The Future Of Don't Ask, Don't Tell
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Right after President Obama called for repeal of the 17-year-old law that prohibits gays from serving openly in the military, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a year-long review study on what would happen if don't ask, don't tell goes away.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We will enter this examination with no preconceived views but a recognition that this will represent a fundamental change in personnel policy, one that will require that we provide our commanders with the guidance and tools necessary to accomplish this transition successfully and with minimum disruption to the department's critical missions.
CONAN: A lot of people heard that as when, not if. And while it's up to Congress to repeal the law, a great deal will depend on what they hear from officers and enlisted personnel.
So today, we'd like to hear from those of you in uniform now or retired military. If we do away with don't ask, don't tell, what would change? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, this year's crop of Super Bowl ads on the Opinion Page this week. You can email in your raves and rants now. Again, that address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
But first, a world without don't ask, don't tell, and we begin with retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Bob McGinnis. He was part of the Army task force that studied this issue back in 1993. He's advised the Pentagon on it since. He's snowed in at his home in Virginia and joins us on the phone. Nice to have you with us today.
Lieutenant Colonel Bob McGinnis (United States Army, Retired): Well, thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And what do you think would be the effect of repeal?
Lt. Col. McGINNIS: Well, I really see a number of issues here. Certainly, we would look at, perhaps like we did in '93, at the indicators of whether or not unit cohesion would be hurt. We'd look at bonding. You know, that's trust and confidence.
By denying someone or taking away their privacy, specifically, you know, if you tell someone that you're homosexual, and a heterosexual takes offense to that, and you force them to share a room together, what might the consequences be? That's something we looked at.
We certainly looked at, Neal, you know, dealing with four sex groups. There were some tangible costs, we thought, because ability and berthing issues, and the 24/7 environment. That's pretty critical.
We looked at the personnel policy issues, like Mr.�Gates said at the hearing the other day, and whether or not are we going to have mandated training, as I suspect we will. What implications does this have on personnel evaluations? If you have a bad attitude about homosexuals in the military, what might the implications of that be? What about military communities, family housing for homosexuals that happen to be married under state laws? What about Diversity Day? What about civil-union child-custody issues?
The issues that we looked at in '93, I think, Mr.�Gates and his working group need to revisit to make sure that they are still because if they are still valid, Neal, the law, which has very specific, logical 15 findings, comes to the conclusion that homosexuality is incompatible with military service. And that logic, if in fact is validated by going to the field, talking to the men, women and their families, then we need to keep the ban as it is. If it's changed, then that's a different proposition.
CONAN: It was interesting. Admiral Mullen said I've served with homosexuals in the Navy ever since I graduated from the academy in 19 whatever it was, '78, I think it was. Did you serve with people you knew to be homosexuals?
Lt. Col. McGINNIS: I served with people who I suspected were homosexual, Neal, and that's the problem with this. You know, I've never been a fan of the notion of don't ask, don't tell, the law I subscribe to. Don't ask, don't tell was a pretense. It forced homosexuals to pretend they weren't and the military to pretend it doesn't care.
Indeed, it did, and of course, it was politics. But yes, we've - I think since the time of George Washington, who, you know, kicked out the first known homosexual during the Revolutionary War, all the way up to the present, we have had some, but we don't know how many, and the polls certainly are not scientific. So it's anyone's guess.
CONAN: Does public opinion weigh into this because, according to the opinion polls, it's gone from about 53 percent support for homosexuals to serve openly back in 1993 to something like 59 percent now.
Lt. Col. McGINNIS: Well, because we have such a specialized environment, culture in the military, civil rights, compassion, individual fairness or even public-opinion polls should be trumped by what makes our military the most effective military it can be. And that's I think the gist of what Mr.�Gates and the working group has to discover. If, in fact, our conclusions back in '93 are different than they are today, based upon the stark reality of what we're asking these young men and women to do in foreign places across the world, is different today than it was back then.
