October 2, 2014
Michel Martin
The Fabric of Our Identity

If journalism is a primary way we tell the story of ourselves and our time, Michel Martin is a person helping us tell that story — and take part in it — more completely. Her daily NPR program Tell Me More was often labeled as “diversity” or “minority” programming. But in fact, she and her journalism are about a more generous and realistic sweep of who we are now — and how we’re creating our life together anew. At the Chautauqua Institution, we mine her wisdom on the emerging fabric of human identity.

The third in a four-part series, “The American Consciousness.”

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is a journalist with NPR. She previously reported for The Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and ABC’s “Nightline.” She was the creator and host of the NPR program Tell Me More, which ran from 2007-2014.

Transcript

October 2, 2014

MICHEL MARTIN: You want to know what my real charge to people is? My real charge to people is look around and see who’s missing. And try to invite that person.

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: In any given moment…

MS. MARTIN: In any…

MS. TIPPETT: …in any given situation.

MS. MARTIN: Look around. Who’s not here? Who’s not here? Who’s not here?

MS. MARTIN: So there’s all this, like, I’m sad that this is this way. OK. What is the one thing you could do to fix it? Go do that thing. Just go do that thing, you know?

[applause]

[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: If journalism is a primary way we tell the story of ourselves and our time, Michel Martin is a person helping us tell that story and shape it more completely. Her daily NPR program Tell Me More was often labeled as a “diversity” or “minority” show. But in fact, she and her journalism are about a more generous and realistic sweep of who we are now — and how we’re creating our life together anew. In this third episode in our American Consciousness series, we mine her wisdom on the emerging fabric of human identity.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: I spoke with Michel Martin in a week of live conversations as part of the 2014 season at the Chautauqua Institution. We were in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy.

MS. TIPPETT: So, this is the day that I get to indulge in drawing out a contemporary, and a comrade, and an esteemed colleague in my field. Michel Martin. And we’re going to talk about the shifting American consciousness, as it pertains to our world of journalism. And also about the wisdom she’s gained, um, about the world through her life, and her work in this field. Although we did just set the ground rules that I’m — this is my interview and I’m in charge here.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] If she gets out of control, I’m going to call her on it. Um, Michel Martin has spent more than 25 years as a journalist. She’s worked in print, on television, and now in radio. She’s covered state and local politics for The Washington Post, the US Embassy bombings in Africa for “Nightline,” and she’s been the White House Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Michel Martin studied sociology at Radcliffe College, at Harvard University, and has also done graduate work at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She joined National Public Radio in 2006 as the creator and host of Tell Me More, which broadcast it’s last show on August 1, 2014. And we’ll talk about that in a moment. So, did you spend your whole childhood in Brooklyn?

MS. MARTIN: I did.

MS. TIPPETT: OK.

MS. MARTIN: I did. My father was a firefighter.

MS. TIPPETT: Your father was a firefighter.

MS. MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: OK.

MS. MARTIN: OK, we are a family of people who respond to bells ringing.

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: My, uh, my aunt is a police officer. She was one of the first black women to become a detective in the New York City Police Department. My uncles — two of my uncles were cops. Whenever I get called for jury duty, I’m up there for a very long time.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: And, was there a, um, religious spiritual background to your childhood?

MS. MARTIN: You know,  I’ve heard people use the phrase, uh, culturally Jewish, not religious. So, I would say, culturally Christian, but not disciplined. Um, in the sense, I think it was really more of a function of the kind of the chaos of the way we were raised. Uh, we were church-goers periodically, like we were a lot of things periodically. And it really wasn’t until I became an adult that I started seeking kind of a specific, uh, discipline, um, a specific frame for those ideas. I went to an Episcopal high school. I went to St. Paul’s School, um, so I think, you know, I would say, culturally Christian, in the way that so many of us are. Particularly those of us who are African-American, you know, you are kind of steeped in the story. It’s fundamental to you, even if you don’t have a particular label to place on it at any given time.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Um, well, let me say — I want to talk about journalism.

MS. MARTIN: Sure.

MS. TIPPETT: And also, I’m just going to note here that it’s rare to be — we’re two of the very few women hosts in public radio. So here we are.

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And we get to have a conversation with each other. Um, it — what — how did you first get into journalism? What drew you?

MS. MARTIN: Interestingly enough, it was that, um, in college. Because I think like a lot of people of my era, we all assumed we were going to law school, whether we wanted to go or not. And, you know, for some — I don’t know how that happened that we were all supposed to go to law school.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, what year were you born? Can you…

MS. MARTIN: Um, ’59.

MS. TIPPETT: ’59. Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. We were all supposed to go.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. That’s true.

MS. MARTIN: I don’t know why we were all supposed to go, but we were all supposed to go. And I started writing for The Harvard Crimson, and I was just — I just fell in love with it. And it was — at the time, there was a series of assaults on young black girls in the Allston, you know, Brighton neighborhood and in Roxbury. And it was somebody, like a serial sort of predator preying on these girls. And I was never reading about it in the paper. And I just thought that was crazy. And you know how the arrogance of your youth, you think well, I’ll fix this.

