A stark contrast

It’s easy to be skeptical about the trappings of democracy: a messy and flawed system. But at this moment, on inauguration day, I received the message below from NPR Senior Vice President News Margaret Low Smith. It’s a compelling story. For me, the takeaway is this: skepticism is okay as long as it drives you to do better; on the other hand, cynicism about our country–and presidential inaugurations–fails to place our own luck in a global context. Here’s Margaret’s message:

It’s Inauguration Day, and here in Washington that means getting into the city and to NPR is a tricky exercise. Many roads are closed. Traffic is a mess. NPR headquarters is surrounded by police barricades, because of our proximity to events. By mid-afternoon, no cars will be able to come or go from the NPR garage, due to heightened security. The Secret Service doesn’t seem to have a soft spot for anyone.

Nonetheless, I’m excited about our coverage today. It’s sunny and cold. Reporters, producers and engineers have fanned out across the city equipped with hand and foot warmers, Kleenex, granola bars, Chapstick, water, sunscreen, breakfast and lunch. It’s going to be a long day. We’ll capture the pomp and circumstance and provide a clear eyed look at the issues America faces over the next four years. The inauguration is perhaps the ultimate symbol of democracy. A President, elected by the people, publicly sworn into office.

This is in stark contrast to the situation in Syria, half a world away. Highlighting our recent coverage from that country is the real purpose of my note today.

Kelly McEvers (photo: Glen Carey

Reporting on the situation there remains one of the most challenging we will face in the weeks and months ahead. The government of Bashar al-Assad has tried barring reporters from getting into Syria. That forces journalists like NPR’s Kelly McEvers to travel clandestinely to cover the conflict. She just returned from a four-day reporting trip in Aleppo in the North of Syria.

She describes Aleppo as a tale of two cities. Where both sides think they can win, but neither side is winning, so neither will back down.

This is Kelly’s second trip into that city since the start of the Syrian uprising nearly two years ago; her fifth into Syria itself. Her reports provide an intimate window into how people are faring in a conflict that could grind on for months… or perhaps years. Her reporting is vivid and powerful and tugs at the soul of a city and a people divided by conflict. In this story, Kelly spent the night in a school, where displaced Syrians have found refuge.


According to the Committee to Protect Journalists more than 28 journalists were killed in Syria last year. A group of NBC journalists recently managed to escape their pro-regime captors in the midst of a firefight with rebels. Another American journalist was kidnapped in northwest Syria by gunmen on Thanksgiving day. His whereabouts are still unknown. And a French journalist was killed in Aleppo last week, just days after Kelly and her team left the city.

Journalists understand the risk and so do NPR executives. We also understand that this is a vitally important story with major regional and global implications. As Senior Vice President for News, my journalistic instincts sometimes give way to motherly anxiety when a few extra hours pass between check-ins from our reporting team.

Each crossing of the border is judged both on editorial and safety grounds. A trip can take several weeks to plan, including advance outreach to sources inside Syria.

We have been fortunate. All the caution in the world, doesn’t guarantee safe passage in a war zone. Kelly’s simple note to us upon crossing the border out of Syria was this. We are back in Turkey. Amazing trip!!!!! Yes. She used five exclamation points.

Deborah Amos (photo: Steve Barrett)

Kelly will be in New York tomorrow, along with Deborah Amos, to collect the DuPont-Columbia award for their 2012 coverage of the Syrian conflict. This is among the highest broadcast honors and well-deserved recognition.

But this coverage really reflects the work of many. It is a total team sport.  This is a labor of love, by people committed to telling the story of a nation at war with itself half way around the world.

Kelly has a few more stories planned for this week. I hope you get a chance to listen. This is a small but vital slice of what we do every day. It occasionally makes us sit on the edge of our seats, but more importantly, it keeps all of us feeling eager to come back to work day after day after day.

I would add this final note to Margaret’s eloquent message:

We are incredibly grateful to be able to bring news of our community, the nation and the world to the people we serve–without fearing for our lives. As we follow the inauguration activities, it’s the First Amendment that gives me hope, administration after administration.


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1 Comment on “A stark contrast”

  1. Hank says:

    Amen, Ellen!

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