I think the science hasn't changed. Certainly, public opinion has, but we need to be very careful about, you know, messing with a volunteer force. These young men and women are going off to foreign fields, being wounded and killed, because for a variety of reasons. And if we upset that apple cart for any reason - and how tenuous it is - we need to be cognizant that this could lead to some very serious consequences, I think, for our country.
CONAN: And of course, you're aware, more aware than I am probably, people said very much the same kinds of things about integrating the forces racially and about introducing women onto the battlefield, and indeed, there are still laws that prevent women from being in combat units. Nevertheless, in Iraq, we've certainly seen where there's no delineated front. Women have been killed and injured and taken part in combat.
Lt. Col. McGINNIS: Yeah. And I've heard those arguments many times. You know, race and sex are very different aspects of a person's identity, Neal. You know, when President Truman was dealing with the issue, he was dealing with the integration, not the changing exclusion. You see, it's faulty logic to use the example of moving from segregation, like we had in the late '40s and early '50s, to integration just to justify the move from exclusion, which we have right now regarding homosexuals, to...
CONAN: Yeah, you say it's exclusion, but it's not. Tens of thousands of people who are gay, we can disagree on the numbers, but thousands of people who are gay serve in the military right now.
Lt. Col. McGINNIS: They serve in the military, you're right, but they serve undercover. And I told you earlier, I don't particularly applaud that. I think it was a bad decision, but that was a distinction.
And with regards to women, you know, there are some obvious reasons why we segregate, you know, teenage men and women in close settings. We don't force them to sleep next to each other. We don't force them to use the same shower facilities. And we do recognize, just like every parent in America who has teenagers, that there is sexual tension, and that has consequences.
Now, if you want to double that issue, then we have to deal with that reality. And that's something that I think Mr.�Gates and his team have to examine very closely because if it has a serious impact on the trust and confidence that you have in a small team, and in your leadership, then that's very important.
CONAN: Colonel McGinnis, thanks very much for your time today, appreciate it.
Lt. Col. McGINNIS: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: We hope you can dig out. Thanks very much. Lieutenant Colonel retired Bob McGinnis joined us from his home in Northern Virginia, which as you probably know has been covered with snow.
Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Sherry's(ph) with us from Hampton, Virginia.
SHERRY (Caller): Hi, good morning, good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon, Sherry.
SHERRY: I just wanted to say I am active duty Air Force, and I know a lot of homosexuals that are serving in the military. They are some of the hardest working, most valuable workers that we have. And I don't think it's fair at all that they have to live in subterfuge just because they've chosen to serve their country.
CONAN: And would it be an easy transition, do you think?
SHERRY: No, I think it's going to be a very difficult transition, but I think it's high time, and I think it's the right transition. I do like the comparison of when we desegregated the forces because mostly because there were obviously large factions of people that didn't agree with it, but they got on board.
That's one of the great things about the military is that decisions are made, and it is our responsibility to adopt those decisions. The time is now.
CONAN: The time is now. And if there's people who have difficulty accepting it, what about them?
SHERRY: I think that they will there are plenty of things that people in the military disagree with that they do because that's our job. I mean, you know, we serve in the military because we love our country. We may not agree with the administration, but it doesn't matter. There should be I think our military should reflect our country, and our country includes people who are homosexuals.
I personally, I am an atheist, and until very recently, I didn't feel comfortable saying that around my colleagues. But now in the military, it's a climate of acceptance, and I can say whatever I feel about my belief system, and there's mutual respect among my colleagues.
CONAN: Sherry, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
SHERRY: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And joining us now from a studio in Philadelphia is Congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, a retired three star admiral in the Navy, and he got a lot of snow there in Philadelphia, too. And Congressman, thanks very much for taking the time to make your way into the studio.
Representative JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Absolutely, and we do, we do have it and more to come.
CONAN: More to come, coming Tuesday, but that's tomorrow's problem. Same question I asked Colonel McGinnis: What do you think would be the effect of repeal?
Rep. SESTAK: I think this is going to be a very positive effect. It's going to help the military institution. We are losing good warriors right now in the midst of two wars. We cannot afford to lose them.