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: You know. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And I wrote my little story for The Harvard Crimson, and you know, and it was fascinating — it was just all those things opened up at once for me. Like, for example, I called the Boston Police Department to ask for a comment about this series of assaults, and I’m quoting accurately. When I called up and I said I’d like to have a comment from you, he said, “What am I talking to?”

And I said, “What do you mean?”

“What am I talking to: black or white?”

[gasps]

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

MS. MARTIN: So, you know, I said, well, I’m black, does it matter? And he said yes it does. And I don’t remember anything after that. I don’t remember anything about what his comment was after that. But just to give you a sense of what the environment was at the time, where people felt like they could just tell you — ask you, you know, to your face, like what — or over the phone. And, I just think that once I kind of did my piece for The Crimson and I had people stopping me and saying, I didn’t know about that. And I think I got hooked on that. I got hooked on the, I didn’t know about that.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: So for me, that was the driver, was telling people something that they didn’t already know. And, you know, so there it is. And so, mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, so I also — I mean, I was born in 1960, and I also got into print initially. And, you know, when I went to college, I started reading The New York Times religiously. And, um, I’m sure you feel this way, too. We would never have imagined back then that in our lifetimes we would see the decline of newspapers. Um…

MS. MARTIN: No. Growing up in New York, which is…

MS. TIPPETT: …it’s incredible.

MS. MARTIN: …three-newspaper town, I mean…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: …my parents had three newspapers in the house always. It never would have occurred to me, no.

MS. TIPPETT: And it is shocking, and it’s still shocking to me, but, I also, just in the last few years, realized how incredible it is that, let’s say those of us who love The New York Times, every morning we read this thing that at the top said, “All the news that’s fit to print.”

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: How absurd.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: You know, but, I mean, what you’re pointing out is it wasn’t true, it was never true. And there’s so many things that we can bemoan about the loss of newspapers as we’ve known them, but that awareness that there’s so much more story and reality is essential. I mean, that’s what you were seeing.

MS. MARTIN: Well, I have very — as you would imagine, I have mixed feelings as I’m sure you do, too. I mean, the decline of the big newspaper is similar to like the decline of the department store.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: where you could find…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: …a, you know, a little bit of a lot of things, let’s say. And now it’s boutiques, and everybody’s, you know, people are too cool to go to a department store, ‘cause they want to go to this boutique that nobody knows about but them. But the problem is that there is no gathering place for us all to find out things that we all would benefit from knowing, really. And…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: …that’s the — that is the tension for me.

MS. TIPPETT: And don’t you think that’s what we have to create now somehow? I mean, that’s the next innovation.

MS. MARTIN: We have to try. But we have to want to. I mean, on the one hand, I am very interested in, I think, my work has been of attention of on the one hand, validating the experiences of people who are not always heard from, and letting them know they’re not crazy, but also connecting people who otherwise do not meet. I mean, I think that’s — what’s — shall we?

MS. TIPPETT: That’s ambiance.

MS. MARTIN: I don’t…

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: So I think both and, the question then becomes, I mean, I remember when I was working in New York. I worked in New York, I was, uh, I worked in a television — well, I worked at ABC for what, like 13 years or something like that, and I was working on a program there, and I would go up to New York quite often to film the, you know, interstitial segments, right? The studio segments were all filmed in New York. And I remember going to get my hair cut once at this place in, uh, very nice salon that geared toward women of color, African-American woman. And the girl who was washing my hair said, “Well, let me know when you have the black segments on, because that’s — those are the only ones I’m interested in.”

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. MARTIN: I remember this, you know, this kind of swoony feeling coming over me, like, oh, God, I’m just trying to get my hair cut, but now I have to educate this girl about why she’s wrong.

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: You know, and, uh, and I was trying to kind of sort of gently suggest to her that that’s just not right. You know, you can’t — that’s — you just can’t live in your bubble and not come out of it.

[applause]

MS. MARTIN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and…

MS. MARTIN: And we’re choosing that. We’re validating that by our choices. And so the question then becomes is how do we persuade people to come out of their bubble.

[Music: “Twinkle” by Victor Malloy]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: in a live conversation with journalist Michel Martin. We’re in the outdoor hall of philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York — in a week devoted to exploring the “American Consciousness”. We spoke shortly after Tell Me More, the NPR program she created and hosted for seven years, broadcast its last show.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, one thing that disturbed me as I was getting ready to interview you and, you know, just steeping myself in the show, and then things written about the show. And even in the way NPR describes the show — or it’d be described as an NPR program aimed at minorities. And, you know, I think what you do in your journalism on NPR is you —  and I really think you’ve followed that thread that you pulled out those years ago, that you want to tell more of the story.

So, it’s not at all that you don’t have mainstream white voices or, you know, some of the same kinds of intellectuals who are other programs, but you bring an array of voices in that reflect the array of who we are. And there seems to be something really troubling at the idea that because you know you are an African-American woman, and I think that’s the inference that’s being drawn, you know, that it’s a program aimed at minorities, but whereas a — so many of the programs, and let’s just say on public radio in particular, which are hosted by white men, are for everybody.

MS. MARTIN: Well, I — no, I agree with you. I find that very annoying. Like, how is it that, you know, white people are universal…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: …but the rest of us are not. Like it’s like, you know, white people get to be universal peanut butter, but we’re always the crunchy. You know, I mean, what is that?

