details of his life that were new to me. And then other details, from the Access Hollywood tape to Ukraine, illustrated the contrast starkly. As the maxim goes: show, don’t tell.

@soledadobrien feels some questions to a Pence supporter should have been asked more sharply. Fair enough. As a listener, I heard enough from Pence and people near him, in context, to reach my own conclusions. I didn’t need to be told.

To my ear, every quote was placed in context by @rachelnpr’s excellent writing. Nobody was put on live or went “unchallenged.” It’s off base to claim people should have been called out exactly as we do in live interviews. In a reported story, the writing does that.

To judge from the comments on Twitter, it seems a great number of people were able to listen to the story, learn more about Pence, and draw their own conclusions based on facts honestly presented.

It’s useful to see @soledadobrien’s more specific critiques: e.g. that a word was missing, and that she would have liked to hear different questions in a recorded interview. Even when I disagree, specific objections show me how listeners heard a story, and that feedback matters.

That was my objection to her first tweet, and some responses. General denunciations of the media aren’t useful. Specific critiques can be. They may identify real issues. They may also reveal people’s differences are narrower than they seem. Thanks to all and Happy Thanksgiving.

Among the replies:

From @zibijamal: Thank you. Both @soledadobrien critique and your responses go a long way to educate the readers.

From @MurphInCA: Am a fan of NPR, but “a word was missing … would have liked different questions”, doesn’t show that the heart of her critique was understood. I hate to criticize the press in this climate, but we need its best work now.

Martin herself had responded to O’Brien’s original tweet, though O’Brien didn’t see it until later: “Hi @soledadobrien. I’m not sure by which metric you are gauging my reporting or the way in which I challenged my subject.”

Martin’s response garnered more than 90 replies. Many were brutal:

From @airbagmoments: Your normalizing omissions, among other things, are the problem, as with so much Trump-era NPR reportage. What was the motivation for a fawning profile of VP right now? Feeling guilty about all the impeachment coverage that *feels* biased because the truth makes GOP look bad?

From @gb4bedfordfalls: She’s gauging it on your obvious hackery puff piece. I hope the access was worth your soul.

From @CindyPerry6: The point is you didn’t challenge him Pence & Mother are the worst of the “so called” Christians They use their religion to advance their homophobia & other repugnant views Why the MSM is compelled to do puff pieces on these vile people is a mystery

From @MistyAtBoulder: I heard it when it aired and was stunned that this “business as usual” fluff signaled normalization of a VP who two days earlier had been named as part of a bribery scheme.

From @DavMicRot: Get journalistic desire to present facts and let readers decide. But, providing a false equivalent set of fact is troubling because readers are tricked into thinking both sides are equally valid. And here you only present a bunch of Pence propaganda without a hint of push-back.

From @rdahlst: I don’t need every story about Pence to be a hit job. That said, this quote from the piece is damning enough in light of his apparent subservience to Trump: “You can see him reasoning through the political calculus with the faith calculus.” Thank you, Rachel

From @thomaspluck: I just read it. You made him seem like Fred Rogers, when his history is far less kind.

From @MsMaryRuthie: This is why, sadly, that I has to stop listening to @npr after nearly 30 years. I simply will not listen/watch/read any media that does not ask the hard questions every single time they have this administration in front of them. The stakes are too high.

There were some supportive responses:

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From @fac3: I share the sentiment that the story was fair and, because factual, not at all flattering. I turn to Rachel and everyone at NPR for *reporting* I can trust. For a hit job to make me feel better because I dislike Pence m, there are other options. Poor show

From @OberandOut: Rachel, you clearly didn’t realize that Soledad is the arbiter of all that is right and good in journalism. Metrics shmetrics.

O’Brien replied to that last one: “Hi snarky lady! I’m not and have never claimed I was. I use my social media to give my opinion on journalism and journalism fails, and to post pics of horses and children. I hope you have a lovely day.”

One of O’Brien’s followers tweeted he wasn’t following her for the horses: “I’m mostly here for the hilarious self-owns of people who should know better and would be smarter to let criticism roll off their back rather than pick fights they won’t win.”

Martin did not relent in her defensiveness after O’Brien’s detailed critique. She tweeted: “Hi @soledadobrien. I’m sorry u found the piece lacking. The purpose was 2 illustrate moral compromises Pence makes 4 this job. And how he now must defend his choice even 2 members of his own *white* evangelical community. I do take ur point on that omission. Happy Thanksgiving.”

That elicited some supportive Tweets for Martin:

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From @codyswalton: I thought it was a great interview. Shocked that we listened to the same interview. I think it was balanced and let me draw my own conclusions without hammering me on the head. Keep up the great work Rachel!

But mostly, more outrage:

From @KennethBuff: This story made me angry. I was going to tweet something similar to you. The story made corruption, his “work” sound like it’s just part of “the game.” But it’s not a game. Politics is public service, and pretending what Republicans have turned it into is

From @slipperpawz: I read it. It’s a puff piece. Isn’t the press supposed to hold our leaders accountable?

From @HopelessLiberal: Moral compromises? Like how to best force his religion on everyone else? NPR is as bad as NYT with this bland normalizing of the horrible. You’re getting solid expert feedback and from the general tone of the tweets, you might dial back the defensiveness.

From @jodisumot: NPR has been both siding, what abouting and soft peddling way too many “stories” lately. Where is the vigor? Rigor? There is so much giggling and “oh so side A says” as if every fact has two sides. Facts are not POV. Such a shame. NPR = moral compromises

From @buffsblg: You uncritically quote Pence’s staff about how he cares about gay folks. No one reading the article would know that Pence is the administration point man on regulations support discrimination against gays in employment, adoption and medical care.

From @CraigKleinpeter: If that’s truly the case, you did an astoundingly poor job. This reads like Pence hired a PR firm to write on him

Martin replied to a few of her critics, for instance snapping at that last one: “Hi Craig — please point me to the PR piece on Pence in which the author juxtaposes the VP’s apparent moral convictions with the Access Hollywood tapes. I’ll wait.”

Her final (or near-final) tweet on the matter echoed a familiar defense of journalistic both-sides-ism: that if “both sides” are angry, the reporting must be fair, balanced and correct.

“This definitely sounded like a PR piece. I’m sure Team Pence was thrilled with it,” one Twitter user asserted. Martin replied: “They actually tried to try to get me to change it after it aired. Thanks though.”


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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