You know, I had gone to war. I commanded an aircraft carrier battle group in the war in Afghanistan, and we knew by public surveys that a certain percentage of them were gay. How can one come home and say they don't deserve equal rights? And on board that aircraft carrier, there was 5,000 sailors. Their average age: nineteen and a half. That generation doesn't even blink an eye if somebody's gay, on the whole. This is something that, as I questioned Secretary Gates at the hearing in the House Armed Services Committee the other day, I almost wonder why it really even takes a year to study its implementation because as Admiral Mullen said, we're forcing someone to live a lie. That harms the institution that's asking him to lie, or her.
CONAN: We have an email from a commander in the Navy, named Louis(ph). This is a huge mistake, he writes. It affects only a small portion of our service members. There is no, nor has there ever been, any right to serve in the military. We're an all-volunteer force now, but even when the draft was in effect, the military itself always reserved the right to accept only those that meet the requirements to serve.
Rep. SESTAK: But who sets those requirements? Men, and yet or women, in the laws of our nation, and we're not a we basically take our direction from the Constitution and from the Declaration of Independence where all men are created equal.
We worked our way through the African-American experience. I put a woman into combat in an F-18 the night I arrived off Afghanistan. There is no reason we aren't going to work our way through this fairly rapidly with good commanders who understand, and their men and women understand about good order and discipline. This is not an issue we can't move rapidly onward with.
CONAN: Congressman Joe Sestak, with us from Philadelphia. Coming up, more of your calls. If you've served in the military, or if you're serving now, how would that military change if don't ask, don't tell goes away? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week, the nation's top uniformed officer and the secretary of Defense both told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that don't ask, don't tell, the law that prohibits gay men and women from serving openly in the military, should be repealed.
Today we're talking about if and how the military might change if that law goes away. We're still talking with Congressman Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral. If you're in uniform, or if you're retired military, tell us what you think, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And let's get Darryl(ph) on the line. Darryl's calling us from Nashville.
DARRYL (Caller): Hey, Neal, how are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
DARRYL: I appreciate you taking my call. I think I agree and disagree with the previous callers. You know, I've served with a lot of men and women who were homosexual and were great, were great leaders, were great soldiers and did their jobs with honor and valor. But at the same time, you have to look at the difference incidences.
With all the other stressors that are involved, say for instance, a live-fire infantry unit, you know, just the ones I've heard of, where soldiers have had pencils shoved through their ears, have been violated in a number of different ways. I think those are all things that you have to look at.
CONAN: When you say soldiers had pencils shoved through their ears, these are soldiers who were believed by their colleagues to be gay?
DARRYL: Oh, yes, sir.
CONAN: And pencils shoved through their ears so it would make them leave the unit?
DARRYL: Well, he pretty much left life with that incident unfortunately.
CONAN: Ah, I see. So fragging, if you will.
DARRYL: In a sense.
CONAN: In a sense. Congressman Sestak, let me ask you about that. He's talking about an extreme form of intolerance.
Rep. SESTAK: Well, let me tell you about a similar incident. There was a young petty officer three years ago in the United States Navy who was people thought were gay, his seniors. So they handcuffed him, dragged him through dog feces and then threw him into a dog kennel in Bahrain, where there were dog-hunting - dog units. There was a report for discipline about it that never got acted upon. It came to my attention. I gave it to the chief of naval operation who investigated it, fired the chief petty officer and disciplined the three star admiral.
My point is this: We had asked that gentleman to live a lie, and so therefore, he was taken unduly advantage of. You know, African-Americans weren't permitted to even serve in an integrated way, and yet, you know, we treat them equally, and their good order and discipline maintains that type of good order and discipline.
If this fragging incident happened, it was because, quite frankly, it may have been helped by that we forced people to live a lie. That sailor I talked about was taken undo advantage just because the commander, in a sense, he could not go to the commander to say I'm gay because he was being persecuted against.