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: You know, why is that? I feel like I’m very mainstream. I had a woman once complain about the music on the program and she said it was — I don’t remember what she said, it was something insulting. I don’t remember. But it was something about the music on the program, about how it wasn’t, you know, mainstream enough or something of that sort. I said, I started laughing. I said, lady. I went to Harvard. My husband’s on the symphony board. I don’t know how much more mainstream you want to get.

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: You know,  what does that mean? That is — that’s privilege, isn’t it? You get to universalize yourself and decide that you’re everybody, and these other people are different. That’s privilege. Um, I think that what I tried to do is just exactly…

[applause]

MS. MARTIN: …well, thank you. I mean, what I try to do is exactly what you said, is kind of pick up the loose ball. What’s the side of the story that isn’t obvious? Like, for example, during the beginning of the, you know, conflict between, you know, Ukraine and Russia, we had a Russian Orthodox priest, and a Ukrainian Orthodox priest in the studio and I said to them, what’s your job at a time like this? How — who are you in this?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And one of the things that they both pointed out was how much intermarriage there is between Ukrainians and Russians. In fact, the Russian Orthodox priest was married to a woman of Ukrainian heritage. And realizing that’s what happens on borders, right? And that was the first I had heard of that, or even thought about that. And so was that for minorities? But I dunno — look, it’s our broader discomfort with race. I mean, it’s just — was it Condoleezza Rice, called it our birth defect? It’s that — which isn’t to say that I feel defected, because I don’t. But the circumstances by which people particularly of African descent, and also I would say by Asian descent who came here under circumstances which were different from people who came by choice, even if the choice was pressure, starvation, and, you know, poor economic conditions, who came here under duress, uh, is something that we have not really come to terms with in a way that we can commonly talk about. You know, when people say things like, I don’t even see color, I don’t see race. And I always want to go, what’s wrong with it that we can’t see it?

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MS. MARTIN: I like mine. I’m good. I’m — I like my color. I’m fine with it. You can see it. I don’t — it’s — we don’t say that about other groups, other things. Like, I remember, you know, we go to the beach in the summer on the Delaware shore, and there are a lot of people who put, you know, flags on their porches. And I see a lot of Irish — flags from the Irish, you know, the Irish Republic. I see a lot of flags from Italy. People are just declaring their heritage. And nobody says, I don’t see that.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MS. MARTIN: [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: And  don’t you think that’s — it’s about our discomfort and it’s also about something that’s come up, you know, this week in the conversations here that, journalism — journalists — so let me just say, I think the context of this conversation is you and I are two people in the field…

MS. MARTIN: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: …talking about how we’re going to recreate, you know, how — the work we have to do. Um, because every — all of our institutions are being recreated and reinvented. The problem that, um, the same destructive, let’s say, religious voices, or racial voices get so much airtime, you know, I mean, it came up in the context of this week at Chautauqua with Richard Rodriguez, you know, he was talking about where the Christians were, the churches when you have children in despair at the Mexican-American border. And I think that’s a valid question to ask in our culture, but I also know, and I think you know, that there are a lot of Christians, and a lot of churches, and a lot of people of different faith out there, but the cameras get pointed at these ugly, terrified, hateful voices and people, and they get pointed at them over and over again.

MS. MARTIN: I agree with you. And I’m always puzzled by that. I mean, I know that, you know, when my last show on August 1st, um, one of the people that I had on was a Rabbi in Washington, D.C. — Orthodox Rabbi in Washington, D.C. And obviously one of the reasons that we called him was to ask the same question, what’s your job at a time like this? When there’s so much going on, you know, in Gaza, in the Middle East. And, you know, part of what he said, and I’m not going to quote him in a way that he deserves, was to say that part of my job is to speak to people’s higher — a higher purpose at a time like this. And, part of the reason I felt it was my job to put on voices like that. I mean, one of the things he said to me is it’s so much of the coverage of the religion is either infantile or incendiary.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: It’s true. It’s either infantile in this kind of this —  forgive me local news, because I know that’s an important and hard job, but it’s either — isn’t it interesting that those people do that? You know. Wow, look at their funny customs, you know.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. [laughs] The “religion is for weirdos”, school of journalism.

MS. MARTIN: Yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: It’s either that or…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: They — they mean well, but it’s still…

MS. TIPPETT: Quaint.

MS. MARTIN: …annoying.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And then — or, it’s incendiary, people who are deliberately provocative, people who are burning Qur’ans, people like that, who is — I mean, these people who are doing all this agitating in New York against the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, which, by the way, was nowhere near Ground Zero…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: …were people who were, you couldn’t tell me right now what their job is, what they — what standing do they have, that would cause people to follow them? Other than that they’re racist and loud. And so, you know, I don’t know why that is. I confess to you. I have been in this business as — you and I have been in this business a long time, and I continue to be puzzled by why…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and I also…

MS. MARTIN: …is that.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s appalling to me that journalists make mistakes and sloppy generalizations about religious people, and about religious tradition, that they would never let themselves make, or that some editor would correct them about if it were political or economic.

