NPR’s Joshua Johnson on Holding a Mic to America’s Divide
In a country of 320 million people, with polarization reaching crisis proportions and a firehose of news spewing daily from the White House, how does a reporter decide what’s important? How do you set a news agenda that distills America at a given point in time?
NPR reporter Joshua Johnson has taken on this ambitious task. His show, 1A, aims to not only act as a “national mirror,” but to bridge our widening divide by providing “a place where everyone is treated with respect and empathy.”
At a recent Humanities Washington Think & Drink presented in partnership with KUOW, Johnson shared his experience at the front lines of journalism in this tense national moment. The event was moderated by KUOW’s Sydney Brownstone and held at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle.
These excerpts are part of a 90-minute conversation and have been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the entire conversation here.
On using personal stories to encourage a healthier debate:
“One of the things that we do on 1A that I think sets us apart is that we try to ground the conversation often in people’s lived experiences… We ask you to tell your story. It’s easy to argue with someone’s opinion, or with someone’s argument, or with that article that I ripped out, that editorial from the paper that I liked so much. But I can’t argue your life. You are the expert on your own story….then from there it’s much easier to have the debate, because it humanizes it.”
Our inability to do this kind of Defense against the Dark Arts work, to look at the things in our culture that make us uncomfortable and practice dealing with them, is what’s poisoning our debate.
On the importance of hearing opinions we find troubling:
“I do think we have to be careful not to shy away from ideas that are uncomfortable because they’re uncomfortable. I am a bit of a Harry Potter fan. One of the running story lines that I loved had to do with the teaching of a required course at Hogwarts called Defense against the Dark Arts. This storyline asked, ‘What’s the best way to teach students how to deal with evil?’
If I don’t teach you, if I don’t show you, how to confront [evil] for yourself, you’re screwed. And it will be my fault, because I had the capacity to show you and I didn’t . . . [There will be a moment] when a political issue hits you in the face, and you will be ill-equipped to deal with it. [You won’t even be equipped] to win the argument, let alone to endure it. You need to listen, to view that person across from you as a person, and not as a threat. Not merely as an opponent. Not merely as a set of politics. Not merely as a set of beliefs . . . And I think our inability to do this kind of Defense against the Dark Arts work, to look at the things in our culture that make us uncomfortable and practice dealing with them, is what’s poisoning our debate.”
On why he prefers to think of journalism as “clinical,” rather than objective:
“When you think about a clinician who is studying a disease, they want to understand the disease as much as possible. But they’re not neutral about a cure. I can’t spend my time thinking about how much I hate HIV or breast cancer . . . because then I can’t do my job . . . The [recording] studio is my lab. And before I go in, I try to wash my hands very thoroughly. And I am trying to wash off bias, preconception, stereotype, misjudgment, misinformation, disinformation. And go in and just understand what’s ahead of me. To just make sense of it. When I leave my lab, all of those things that I washed off, they’re going to jump right back on me. Because they’re part of me. But I don’t need to try to get rid of them forever. I just need to go into the lab as clean as possible, so I don’t contaminate my sample.”
Advice for incoming journalists:
“Take a screenwriting class and take a social work class. I suggest a screenwriting class because journalism is all about storytelling . . . tell me the story and make it good. Take a social work class . . . so that you understand people. Learn how to deal with people no matter what point of their life they’re in. Whether they’re in pain, whether they’re feeling great, whether they’re pissed off. And don’t judge them for where they are.”
On why division is essential to democracy:
“We have always been a divided nation. Always. It’s the way we’re built. And it’s great! Because think about what we were: we were a colony of a nation where division meant death. If you weren’t for the king, you died. So the ability to be divided is our birthright as Americans. Dissent is your birthright because you’re here. Division is not a bug; it’s a feature.
“But…the flipside is that we’re also a nation that was founded in the values of the Enlightenment, where we can get the facts and we can believe the facts and we can make decisions based on the facts. That’s the risk. It’s not the division. It’s the resolution. We have doubled down on division and we have retreated from resolution . . . The resolution is what makes democracy work.”
Joshua Johnson appeared as part of our fall 2018 statewide series, “Moment of Truth: Journalism and Democracy in an Age of Misinformation.” Find an event near you.