NPR Interview Takes An Inflammatory Turn : NPR Public Editor Listeners react to a Trump supporter's remarks on Morning Edition.
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NPR Interview Takes An Inflammatory Turn

Carl Paladino speaks before a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on April 10, 2016, in Rochester, N.Y. Mike Groll/AP hide caption

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Mike Groll/AP

Carl Paladino speaks before a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on April 10, 2016, in Rochester, N.Y.

Mike Groll/AP

A live interview on Wednesday's Morning Edition with Carl Paladino, an honorary co-chairman of Donald Trump's New York campaign, left some listeners feeling as though they had tuned in to talk radio and not NPR.

Paladino — an outspoken real estate developer from Buffalo, N.Y., whose controversial statements and actions drew press scrutiny when he was running as the Republican candidate for governor of New York in 2010 — was in the middle of a fairly routine post-election interview about his candidate's win when he suddenly veered into an unbridled attack on President Barack Obama.

The set-up question from host David Greene was about the possibility of a delegate fight at the July Republican convention. Paladino's response:

PALADINO: Well, you've got to look at the intensity of the people that are supporting Donald Trump. This is a political revolution. This is not an election — not your everyday type of election. This thing is very meaningful, OK? We're talking about ridding the party of the establishment class — ridding Washington of the Washington elite monsters that have given us this illicit government that people just can't stomach any more.

That festering anger has been going on for many years in the minds of the — what we used to call the silent majority. And they're not silent anymore. Now they're the vocal majority. And they're pretty upset over what's been happening in America. They give us a guy like Obama, and we've had to tolerate incompetence. We've had to tolerate his biases. But a man who in every respect looks like he despises America is the leader of America. And this is disgusting. He's so into himself that he just — he can't help himself. And how did a guy like this rise to that point of being president of the wonder of history and of the world?

Greene tried to bring the interview back to Trump, but Paladino again turned to the Democrats, and Greene abruptly ended the interview — because he had run out of time, the newsroom said — after Paladino used a metaphor that many listeners took to be racial slur. Here's the full end of the exchange:

GREENE: Donald Trump can be criticized at times. It is said that — you know, his critics say he is playing on ...

PALADINO: Everybody can be criticized. Everybody has flaws, OK?

GREENE: Well, I wanted to give you the chance to respond to the criticism that it's — you know, he has been using so-called scare tactics. Give me something substantive that you feel you could tell New York voters. Like, here's the proposal ...

PALADINO: I think the press has to get over that, OK? If you're looking for — if you're looking to find a flaw or a gaffe, you're going to find it in anybody, OK? The essence of the man is that he's speaking to the people. And he speaks directly to them. And he engages them. People that get onto this bus, the Donald Trump bus, are people that are very, very frustrated with their government as it's been. That's the most important thing. It doesn't matter what kind of person is the exterminator, OK? They want the raccoons out of the basement.

GREENE: We'll have to stop there. Carl Paladino, thank you very much for joining us. He's the honorary co-chair of Donald Trump's campaign in the state of New York.

A number of listeners wrote to express their concern with hearing on NPR "what can only be construed as a racial slur," as Karen Loeb of Eau Claire, Wis., put it. "I felt sucker punched. The interview ended. It had most likely gone in a direction you hadn't intended or anticipated. I can understand that. I would hope you and NPR will follow this up with some analysis of what he said, that it's hate speech," she added. "It was such an ugly way to end the interview, and Paladino definitely had the last word, and he shouldn't."

Pat Beale of Boise, Idaho, wrote that Paladino "used your station to stir up bigotry and racial strife." Sally Ethelston, a listener to WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., wrote to my office:

"I was appalled to hear the comments allowed on the air from the honorary co-chair of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. While I am a supporter of freedom of speech, including over the airways, I am forced to ask what kind of screening was done in terms of allowing inflammatory, derogatory comments about President Obama on the air, without any effort to somehow rebut or at least insist on a measure of politeness on the air. If those comments [had] been made in an online posting in response to a story, I imagine they would have been reported and deleted."

This was Paladino's second live NPR interview in the span of a few hours; he was also interviewed for a Tuesday evening election special and kept his comments to standard analysis of the New York primary election returns.

This interview brings together several issues listeners often raise. One is: Should NPR's interviews be respectful or more confrontational? Listeners feel very strongly about both sides of the issue. In this case, several listeners told me they wished Greene had pushed back more.

My own thoughts: Greene seemed to lose control of the interview. I wish he had been quicker to interrupt Paladino and bring the interview back to Trump, not Obama, because that was the interview's intended focus. The abrupt end made it sound as though it was cut because of the controversial remark, when, in fact, it was for time. I hope that had Greene not run out of time, he would have pressed Paladino on what he meant by the "raccoons" remark, or even better, some extra time could have been found to get that important question in so Paladino did not have the last word. (Some NPR employees I have spoken to felt it was a slur; others did not. What is very real is how many listeners interpreted it. For what it's worth I asked Paladino by email what he meant and in a roundabout way — he forwarded an email exchange he had with another publication — he denied any racist intent. He said he was referring to this "widely circulated piece written by an 80-year-old American.")

As to the content of the interview, as jarring as it was to hear such comments on NPR, listeners came away having heard an unvarnished snippet of the rhetoric that is zooming around talk radio and the internet this political season; there is nothing polite about much of it. Hearing someone say it in the middle of a live interview — on NPR of all places! — makes an impact.

Did NPR have an obligation to call it out as racism? Sarah Gilbert, the executive producer of Morning Edition, said of the interview: "An informed electorate draws conclusions about candidates by listening to what they, and their spokespeople, have to say." My feeling, too, is that listeners can make their own determination about what Paladino's comments say about Trump. But I am in agreement with listener Loeb about some sort of follow up.

Gilbert told me a next-day story was not planned because the show had a full schedule this morning with its live broadcast from Tennessee. Fair enough. But Paladino's comments have been widely picked up and criticized elsewhere. It seems odd not to even acknowledge an exchange that happened on NPR's own air and there are other ways of adding to the debate. Public radio talks often about its capacity to create dialogue within a community of listeners. Even finding a minute or two for some on-air listener letters would have provided some counterbalance to Paladino's views.

Correction April 22, 2016

A previous version of this post said that Morning Edition was live in Kentucky on 4/21. It was in Tennessee.