MS. MARTIN: That is true. And I — but I think it’s in part because — well, I don’t know. I think it’s in a way like similar to race in that people act as if they don’t notice it, it somehow will go away. And I mean, this is where, you know, the whole question of, right, people saying I don’t see race, I don’t see color. It’s a false doctrine of politeness. It — they mean well…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: …but it’s actually — they’re demeaning you, in a way that they don’t mean to. There’s this kind of a glossing over of difference. I mean, I agree — you know, I enjoyed your conversation with Richard Rodriguez, but I disagree with him on this whole question of diversity. He said diverse comes from divide. Well, we recognize the value of diversity in other spheres. I mean, biodiversity. We couldn’t exist without biodiversity. I mean, those of you who are in the financial field, I’m sure, have preached the doctrine of the diversity in portfolio.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: Why then is it so shocking that diversity of opinion, background, is also important to the healthy functioning of societies? I don’t…

MS. TIPPETT: And I…

MS. MARTIN: …understand why that’s such a hard concept.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I, you know, I think what he was getting at is that…

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: …um, yeah, is that sometimes — that there’s a flatness to the way we talk about celebrating diversity, which actually is about, you know, saying aren’t we all wonderful and don’t we have so much in common? And in fact, not getting at that richness and vividness and vitality of what makes us different.

MS. MARTIN: Well, I remember, when I was a White House correspondent, you know, back in the day, and we were, you know, first of all, I’ll just apologize in advance, ‘cause reporters have a sick sense of humor. That’s just a fact. I’m sorry.

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: So, just letting you know in advance. And I remember we were flying over the Andes, and we were getting, you know, we were on our way to a Latin America swing. This was — I covered the George H. W. Bush, Bush 41, and I was in that press corps, and we were flying over the Andes, and we were having all kinds of turbulence. And so we were, you know, so reporters sick sense of humor, they were talking about if the plane crashed, who would get the headline. And, you know…

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: …it would be — we said, oh, no, Leslie Stahl was in that press corps. She’s oh Leslie’s going to get the headline. I wonder if I’ll get a paragraph? And, all this. But when the conversation got off the kind of the sick side of it, we started thinking about our skill sets. And one of the reasons — one of the things we observed is that we had the skill sets to survive because some of us were — had been former Marines. Some of us — some of — particularly some of the videographers, some of our camera operators, were Marines. Former Marines and who had had survival training. And some of us had been trained in emergency medicine. Some of us — I guess what I’m saying is, even this rarified group, the diversity of experience…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: …we realized would have helped us to survive. And that is how I would like us to think about this.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: I would like us to think about the diversity of perspective and experience that…

[applause]

MS. MARTIN: …would help us to survive.

MS. TIPPETT: And then the biodiversity context…

MS. MARTIN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. I wonder — so one of the things you’ve done in your journalism at NPR and certainly on Tell Me More is to say that faith and family are huge topics at the center of your journalism. And I wonder, um, how you respond to the — because, you know, I think in journalism these are considered to be soft, and subjective, and…

MS. MARTIN: Girly.

MS. TIPPETT: …girl — well, girly, yeah, even that. Um, how do you respond to that? How do you think about that?

MS. MARTIN: Don’t care.

[laughter/applause]

MS. MARTIN: Brush it off, haters. Don’t care. Take a hike, haters. Go. Don’t care. I just think that these things are so fundamental to the way we live that they deserve the seriousness that we impart to other topics.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And part of what I am trying to do is — elevate is the wrong word, because they don’t need my elevation. But to allow us to discuss these things in a way that allows my values to come to the fore, which are facts, first of all. I’m in the fact-based side of journalism. Let me just put it this way.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: The people who are enemies-driven, who look for their enemy, and then try to fire at that person, that is not me. And I hope that all of us here are lifting up the fact-based side of journalism. And so what I try to do is impart facts to things that we have opinions about.

For example, I just did a book last week about, uh, a couple of weeks ago, about the long shadow, and a very deep study of the life chances and trajectories of a large group of children in Baltimore over 25 years, remarkable work. Half the subject sample black, half the subject sample white, and they destroy many of the myths that people have. The fact that, for example, that the white boys with a high school education only, far more likely to be employed than the black boys with a high school education only. Why is that? Their social networks. Their social networks allowed them to be employed. The fact that drug and alcohol use among the white kids was greater than that among the black kids, but it — drug and alcohol use had a far more deleterious impact on the employment opportunities for the black kids. So these are knowable facts.

So even though I recognize after all these years in this business that a lot of people don’t care what the facts are, I’m hoping that other people do. My work is for them. And so it’s knowable facts and also to help us talk to each other about experiences that could be helpful to each other. I mean, one of the reasons I got very interested in the parenting conversation, is that I look at all these parenting magazines, you know, when you’re — when you’ve got little kids, I don’t know. If you — if you’ve got little kids, you’re like desperate for information about, but I found that so much of the conversation was how to get your kid to eat carrots. All right, well, once you’ve gotten your kid to eat carrots, what else is there?

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right. But…

MS. MARTIN: But I…

MS. TIPPETT: Reams and reams of books and volumes on how to get them…

MS. MARTIN: It’s all about the carrots.

