No, you won’t intimidate good journalists

mine sign in field
12/27/95–On Military Route “Arizona”- A sign warns of mines that were planted in a field during the Bosnian war. In a report published by the Bosnian and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, it stated, ” In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is still remaining more than 80,000 mines/ERWs. Mine problem is present in 129 municipalities/cities, or 1,398 affected communities/settlements.” photo: Jose R. Lopez/New York Times


By Caitlin Kelly

The past week has offered another look at how men try to bully women — this time an exchange between NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly and the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

From Kelly:

He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, do you think Americans care about Ukraine? He used the F word in that sentence and many others. He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes. He called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away. He said people will hear about this. And then he turned and said he had things to do. And I thanked him, again, for his time and left.


Here’s the reply from the CEO of National Public Radio.

An excerpt:

NPR CEO JOHN LANSING: He did not dispute the facts as she reported them based on the conversation that occurred after the interview when he had the expletive-filled rage. I think that’s important to point out. I think it’s also important to point out that Mary Louise Kelly has an email chain with Katie Martin, an aide to the secretary of state, confirming that she would be discussing Ukraine. So that’s a provably false statement. And it’s also important to point out that no journalist would agree to go behind closed doors with the secretary of state and agree to go off the record. That would just be something no honorable journalist would do.


It’s becoming increasingly clear to me — and to others who work in journalism — that many many consumers of news, whether print, broadcast, web, have no idea how the news is gathered.


It is not read from sanitized press releases!


It means sitting face to face with a wide array of people, some of whom are physically frightening (a warlord, say) or who can try to destroy your career thanks to their wealth and political power.

They will do everything possible to intimidate us — especially women. Because a woman journalist, doing our job well, often means being “unfeminine” — not deferential, compliant, flirtatious — genuflecting to power automatically.

It is our job, even politely, to question.


To challenge authority, to tell truth to power.

And the best reporting is not — as you’ve seen so often on television and in the movies — done amid a shouting, shoving pack, thrusting cameras and microphones into someone’s face.


Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Caitlin Kelly interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.


No, it’s personal, done privately face to face, often alone in a room with a closed door, and often with a powerful man accustomed to nodding, smiling agreement.

No woman journalist worth her pay is someone scared to enter those rooms, to gain access in the first place.

We don’t sit there with a boss or colleague or chaperone along to make sure we’re safe and comfy.

We know things can get heated.

I’ve had my share of men — and women — trying to scare me off a story. I worked as a reporter at the NY Daily News for a year, when it was still the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper. Tabloids chase stories hard.




I’d been there a few weeks when some flack (PR person) for the New York state government (i.e. my taxes paid his salary) started shouting at me on the phone because he disliked my questions. I told him to calm down and call me back when he was able to be civil.

Instead, he called my (male) boss to complain about me — to mess with me.

Inside that newsroom, the large photo editor also decided to raise his voice to me. I told him that wasn’t going to solve the problem. He, too ran to my boss.

See a pattern here?

I can’t count the number of times in my career — as a reporter for three major daily newspapers — and as a freelance journalist, that someone who disliked my inquiries has tried to bully me, to intimidate me, to shame or embarrass me into shutting up and going away.


Here’s what you need to know.

The best journalists have one job that’s very clear to us — we represent YOU, the audience:


The taxpayer.

The voter.

The patient.

The student.


The (relatively) powerless.

So, like soldiers heading into battle, we know it’s part of our job to take some verbal hits, to withstand sneers and derision.

It’s a point of pride that we do, and keep going, and sometimes actually get to the truth.

We will not back down.



22 thoughts on “No, you won’t intimidate good journalists

  1. Wow. The path to dictatorship is well worn, but one of the first steps on that path is the concerted effort to discredit and then eliminate independent journalists, female and male.
    Pompeo sounds like another version of his sleazy boss, so I’m not surprised that he would try to intimidate a woman because she has the temerity to use her brain.
    Great post, Caitlin.

  2. I worked in central bank communications, here in New Zealand, for a number of years and had first-hand experience of the way face-to-face journalism with the source – was managed from the ‘source’ end. The people managing the approaches from the media were ex-journos and had a pretty good handle on the calibre of the journalists they were allowing to access the Governor or other senior officials. For me the interesting part was that the quality of those wanting interviews dropped over the years I was working there, as news organisations began cost-cutting and looking for showy ratings-grabbing stories and/or ‘shock jocks’. I think it’s intensified the problem of journos being bullied merely for doing their job (which, by definition – as you point out – means having to ask proper questions… with a reasonable expectation of a civil answer because hey, it’s professional of the subject being questioned to do so).

    1. I see it here as well — and am really disheartened by all of it. It feels like some younger journalists have very little understanding of the business — or the basics of the business. Now the metrics of value have changed from fact finding and story telling to clicks and views.

      1. Have you heard The 2002 “Fresh Air” interview between Terry Gross and Gene Simmons of KISS? Terry Gross called him “The most obnoxious person she had ever interviewed”. He was arrogant, more than a little misogynistic (Can’t imagine why, considering the quality of the many, ahem, short term relationships he’s had with women) and completely unfiltered, but he was still civil and respectful of Ms Gross as an individual.
        It would surprise me to find that a great interviewer such as yourself hadn’t heard it, but if not, do so, it’s worth it.

      2. I totally lost my point there for a minute. I’ll be brief. What I was going for was that I think Pompeo and other high profile bullies are closer to the aberration than to the norm. I’m not endorsing any political candidates right now, except don’t vote for Trump, but one did say something pretty telling. “People talk about America as if we are a failed society. We’re not.”

      3. I love her. Cathy asked me if she was the one who did the Pompeo interview. I told her that a punk like him would never have the balls to get mean with a woman like her. That would have changed the entire complexion of that interaction, and no doubt.

      4. That is the way of punks and cowards everywhere. You’re right to be sick of it, we all should be. People abuse their power on such a regular basis it’s getting hard for anyone to relax at all. And that’s all people,, not just women and not just men. Bullying is a crime of opportunity and people find those opportunities everywhere. Happy little world we’re living in, eh?.

    1. It absolutely a sign of the times. In fact it has been for so long now that it’s rusty and full of bullet holes, but people still follow it. So many people have come to believe that a sincere apology is beneath them that even someone who does offer one has a hard time getting anyone to believe in their sincerity. People believe “Victims” because they want to, even though that victim is quite often an accuser with no evidence and a big time axe to grind. Link them up with a mob that’s toeing the party hashtag and anyone can be a bully.
      Now Pompeo. What an ass. No doubt about it. In our ongoing quest for enlightenment, I think we have lost sight of something very important. That important thing is the inestimable teaching value of a good stiff punch in the mouth.
      When I was in high school I made a comment about a young lady’s breasts. After he helped me back to my feet, the guy who had decked me said “Don’t talk that way about my sister”. I apologized and thanked him for not dealing me the beating I may well have deserved. I like to think of that as “Accelerated Sensitivity Training”. That was forty-odd years ago and I still remember. Don’t mess with success.

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