So that's why you don't want to force people to live a lie. And are they good? The gentleman who just called in said they were good. Why don't we want the best?
CONAN: Darryl, any response to that?
DARRYL: I believe that, you know, like the gentleman is saying, you know, some of those soldiers are the best, but you have to look at the other soldiers that are extremely uncomfortable, you know, taking showers, sleeping next to homosexual individuals. On the battlefield, all that changes. There's no color, there's no segregation. You're all there for a common bond. But when the mission's over, and you go back home, and you have this homosexual who is blatant and open with his views and his ideas and his sexuality, that's going to cause an extreme amount of tension, an extreme amount of stress. And I think inevitably it would be a bad idea.
CONAN: Darryl, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Go ahead, Congressman.
Rep. SESTAK: Just one comment. In a sense, I don't think people out there, when you're in combat, as the gentleman Darryl just said, it really matters. But when we come home, and if there is this stress here, we don't take it out on someone when you go into a gym somewhere and just to work out, and we know a certain percentage are gay.
And the other issue is is if someone is doing this at home and focusing upon someone because they're gay, that should be a hate crime. And that's what we are about in this nation, everyone created equal.
I appreciate his points, and I thought it was quite frank about it in a helpful way. That's exactly what we don't want to do is side on the side of people that are actually discriminate.
CONAN: Here's an email. I hoped I was wondering if I could get a response from you about, from Ann(ph) in San Antonio. Don't you think the problem, quote-unquote, in the military is not with homosexual soldiers but with intolerant attitudes found among the rank and file, not to mention officers? There will be need to education seminars and a very strict no-tolerance policy on anti-gay behavior. I think that's what you were just talking about.
Rep. SESTAK: I think if someone were to really go at least on the crews I was associated with, one would be taken with how thoughtful and intelligent the military are.
Our enlisted are the backbone of our service, are exceptionally a bright group of men women. Almost in the whole, they're graduates of high school. And I think there is some intolerance, but I think you have seen a generation of leadership that has passed on from 1993, when the lieutenant colonel was working on that initial study, much like society's elder generation has potentially grown up, and different types of templates of how to think about others has moved on.
And so on the whole, I think you're going to find quite a bit of tolerance out there. Will there be a segment, as there was when we integrated African-Americans? Absolutely, but I do like the woman's comment that said we are a reflection of society, a society we serve, and if we are absolutely different than them, how well can we appreciate that society that we serve in the military?
CONAN: Congressman Sestak, thanks very much for your time today, appreciate it.
Rep. SESTAK: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And good luck traveling in the snow.
Rep. SESTAK: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Congressman Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, joined us from a studio in Philadelphia.
This email from Blake(ph) in San Antonio: I was in the Army in the 1960s at the age of 19 and served with several gay soldiers in all my units. It wasn't a problem, even though I was hit on numerous times by gay soldiers. I am rabidly heterosexual and was not tempted to change that. The gay soldiers did their job, just like the rest of us, and it was never a problem.
Let's go next to Lisa(ph), Lisa with us from Broken Arrow in Oklahoma.
LISA (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
LISA: I served in the Navy from '72. I retired in '93. I served with many who were gay. I knew they were gay. They were just sailors. The people who had a problem with them were those who were rabidly homophobic and were, like, oh my God, he's going to hit on me. And it's like so? Just say no thank you.
I was hit on by many, many, many, many men, even though my husband is a retired Marine, and I saw no problem with somebody being hit on if they backed off when they were, you know...
CONAN: When they heard no, yes. And do you think it would be a difficult transition, given those people you describe as homophobic?
LISA: No, I think they should be treated just like anyone else who is harassing someone, you know, regardless. I was harassed because I was a woman in the military many times. I was discriminated against because I was a woman in the military, and the guys and it was mostly men who did it. They could never understand why I had a problem with the discrimination. And so I think that, you know, throughout the years when I was in the military, I saw many changes, and I think making this change is way overdue.
