NPR Faces Listener Backlash After Scott Lively Interview

Evangelical crusader Scott Lively, credited with inspiring anti-gay legislation in both Uganda and Russia, was interviewed last week on NPR’s “Tell Me More” program by host Michel Martin to discuss Uganda’s harsh new statute.

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

Evangelical crusader Scott Lively, who is credited with inspiring anti-gay legislation in both Uganda and Russia, was interviewed last week on National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More” program by host Michel Martin to discuss Uganda’s harsh new statute outlawing homosexuality. The interview, which lasted over 10 minutes, included the usual doses of Lively’s incendiary rhetoric, including his assertion that “sodomy is not a human right.”

Lively also justified anti-gay discrimination by comparing it to other forms of bigotry: “Gender, race, ethnicity – these are all morally neutral. But homosexuality is – involves voluntary sexual conduct with serious public health, social, sociological implications. It’s not irrational to discriminate on that basis.”

The interview sparked a strong negative reaction from NPR listeners, who took to social media such as Facebook and Twitter to chastise the network and Martin for broadcasting the interview. Among them was Ted Allen of the Food Network, who commented: “Can’t believe ears: Why is @NPR legitimizing anti-gay Scott Lively on @TellMeMoreNPR?!”

Others commented at NPR’s website, chastising NPR along similar lines: “Real people are dying because of this man’s work. I am offended by this man’s hate-speech. Truly offended. Why give him a platform for his propaganda? Why not the Westboro Baptist Church? Or the White Rights movement?”

Martin and editor Amita Parashar Kelly responded on-air Monday: “Now of course, we’ve thought about those questions,” said Kelly. “But our mission is to bring listeners stories that affect people’s lives. And we know that what Pastor Lively says is offensive to a lot of people. But the fact is that he has a huge reach around the world. People in Uganda are listening to him, and Uganda’s parliament is listening. So we wanted to hear what he had to say.”

Martin also responded to charges that her interview was too soft, noting that she had interviewed Lively in the context of having earlier interviewed Frank Mugisha, a gay Ugandan activist and one of the leading critics of the laws:

I would say that every interview is different. I would say that I feel I did push back — to quote a phrase — where I felt appropriate. But I think that some of the people who wrote in are actually looking for something else. I think that what they are looking for is the emotional release of my berating him for his views. I felt that my job in that moment was to let people who are not acquainted with his views know what those views are.


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Explaining that I was writing for Hatewatch, I wrote to Martin to express our own view:

Our concern is not so much that Lively was given the time to air his views – it’s normal journalistic procedure to cover the spectrum and let listeners judge for themselves. And like some of your listeners, I probably would have liked to have heard more pointed counter-questions: For instance, when Lively referred to the critics of anti-gay laws as “serious bullies,” I probably would have asked him just who the bullies are in this case. But that kind of second-guessing occurs all the time for people conducting interviews (I often second-guess myself in similar post-mortem situations) and overall, I felt that you really did provide some sound journalistic pushback.

The real concern is that NPR’s listeners weren’t provided adequate background on Lively, and it was done in such a way as to suggest that Lively’s views are common among evangelicals. (They are not.) NPR’s listeners to this segment would not know that he avidly promotes the theory that homosexuals were responsible for the Holocaust; that he is also active in Eastern Europe, notably Russia, where he takes credit for Putin’s installment of a regime of anti-gay laws, and where anti-gay thuggery by neo-Nazis has become widespread; and that, moreover, as we have documented, he has been a major player in a wide swath of anti-gay hate-group extremism. Lively instead was simply identified as an “evangelical leader” and described in a benign way that would suggest that he speaks for evangelicals on the subject, when in fact only a narrow spectrum subscribes to his radical views or endorses his hateful rhetoric.

We understand, of course, that there is only so much airspace for providing listeners with background on your interview subjects. But we would like to know why Lively’s background was seemingly whitewashed in this instance.

Martin responded:

I take exception to your characterization of my interview. I believe I was one of the first U.S. reporters to take Scott Lively seriously when he first addressed the Ugandan Parliament in 2009 and I reviewed many of those issues then. I did not believe it necessary to plow the same ground as in previous interviews when he was less well known. We chose to interview him again because Frank Mugisha, whom I also previously interviewed, identified Scott Lively specifically as a person of influence on the debate and I felt that our listeners could benefit from hearing from him exactly what he believes. And I feel very comfortable with the tone of my interview in the time that we had, which was precisely the same and in the same place on the show as the interview I had with Frank Mugisha the day before. The advocates can’t have it both ways. If the interview had been longer to include Mr. Lively a full biography I am sure there would have been complaints that the interview was too long. If you believe in free speech and an unfettered press then you have to believe in it when the views expressed are offensive to you.

I also believe as evidently others do not that our listeners do not want or expect me to think for them and are capable of analyzing this information for themselves.

I responded:

I hope you don’t misunderstand the nature of my query. We don’t object to the fact that you interviewed Mr. Lively, or even that your interview might not have been as hard-hitting as we might have liked. Your critics are wrong about that, in my estimation. We believe in journalistic thoroughness too, and you were justifiably exploring this area.

The problem, from our view, is not simply that journalists cover extremists (we are, after all, mostly just journalists who cover extremists), but when that reportage doesn’t make clear to public audiences the nature of the extremism that is being covered. I hope you understand that red flags go up for us whenever any extremist is covered and presented in the media as somehow representing a mainstream view, even a mainstream conservative or, as it were, evangelical view. There are important distinctions between far-right hate groups and the mainstream right, and it’s concerning to us whenever those distinctions are blurred, especially in a way that could leave audiences with the impression that far-right extremists somehow reflect mainstream views – and disconcerting, of course, whenever it occurs with reporters who typically are more thoughtful and careful.

Martin’s final word:

I feel I have said all I need to say about this except to add that I think you are confusing your work with mine. I respect your work, but your work is not my work.

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