Yesterday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bungled an interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly and stormed out rather than answer her last questions. (You can listen to their exchange here.) Then Pompeo’s aide made one of the most desirable entreaties a journalist ever hears after an interview: Would Kelly speak to the secretary again, and leave her recording device behind? This invitation is always attractive, because it often means the interview subject is emotional, bereft of judgment, and ready to say something even he knows he shouldn’t say. According to Kelly, who is a contributor to The Atlantic, Pompeo berated her, used profanity, and at one point directed his aide to get a map. He challenged Kelly to identify Ukraine, the largest country wholly within Europe. Pompeo issued a statement today all but confirming Kelly's account.
Pompeo’s only substantive complaint was that Kelly “lied” to him by saying they could speak “off the record” after their interview. This accusation is almost certainly nonsense.
To non-journalists unfamiliar with the press, the accusation probably sounds plausible—that Kelly betrayed Pompeo or, at a minimum, that she allowed him to think that they had agreed that their conversation was off-the-record, and is now cravenly abusing a technicality to expose that conversation to the world. Under this last theory, a journalist might let a source think he is off the record (perhaps because he has invited her to a private space, or asked her to leave her recorder behind) but because he never secured an explicit agreement, the journalist keeps the whole conversation on the record. Call it the “You didn’t say ‘Simon Says’” theory.
Pompeo ended his response by saying, archly, that “Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine”— implying that Kelly misidentified Bangladesh as Ukraine. This stupid, completely implausible dig against Kelly shreds his credibility in two ways. First, it asks us to believe that Kelly, a veteran foreign correspondent, knows less geography than an attentive high school social studies student. Second, by implying this lie rather than stating it, it makes Pompeo sound like exactly the type of coward who would whine that he had been wronged, to shirk responsibility for his unforced errors.
Pompeo is sophisticated. He is an intelligent man who 10 years ago left his job selling oil-rig parts, and has now served the United States as Director of Central Intelligence and Secretary of State. He is therefore in a special (but not small) category of interview subjects who employ people to do nothing but manage their media requests and brief them on how their interviews and media relations should go, and who therefore are expected to know how journalists work. If I interview a person who has never spoken to a journalist before, I am ethically obliged to make sure that person knows that I am a writer and will use any details of our interview for my report, unless we agree to keep those details off-limits. I’ll give a short explanation of what “on the record” means, and how to ask to go “off the record.” But when I interview a politician who has had a tape recorder thrust under his chin hundreds of times before, I assume he knows I am there on behalf of my readers, and will not be chatting privately with him unless we agree, explicitly, to do so.
Mary Louise Kelly undoubtedly has dozens of techniques for making a sophisticated interviewee reveal more than he wishes to reveal, just as Pompeo has dozens of techniques for parrying her. On the air, he resorted to the worst of these techniques, which is simply to flee the interviewer. But his subsequent assumption that she would consent to being browbeaten in private, that he could just stop the interview like a child calling a time-out in a game of street hockey, was both foolish and arrogant. Even kids know that you can call a time-out to let a car pass, but not to stop your opponent from scoring a goal—let alone to stop him from scoring a goal and then give him a noogie.
Pompeo says Kelly’s conduct shows why Americans “distrust many in the media.” One can see why Pompeo might distrust the media: we want him to reveal more than he wants to reveal. (And we seek these revelations routinely, from sophisticated sources of all parties.) But he was the one who scrambled for cover when asked a question, and whose scrambling was revealed, with total transparency, on the air.
He could prove his case by producing messages confirming that NPR agreed to an off-record conversation after the interview. These agreements, even if they were worked out orally with NPR, may have been preserved in dated memoranda from his staff, preparing him for the conversation. But I suspect that his presumption of secrecy, and of his ability to upbraid a reporter without her telling the world about his indiscretion, is yet another instance of incompetence and arrogance, mixed together. Pompeo, not Kelly, is making us all drink this familiar and bitter brew.