NPR upset many listeners when it aired an interview with Jason Kessler, who organized the white nationalist “Unite the Right 2” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen reported earlier this month. In the interview, “Kessler talked about white grievance and spouted discredited theories on racial IQs,” she explained.
“The interview was painful to hear; it had me yelling at the radio, as I know many others did,” Jensen wrote.
At last year’s rally–organized by Kessler and held in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11-12, 2017–counter-protester Heather Heyer was run down and killed by a white supremacist; this year’s rally, held in Washington, D.C., only attracted “a couple dozen” attendees. (Jensen noted that NPR also upset readers with a tweet that didn’t clearly state a white supremacist was responsible for her death. The NPR tweet said “One year ago, a car rammed into counter-protesters during a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Activist Heather Heyer was killed.”)
Kessler said in the interview with NPR that he denied being a white supremacist or nationalist, instead claiming he is “focusing on the underrepresented Caucasian demographic.” The NPR interview lasted more than an hour but was edited down to “under seven minutes”, NPR media critic David Folkenflik reported.
Jensen noted that NPR contextualized the Kessler interview and it was only “one element in about a dozen stories across all NPR shows leading up to the” rally. Further, NPR warned listeners Kessler’s interview would contain “racist and offensive” comments, Jensen wrote.
“NPR has decided it will air these interviews,” Jensen wrote. “I am on the fence about whether they are necessary. But if NPR is going to go that route, it needs to strengthen its practices for a more responsible execution.” NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara declined to comment to iMediaEthics in response to Jensen’s criticism.
For her part, Jensen suggested other ways NPR could have handled an interview with Kessler and reporting on his views including:
- NPR could have incorporated his comments into a “reported piece, using clips from the interview and weaving them into a report.”
- NPR should have included in the broadcast interview a question about Heyer’s death (Jensen said NPR cut the question and answer from the aired segment).
- NPR “aired in such detail Kessler’s views on racial differences,” which was a bad call
- There wasn’t enough background information to explain who Kessler is
- NPR paired the Kessler interview with a brief interview of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York’s president Hawk Newsome which suggested a “false equivalence.”