CONAN: Lisa, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
LISA: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Joining us now is Bill McMichael, Pentagon correspondent for the Military Times Newspapers. He was going to planned to join us here in the studio, but the subway station he uses is snowed in. That's at the Pentagon in Virginia, and nice to have you on the program today.
Mr.�BILL McMICHAEL (Pentagon Correspondent, Military Times Newspapers): Thanks, Neal, nice to be here.
CONAN: And I wonder - you've done some reporting on this - how has the reaction been since we're heard from the president and the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs?
Mr. McMICHAEL: Well, we've been working on a package of stories in a poll for the last few months, and those results were just published today, as a matter of fact. And so we've got what we think is a unique poll, the first of its kind that asks questions about orientation, living arrangement, other social concerns, about 3,000-plus active-duty or mobilized reserves who responded to that.
And the answers are really across the board, but generally speaking, the attitudes appear to be changing overall on a very gradual-decline basis from 19 I'm sorry, from 2003 until this latest poll, showing that about 63 percent back in 2003 opposed repeal, and that's fallen down to 51 percent in this new poll that we've conducted. At the same time, those who favor repeal have increased over that time period, over that seven-year time period, from 24 percent to 30 percent, and there's another 20-odd percent that is neutral, or they say they decline to answer.
CONAN: Okay, so 51 percent what's your margin of error on this poll?
Mr. McMICHAEL: I don't know that. I didn't do the poll side of it.
Mr. McMICHAEL: I did the talking to the folks in interviews with the gay service members and other folks who agreed to talk with us.
CONAN: So ultimately, it will be up to Congress to repeal this law if they will, but they're going to have to take in account what military leaders say. Is there a distinction, does the poll say, between officers and enlisted?
Mr. McMICHAEL: Yeah. Actually, it's pretty close. It's surprising. The results are - if you look at age groups, for instance, age 18 to 29, about 30 percent favor, 51 percent oppose; and ages 30 and older, it's 30 and 52 percent respectively. So in the services, they are vary somewhat by service, I should say. You see the greatest number of folks who favor repeal in the Navy followed closely by the Air Force, the greatest opposition, pardon me, in the Marine Corps and then the Army.
CONAN: Over 30, by definition, you're either a senior noncom or an officer?
Mr. McMICHAEL: I don't know if by definition, but you're pretty close to it, sure.
CONAN: Pretty close to it.
Mr. McMICHAEL: And that's our readership - I mean, our readership is basically midgrade NCOs and noncommissioned officers and officers.
CONAN: So is a scientifically conducted poll or was this a poll of your readership?
Mr. McMICHAEL: This is a poll of our readership.
CONAN: I see, so its - okay. That's - that makes a - I guess, could make a difference in terms of how you measure the overall military, but nevertheless pretty interesting. So was there a question that if ordered would you implement this policy?
Mr. McMICHAEL: The - well, that question was that asked? What I could tell you is that, first of, anecdotally, without question, everyone I talked to, you know, focus groups and in one-on-one interviews said absolutely. I mean, even folks who are diametrically opposed to having gays in the military said, hey, you know - as one lieutenant colonel told me, a Marine lieutenant colonel, he says, either you're all in or not...
Mr. McMICHAEL: ...you know? So I will execute it to the best of my ability.
CONAN: Here's an email question that we have from Kevin(ph) who asks, what do -how do our allies handle the issue of gays in the military?
Mr. McMICHAEL: Well, that is something that's a lot less of a concern in a number of NATO nations. I can't say that it's every NATO nation, but there are several, and off the top of my head - I'm not going to rattle them off for you here - in which gays serve openly and either...
CONAN: Well, I know they do, for example, in Israel, Canada and Britain.
Mr. McMICHAEL: Mm-hmm. And everything Ive read says there are no social issues there, that integration went fairly smoothly and it continues to this day, not to be a huge social issue.
CONAN: We're talking with Bill McMichael, Pentagon correspondent for Military Times newspapers about the don't ask, don't tell issue. The president called for repeal. The Army - the military says it's going to take a year to study the issue.
Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Thomas(ph). Thomas with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
THOMAS (Caller): Good afternoon, and thank you for taking my call.
THOMAS: I'm (unintelligible) service in the Army as an airborne forward observer. And having served in a really close knit, tight bonded (unintelligible) arms MOS, what I would really wonder is whether you want to break that bond or should you allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military in a non-combat arms MOS and therefore not sacrifice the integrity of those combat MOSs?
CONAN: So everybody would be asked if they were a homosexual, and if they were they would not be allowed to serve in frontline units?
THOMAS: Right, perhaps allow them to serve in a support-type capacity so that you didn't sacrifice the integrity.
CONAN: Interesting. Thomas, I have to ask, did you - when you were in that unit, did you know of anybody who was gay?
THOMAS: No, I did not. And I don't know necessarily that it would have been accepted more or rejected. I was with a great group of guys, but at the same time you're dealing with a clientele that is oftentimes not highly educated, typically very young so they could be a little rash.
CONAN: Yeah. And so, you're saying - in other words, you would have to ask and tell with the repeal of don't ask, don't tell, they would have to ask people if they were gay, and if they were then they would be excluded from those frontline units?
CONAN: Okay. Is that something, just anecdotally that, Bill McMichael, do you think people would talk about?
Mr. McMICHAEL: I'm sure that they would. And, in fact, we asked that question and the result was that they would - I can't find the information right here. I haven't got it committed to memory, but go ahead.
CONAN: All right, let's see if we got another caller on the line. This is Melissa(ph). Melissa with us from Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
MELISSA (Caller): Hi. How are you doing, Neal?
CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.
MELISSA: I'm active duty Army and there's been plenty I'm military police so we're coed. There's been plenty of both gays and lesbians. The entire unit knew about it - this is in Iraq and back here in Hawaii - and it was no issue. I think the only issue would be how to treat the marriages. I think that will be a contentious issue that the military will have to struggle with. And I dont think theyll allow that.
CONAN: And domestic partners. Some - yeah, there are some states that, of course, allow homosexuals to marry and, of course, there are other states that have civil unions as well.
MELISSA: Correct. Yes. I think that would be the most difficult issue, otherwise having them serve openly, it's already happening. And I think one of your callers mentioned, for young people it's really a nonissue and it really is. Id say, for our military, almost collectively, it's just become a nonissue and it's already happening. So anybody who thinks it isn't is just not in touch with what's going on right now.
CONAN: And going back to that previous caller's point, do you think it would make a difference in frontline units?
MELISSA: Not at all. Not at all. It's happening already. And I think, you know, soldiers have a bond and it supersedes race, gender and sexuality.
CONAN: Melissa, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MELISSA: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: At least one caller we know is not having a problem with rain or snow at the moment anyway.
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CONAN: And Bill McMichael, as you listen to these callers, she's suggesting the younger the people are, that the more tolerant they are. That's not the answer you got from your readership, which was pretty consistent with younger readers, saying they were about the same as the older readers too.
Mr. MCMICHAEL: Yeah. It would seem that way. And you have a - I mean, the general sense is that younger service members, younger people in America are more tolerant of homosexuality in general. And I think going to the idea of serving in combat, that's an interesting kind of contradiction that we found because there seems to be less of a concern among folks as far as having -serving alongside gays in sort of rearward units. They say like in combat service support units or intelligence and linguistics, there's less - there's more acceptance of the idea of serving along somebody - side somebody who's gay as long as they're competent, as long as they can do their job.
But at the same time, while you might think that the concern might be greater in, say, a combat barracks situation in stateside, overseas, where folks are on the frontline, the - what respondents tell us and what interviewees tell me is that I don't care as long as this person next to me has got my back.
CONAN: And I'm afraid we're going to have to end it there. Bill McMichael, thanks very much for your time today. He's Pentagon correspondent for the Military Times newspapers. When we come back from a short break, we're going to look on the Opinion Page this week at the Super Bowl ads. This is NPR News.
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