MS. TIPPETT: …to sleep and how to get them to eat.

MS. MARTIN: Get the carrots. OK, now that we’ve got the carrots together…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: …what happens when your kid goes out to the playing ground and somebody calls him the “n” word? What are you going to do? What happens when you — your son is the only white boy on his basketball team? And you know, the kids on the other team are jealous because they want to play for that team because it’s a good team, and they think he’s taking their spot. And they rough him up in the locker room. What do you do? What do you do when your, um, you’ve taught your children, use your words to diffuse conflict, and then you go to a sporting event and the other parents are, knock him down! Knock him down! And you’re like, oh, wow. What do I do about — what? You know, that’s kind of what I’m interested in. And I didn’t see a lot of that being discussed in these parenting magazines. So that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about, the kinds of the things that I think a lot of people are talking about, but bring in voices that they might not have access to.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And, but the facts alone don’t take us there, either, right? The parenting magazines need to think bigger, and so does journalism as a discipline. And I mean, I think, you know, what you do is you work with facts and you also bring, um, human voices of wisdom and experience, because that rounds out the facts, right? I mean, the facts don’t tell us the whole truth.

MS. MARTIN: Well, I think in part what you and I do is in part offer people a way to talk to each other.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. MARTIN: That they might not have in their own lives. I can’t tell you how many times I got letters from people who would say, I feel like I’m kind of standing at the window listening to a conversation, and I want to join in, but I don’t know how. And just as there are certain people telling us how to talk to each other, which is to basically yell at each other until the other person submits, I think part of what we’re doing is showing people another way to talk to each other. And I’m hoping that people will draw inspiration and courage from that. If I — I hope I’m not being too grand, but I’m hoping what they will do is say to themselves, I can do that, too. Because I’m sorry, I mean, I, you know, I love you to death, but this is not rocket science, what we’re doing here. I mean, I love it…

MS. TIPPETT: I know. I know.

MS. MARTIN: …but we’re not, you know…

MS. TIPPETT: I know. It’s true.

MS. MARTIN: …you can all do this. We’re all qualified.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: We are all qualified to do this.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: Because I think all we’re really doing is setting an example. And I’m hoping that other people will use our work to open the door to those conversations themselves.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I totally agree with you. We’re so form — we have these few templates about how you discuss a difficult issue. And it’s a dead-end, and we know how it will end.

MS. MARTIN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: But if you can start it with a different framing question.

MS. MARTIN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And you can have a completely different conversation.

MS. MARTIN: Well, like people talk about citizen journalism, now. And citizen journalism, I think, is important. I appreciate it, because we were taught — last night at dinner was funny. These ladies asked me to, um, take a picture of them. And they had a camera. I’m like, wow, a camera. I haven’t used one of these in years.

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: Where’s your phone? I said, let me have your phone. And so, you know, so like the technology has allowed people to kind of take pictures of things that are happening and to make that journalism. And I appreciate the importance of that. But I would like — I think people can practice journalism in other ways. And the technology is not the relevant aspect of it. The relevant aspect of it is the question and the listening. And anyone can do that.

[Music: “Sunny’s Song” by The Benevento/Russo Duo]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Michel Martin through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[Music: “Sunny’s Song” by The Benevento/Russo Duo]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, in the third episode of our American Consciousness series, we’re with NPR’s Michel Martin, mining her wisdom on the emerging fabric of human identity. Her journalism seeks a fuller, more generous and more realistic sweep of who we are now — and how we’re recreating common life. She reported for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and ABC’s “Nightline” before she joined NPR in 2006 to create and host Tell Me More. That daily program broadcast its last show in August, 2014, just a week before I spoke with her at the Chautauqua Institution.

MS. TIPPETT: So again, what we’re used to getting, especially from news, is uh, the extraordinarily terrible thing that happened today, right? We get pictures of people frozen in the worst moment of their lives. And we get that same terrible picture ten or 100 times and the news cycle moves on. I think what you’ve tried to cover and draw out is how people survive, flourish, grow, keep loving and laughing, which is also part of the story. Right? There is also this irony that good news is not as riveting. I mean, good is not as riveting as evil. I mean, I say that, and I — and I — as I say it, I think, you know, part of what I want to do is show that good can be as riveting and that you have to draw it out a certain way. But you know what I’m talking about. There’s this thing to work with.

