October 21, 2020
Q. As Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Atlanta-based host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” you deliver news and interviews across 19 radio stations that span the largest state in the Southeastern United States. Can you tell us more about the importance of local news in connecting people to local, and global, affairs?
There are countless reasons why people all over the world need local news and information. The coronavirus pandemic crystalizes its role in people’s lives. Without local journalists reporting on what’s being done by mayors, city councils, school boards, and public health officials, people can’t fully participate in local debates about local decisions.
Local journalists play the same role connecting people to international events and issues. Someone in Atlanta may think that millions of Syrian refugees seeking safety in Europe is irrelevant to them. But if they read a local reporter’s interview with a Syrian refugee in Atlanta, they may become more invested in the human tragedy of people fleeing violence and starvation, as well as the economic and social domino effects of mass migration.
Journalists who live and work in the communities we serve have a unique ability to connect people to global stories in a way our neighbors understand. This is something that organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations now recognize. In 2019, they invited me to join their Local Journalists Workshop. It’s CFR’s way of helping reporters around the country tell global stories to local audiences.
Q. You have spoken publicly about how trust between the news media and the public is in jeopardy, and how that can have dire consequences for our democracy. How do we begin to fix this?
As I said in my 2017 TEDx talk, The Future of News Is In Our Hands, people’s declining trust in the news correlates with the implosion of revenue structures that sustained news for generations. Journalism’s business model is one place to start restoring trust.
Smart and talented media innovators around the globe are experimenting with new business models and technologies. We are witnessing rapid evolution in journalism. I’m awed by the trailblazers who are pouring time and treasure into preserving people’s access to information and meaningful storytelling.
All of us can be a part of the solution. Quality journalism costs money to produce. It’s a service worth investing in and it pays dividends by making your community and your country’s citizens more informed, engaged, and inspired. Consider subscribing to at least one commercial journalism outlet and donating to a non-profit information source. Subscriptions are also unique gifts you can give to friends and family.
Q. Who are some of your favorite past interviewees? I see you’ve interviewed everyone from Dolly Parton to Jimmy Carter.
There are many funny anecdotes from my years interviewing celebrities. Years ago, I asked author Salman Rushdie if he believed in God. He said, “No. Well, maybe George Steinbrenner.” Rapper Big Boi taught me hand signs for people to show Atlanta pride. Singer/actor Janelle Monáe gave her interview entirely in character as her cyborg alter ego Cindi Mayweather. Actor/director Tyler Perry answered my questions in character as well, as the sarcastic, foul-mouthed Madea of his movies.
Some of my favorite celebrity interviews have been serious. A few days before rapper T.I. reported to federal prison on gun charges, he opened up to me about lessons he wants other young men to learn. Billionaire Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy shared his anguish at seeing wealthy friends be miserable because money failed to solve their personal struggles.
Another example is former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, who was Ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter. Young was with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. They’d been having a pillow fight in the Lorraine Motel room moments before “Martin” stepped onto the balcony where he was shot. It was a transformative conversation for me as a young journalist. I still check in with Ambassador Young every few months and I cherish his wisdom as a global leader on civil rights and civic engagement.
Q. You connected with France as a student in Strasbourg, where you studied literature. What are some of your favorite memories of that experience in France?
Strasbourg (in northeast France on the border with Germany) has the country’s second-largest university so I availed myself of all the college fun! French friends immersed me in the language and culture. We did a lot of dancing, ate tarte flambée with local beer, choucroute garnie, doner kebabs, and had spiced wine at Christmas. I studied hard, too. Strasbourg is where I fell in love with French art and poetry and German literature. And of course, it’s the seat of the European Parliament where I interfaced with International Relations students and experts from across Europe.
My experience living in Strasbourg also illustrated how people are shaped by culture and history as much as individual life experiences. For example, my 95-year-old host grandmother spoke French with an accent I could barely understand. She’d been born in Strasbourg when it was a German city, so her early years were spent speaking German and the local dialect, Alsatian. After World War I, she became a French citizen and had to learn the French language. It was a priceless lesson that national borders are mutable political constructs and that culture and identity are deeper than a passport.
Believe it or not, I haven’t been back to Strasbourg since my University semester ended in 2000. Perhaps my FAF cohort will be an excuse to visit!