Interview with NPR's Susan Stamberg
With her husky New York accent, Susan Stamberg doesn't sound like a broadcast journalism star. But she's reigned as the undisputed diva of National Public Radio for 24 years. Why? Because she's a broad with brains, a dame with daring, a gal with gusto. The Stamberg sovereignty started in 1971 when she became co-host of All Things Considered, the first woman to anchor a nightly news program. Now she's NPR's special correspondent, which means she gets to report on just about anything she wants. The stamp of a Stamberg story is the feeling that you're eavesdropping on a personal conversation. She speaks like she's talking to her best friend, but her aim is precise: She wants to help NPR listeners understand their world. Her stories include why we can't live without art and how we feel as a nation when in the grip of a crisis. But in the end, she'll probably best be remembered for a cranberry relish recipe passed down in her husband's family, and later to all of America over the airwaves. Stamberg recently published Talk: Susan Stamberg Considers All Things. She recently spoke with Joyce De Monnin. Why has House Speaker Newt Gingrich been charging that NPR is a liberal enclave? STAMBERG: They're ridiculous charges. What [Republicans in Congress] are reacting to is people at NPR doing journalism. We ask questions and don't accept what we're told. The result is that our [NPR] budget has been in jeopardy, although things seem more stable now. Are you objective as a journalist, and what role do you see journalists serving today? STAMBERG: Objectivity is a bit of a myth. We deal with each subject subjectively by the words we choose, the questions we ask and how we react. We're not just blank wallpaper. What's not a myth is fairness and our duty to get all the facts right. Even with radio and computer access, the reporter's job is the same. There are all of these opinions out there [via computer on-line systems and talk shows], but no one goes out and checks the facts. It's our job to bring it all together. We can't let everything float out there as if it were the ultimate truth. On the other hand, I go into a story with a point of view which the person I'm interviewing can react to. For instance, on a piece about James Whistler and his famous painting known as Whistler's Mother, we all think it's a sweet tribute. My feeling is that it's not. So I'll go into the story with this view and see if we can understand this well-known piece of art in a new way. Why is arts coverage important to include in mainstream news? STAMBERG: I have clipped on a lampshade in my office a fragment from William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there." Art touches the soul and is another way of communicating. Without it, we shrink as individuals. If all we have is a string of events, such as the bombing in Oklahoma City, we don't see the possibilities of life. The arts express the deepest truths of society and how people react to it. The arts play a similar role as myth and dream to show us a vision of what can be. You've managed to interview your cultural heroes, or the people closest to them, such as Mary Hemingway and Picasso's mistress, Francoise Gilot. Do you think you've indulged in hero worship, or have you gleaned a common theme? STAMBERG: Oh, I hope I'm more than a groupie! I like people who do things extremely well. It fascinates me. I hope I've presented them and their work in an intriguing and meaningful way. I've tried to discover the characteristics that make some people so good. Great artists are obsessive about their work and making it better. They've consciously gone on to stretch and to expand. And it may sound like a cliche, but they do have a childlike quality to creativity and an ache to see more and more. What advice do you have for the recently unemployed Connie Chung? STAMBERG: I always thought Dan Rather was the emperor and Connie Chung was his new clothes. She wasn't hired for her journalistic ability. When CBS made the decision, it could have been a breakthrough for women, but it wasn't. I didn't approve of the Gingrich interview [in which Chung elicited a disparaging remark about Hillary Rodham Clinton by deceiving Gingrich's mother into thinking the microphone was off]. When you're doing something for ratings and not because it's right, you suffer the consequences.