MS. MARTIN: Well, I mean, tricky question for me, because I — because both things can be true. I mean, if you are a person in dire circumstance, then being noticed, that’s the most important thing you can do for that person. I mean, I think sometimes what we do as journalists is, if I could use this expression, a ministry of presence.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. MARTIN: What we are simply saying is, I see you. I mean, I know for example when — you know, when I was working for “Nightline,” and I went to Turkey after there was a terrible earthquake there, and like, you know, thousands of people were killed. And I was feeling really useless. Um, thinking, boy I wish I were a doctor. I wish I were a structural engineer. I wish I could do something more useful. But then people would come up to me and say, thank you for being here. And I would feel, like, wow, why are thanking me? And then I thought — and I called my — you know what we do at a time like this. You know, I called my husband, because [laughs] I really feel like so useless. What am I doing here? And he said, you are showing them that they exist. And I appreciated that, because I’ve held onto that. It’s like sometimes the best thing we can do for people is let them know that we see them.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. MARTIN: And so sometimes, you know, other people’s bad news is, you know, their lifeline, and letting them be understood. In fact, this was the very first story I did when I was at The Post as a little baby reporter at The Washington Post, and I was sent out on the summer — it was one of those terrible stories that you hate to do because some little boy had fallen out the window of the projects.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And I had to knock on the woman’s door to get a comment from her. And I kid you not, I walked around the block three times before I mustered the courage to knock on her door, because I knew I had to. And I felt like, you know, and I knocked on the door. And she — and I said, I’m so sorry, I heard about your son, I came to see if there was any — a comment that you had. And she said, where have you been? Because she felt that if someone from the media didn’t come, then this was invisible and it had no meaning. And she had things she wanted to say, like why weren’t there any safety screens on the windows, which there were supposed to be. So, I bring that up to say a lot of times, what sometimes what middle class people see as intrusion, other people with no power see as validating their existence.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: So, both things need to happen.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. MARTIN: And I think part of what we do in the media is we are a bridge to people who are isolated for whatever reason. And I think we can be that connection. I mean, I —  like you, I’m disappointed that we don’t often use that connection for better purpose. And, you know, I continue to be puzzled by why that is. But, uh, you know, one has to be hopeful because — you know, to rise in the morning is to have hope, isn’t it?

MS. TIPPETT: you know, I mean, let’s just — I happened to be driving across the country when all the Trayvon Martin, I think, at some point in —  at one of the days in that — in that whole drama where it was on the news again. And, you know, you  drew out people on every side of that human drama, people who loved both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, for example. And I think that, you know, you actually delivered a sermon that I listened to online. I think you — we may be the only public radio hosts who’ve given sermons.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know. I bet Ray Suarez has done a sermon somewhere, too. Um, you talked about also the need — and I think you were speaking to journalism as well. But in our culture, for the ‘What now? What next?’ question. Right? So, like, even in telling that woman’s story, and just witnessing — being — bearing witness to her reality, almost the moral challenge we have to also help ourselves and our listeners, our — consumers of our journalism start looking towards hope beyond that moment. And also maybe their place — their potential place in that.

MS. MARTIN: Well, I thank you for that. That is a — that is a high compliment. Um, and so I thank you for that. You know, on the Trayvon story, that I have to say that one of the things that, um, I offer a challenge to white people who care about these issues to stop allowing themselves to be disappeared in this story. And it happens time and time again. I interviewed the Congresswoman Corrine Brown who represents the district where this took place. And she is an African-American woman, and she told me that the first person to meet her at the airport to talk to her about this, was a white parent in that neighborhood who was outraged about what had happened. And he met her at the airport when she came in for her district visit, and said, “You’ve got to get on this. This is wrong.” But somehow that voice has disappeared.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: In that story.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And similarly, who were many of the witnesses who talked about what happened who felt that, you know, that an injustice had been done, they were white parents in that neighborhood. And similarly, I remember I had a speaking engagement up at Syracuse, and it was a number of — there was, you know, ladies who lunch, kind of thing, I don’t know what it was. It was like a group of people — they were supporters of the public radio station. I remember a number of these people came up to me, who were white, I’m saying that in air quotes, whose grandchildren were black, or who had kids who were biracial.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And they were saying, you know, this has really rocked my world. And I’m thinking to myself, you know, why don’t you see these voices in that story?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: Why is it that — so my challenge is that when you have institutions that are failing, citizens must rise. And I feel that I would like that people who do not see themselves in these narratives to step forward and demand to be heard. Because the dynamic of the black people are over here, mad, and the white people are over here with George Zimmerman, is simply not true.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: Is simply not true. And I, you know, tried to interrupt that dynamic, that binary dynamic, which I know to be false, but you know, I’d like some help.

[laughter/applause]

MS. MARTIN: I’m looking at you.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I like that. And I like the idea of journalism in the 21st century being more interactive, which it is.

MS. MARTIN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Except what have we done? We created comment sections, which are full of vitriol, right? But interactive in a real way. I mean, you also, in your sermon, which was excellent, I think, if you are looking for another career, you should think about that. Um, you said, you know, and here you’re speaking to yourself, but you’re also speaking to consumers of news. Maybe we could stop being bored with the stories of how hard things are, keep paying attention after the verdict is rendered and the story is no longer in the headlines. That’s a challenge to all of us.

MS. MARTIN: It’s a really interesting question, because for example, I have never wanted my work to be seen as a repudiation of other peoples’ work like my colleagues.

MS. TIPPETT: No, yeah.

MS. MARTIN: Particularly people who do like the drive time shows, like the morning show and the afternoon show. They feel like it’s their job to tell you the thing that you need to know right now. And I just don’t feel that way. I’ve never felt that that way. I mean, when — before I went to NPR when I was working at “Nightline,” it, you know, which is 11:35, I mean my colleague and my, you know, mentor Ted Koppel, I mean one of the reasons he always wanted to be on at 11:35 at night was that other people weren’t fighting over that space.

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MS. MARTIN: So he could kind of put on the programming that he felt was most important.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. MARTIN: And so, one of the reasons I liked being on in mid-day is I don’t — I never felt that I had to do the one story that everybody feels they have to — the same story that they’re doing over and over, and over again. I never felt that I had to do that. And that’s kind of my challenge, is how do I, you know, recreate that opportunity.

[Music: “Soulmate” by Chris Beaty]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: in a live conversation with journalist Michel Martin. We’re in the outdoor hall of philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution in New York in a week devoted to exploring the “American Consciousness.”

MS. TIPPETT: I want to open this up…

MS. MARTIN: Oh, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …to all of you in just a minute. Um, there’s so many things I wanted to talk to you about. Um…

MS. MARTIN: Well, I’m not going anywhere.

MS. TIPPETT: I know, except they are.

MS. MARTIN: I’m happy to keep you company until…

[laughter]

MS. TIPPETT: You — you wrote a piece that’s gotten a lot of attention in the National Journal recently.

MS. MARTIN: Yes, mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Playing off  the piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter, which got a lot of attention earlier, a few months ago, um, this idea that women can have it all is just not true, and those of us who grew up in a world believing we could have it all, one day you wake up and you have children, you have a job, and you realize it wasn’t true. And you still have to work this out for yourself. Um, and you pointed out that, uh, even when we start to have that discussion, which is overdue, that it still ends up being a discussion not really about women, but about a certain class of privileged white women.

MS. MARTIN: Well, I was very, um, it’s interesting because they — the National Journal asked me if I wanted to offer some reflections on this piece. And, um, I didn’t realize I had that much to say about it, until I just started writing about it.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, and you said, what did you say? You said this is your version of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. So, tell me why that analogy, I mean, because that’s a big statement.

MS. MARTIN: It is a big statement, and I apologize if it sounds grandiose, because I don’t mean it to, uh, but it was, because I felt like I had been in so many rooms where people kept talking about “we” this, and “we” that, and they weren’t talking about me. And again, it was not aimed at the mean, you know, racist people who don’t want to hear it. It was aimed at the good people who are oblivious to other people’s truths.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And they’re sitting right there. They’re colleagues, people down the street.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. MARTIN: And I guess I want to say, again, that here’s what — I’m — you want to know about my real charge to people is? My real charge to people is look around and see who’s missing. And try to invite that person.

MS. TIPPETT: In any given moment…

MS. MARTIN: In any…

MS. TIPPETT: …in any given situation.

MS. MARTIN: Look around. Who’s not here? Who’s not here? Who’s not here?

[applause]

MS. MARTIN: And see — and I know, you know, and a lot of people think, well, you know, I don’t want people to be mean about it. Well, OK. So? Go on to the next person. Who’s not mean and say you know, I was thinking, this group is just a little narrow, and would you —  you know. You know, like, for example, I’ll give you an example. There was this women — you know the PepsiCo chairman, Indra Nooyi is the chairman of PepsiCo.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And she gave this talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival. It was — got a lot of attention about her, you know, here she’s this big executive of this Fortune 500 company, and she talked about how at her children’s school they had all these coffees at 9:00 in the morning on Wednesday when the working mothers couldn’t go. And so, and that made her sad.

[laughter]

MS. MARTIN: And I was like, does this woman not write a check to these people?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: I was thinking what — and then she talked about how she’d called up, you know, some of the other mothers to find out who also didn’t go. Why don’t you call up the other mothers and say, hey what? How about we switch it up?

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MS. MARTIN: So that sometimes you can go, and sometimes we can go. How about you call that school and say, you know what, you have excluded an entire class of people who, oh by the way, are writing the checks for your tuition.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MS. MARTIN: Why don’t you think about sometimes at 9:00 in the morning, sometimes at 6:00 when we can go. How about switching it up. You see my point?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: So there’s all this, like, I’m sad that this is this way. OK. What is the one thing you could do to fix it? Go do that thing. Just go do that thing.

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: That’s good.

MS. MARTIN: You know? So, anyway.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Um, in Charleston, West Virginia, we have a excellent shelter for physically abused women, who when they escaped from the situation, they have a place to live and stay, and they get food, and shelter, and everything they need. They can bring their kids there until they can move on to the next part of their life. And, um, the Today Show has a program where, in — once a year, Al Roker goes out with a truck and donates things that places like that need. So, they came, they interviewed, uh, the director of this program, and multiple times, she made it very clear that this was totally funded and developed and initiated by a group of Christian churches, Protestant churches, and the Jewish synagogue, and the Jewish temple, OK. And I mean, she said it multiple times. So when they showed the piece on this, no mention of Christ, no mention of Christianity, no mention of Judaism, no mention of religion in any way. And that was a fact, I mean, this — that…

MS. MARTIN: I believe you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: She didn’t make this up.

MS. MARTIN: I believe you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: That was a true fact. Why does mainstream media feel compelled to just leave that out of stories?

MS. MARTIN: I mean, I — I completely believe you, and I think it’s the same reason something I talked about, you know, earlier, which is this whole thing of, like, I don’t see color. Now in part, I would say, I think it’s because a lot of people who are kind of trained in a certain style of journalism have been led to believe that it’s icky, and therefore, you know, you can’t win, and somebody’s going to be mad. So you’re looking for this false middle. Right? I will say, I think that’s — it was a terrible editorial decision. And I think that’s the kind of thing that cries out for a person to call him up and say let me explain to you why that’s a bad idea. You missed a fundamental part of the story. And I just think that people have been trained in a certain way, and I think it’s also unfortunate that a certain wing of Christendom has so captured public dialogue in the current era that people associate any kind of, you know, religiously motivated experience with the bully-boy wing.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: You know. And I just think it’s — I think it’s a shame and I’m sorry that happened. And I don’t think it’s too late. And I think that you should call them back.

MS. MARTIN: It’s not. I think you should call them back.

[applause]

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: First, I think you’re both national treasures. Thank you. And I was…

[applause]

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: …extremely disappointed personally when I learned, Michel, about your program being canceled. Um, what I’m wondering is to look forward in the broader realm of journalism, it’s going through a lot of changes, it’s messy, it’s crummy when it makes some of the kinds of decisions it made recently. Um, what would be your hopes with a tinge of reality in terms of if there are some positive possibilities for journalism as it goes through this messy transformation? What do you see as possible that might come out of it in the future?

MS. MARTIN: Well, I will say one of the things that — on the — in the near term, the  disappointing note, and  I will not end on a disappointing note, but on the disappointed note is that there are a number of new media outlets, which are even less diverse than the old media outlets. I mean, this is very disturbing to me. And I just think that can’t continue. And this is the kind of thing where I would ask people to use their voices in the audience to say, not acceptable. I mean, it can’t just be me. Right? I can’t just be like, you know, it’s got to be the audience broadly defined saying this is not acceptable. This is not what we expect and you need to do better. Because I guarantee you, they will.

Um, I am hopeful, because as I said to get up in the morning is to be hopeful. And that — I see enough of an appetite for the kind of work that we do that my feeling is that if we can get a couple of the pieces right, then we can change the paradigm. Because people who — when we change the structures, we change what’s possible. I mean, why does a place like this exist? Because somebody needed — people had the idea of creating a structure where different things can happen. And the people created this and then revised it over time. And so that to me is what needs to happen in our field, and I’m hopeful that we will figure that out.

[applause]

MS. TIPPETT: So I just want to ask you two quick questions before we finish. Um, I wonder as you have pursued the stories that aren’t told, as you’ve interviewed so many different kinds of people about so many aspects of life these last years, this is a big question, but how has this shaped, evolved, the way you think about what it means to be human? I know it’s huge, but what comes to mind?

MS. MARTIN: It — you know, it’s, um, it’s interesting that, uh, one of my, um, mentors, you know, Ted Koppel, told me that you know, the more famous he got, the more humble he got. You may or may not know this about him, I don’t think he’d mind my telling you this. He was actually quite a fiery young man. He was kind of a spicy young man who would like he’d throw hands over a parking space. I mean, he was just an angry young guy. I mean, I think he’s written about this, so hopefully I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. But, uh, that era has long since passed, and he quoted that, that when he got older and became more famous and people were just so nice to him just for existing, he found it really hard to be angry, or, you know, to be so caught up in something so petty seemed so wrong. And, um, I was never that way, I’ll just be honest. I but the more you get to know people, and the more they trust you to tell their stories to you, they — they — it’s like a gift. Every time somebody tells me their story, I feel that they have given me something precious. And it’s my job to protect it. And, I — and that cannot help but change you. And, um, you know, you wrote me another beautiful note, you know, I think, some people know this after my brother died.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: He took his own life, um, very, very hard.

MS. TIPPETT: And he had been a responder after 9/11.

MS. MARTIN: He’d been a first responder. 9/11.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MS. MARTIN: And, you know, I, um, had to learn a lot about — that brought me into a community of people that I had not been part of before. And, there is no why. There is a why, but the why doesn’t really matter. You know, he was my brother, and I loved him. And he’s not here. But it brought me into connection with so many people who had had that experience that all I can say is thank you, because they gave me that gift of connection. And not leaving me alone in my pain. And so, I think I would say that, um, really what I’m left with is gratitude, such profound gratitude, that people despite all of their pain and all of what people go through, are still willing to reach out to each other. And, um, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but I feel that it’s just made my world so much larger, and I hope that I’ve done just this much to make the world larger for other people.

MS. TIPPETT: Thank you.

[Music: “Minor Cause” by Emancipator]

MS. TIPPETT: Michel Martin has been a journalist for a quarter century. She joined NPR in 2006, and hosted Tell Me More until August, 2014. At NPR news, she’s now, among other projects, hosting public events as part of “NPR Presents Michel Martin.” On our website, you’ll find a link to a tremendous community conversation she hosted in Ferguson, Missouri, together with St. Louis Public Radio. That’s at onbeing.org. There you can also listen again or share this episode. And you can watch my entire 75 minute live conversation with Michel Martin at Chautauqua. Again, that’s onbeing.org.

On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, David Schimke, and Bekah Johnson.

Special thanks this week to Maureen Rovegno and Dr. Robert Franklin at the Chautauqua Institution. Also to Mitch Hanley.

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