NPR Ombudsman

Interviewing A Combative White House Spokesperson


Deputy assistant to President Trump Sebastian Gorka participates in a discussion during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Alex Wong, Getty Images
Deputy assistant to President Trump Sebastian Gorka participates in a discussion during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24 in National Harbor, Maryland.

The critical emails came in after Sebastian Gorka's first interview on NPR, and then after his second interview and after his third. And this week, after his fourth interview, as well.

Gorka is the deputy assistant to President Donald Trump on national security matters. As those who have contacted NPR have pointed out, his interviews have been combative, condescending and seemingly deliberately rude (this listener would agree). In his most recent interview, Wednesday, on Morning Edition, he several times chastised the interviewer, Steve Inskeep. The interviews have been unpleasant or at least uncomfortable to listen to, at times, regardless of one's political views.

More importantly, Gorka has made a number of factual misstatements, in particular when he spoke to Rachel Martin on Feb. 13's Morning Edition. After it became clear Gorka's facts were not accurate during that live interview, the show added in some fact-checking for the rebroadcasts later that morning.

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Some listeners who have written simply do not agree with Gorka's point of view. But others have questioned the wisdom of having a repeat guest who does not always add much to the conversation, or spreads misinformation.

After Inskeep interviewed Gorka on Feb. 3, Mollee Westfall of Fort Worth, Texas, wrote: "Please don't offer airtime to Sebastian Gorka again. He is not really coming on to answer questions but to use airtime to attack the media and spin propaganda. This is not enlightening or informative to me."

And after Martin's Feb. 13 interview, Alexa Gluckler of Reisterstown, Md., wrote: "I feel strongly that the segment this morning with Sebastian Gorka should not have aired. Primarily, he declined to answer inquiries at nearly every turn, outright declining to answer her first two questions and giving evasive responses to the rest. He responded to Rachel Martin with propaganda, not with fact or even illuminating commentary (through no fault of Ms. Martin's, I believe)."

She added, "But what news or information did this segment convey to your listeners? That Gorka is a devoted mouthpiece for the Trump administration? Great — do a story on that; a story about an assistant to the president agreeing to an interview and then essentially refusing to answer questions."

Bottom line, many listeners want to know, why continue to have him as a guest?

The answer from the newsroom is pretty straightforward. When NPR has put in a request for an administration official, "Sebastian Gorka is the spokesperson the White House has offered to Morning Edition to explain the president's positions," said Sarah Gilbert, the program's executive producer.

Gilbert added, "We put our questions accurately and respectfully to Mr. Gorka - our audience can assess his responses and make up their own minds as to their merit. We continue to request interviews with more senior members of the administration on a regular basis." That includes requests for both the president himself, who has never spoken to NPR, and Vice President Mike Pence.

NPR has no obligation to take whatever administration official is offered to it, of course. But there is also value in hearing directly from a White House official, who can explain what is behind the president's policies and actions, and the interviews, in between some of the ruder exchanges, did do that, in my opinion. I agree with Gilbert that listeners can make up their own minds when listening to how someone responds to civil queries (and unlike some listeners, I thought Inskeep and Martin both asked good questions). NPR has also not shied away from reporting on tough questions being raised about Gorka's credentials.

I'm more concerned about the spread of misinformation, and I believe NPR handled that issue relatively well with the additional fact-checking for the rebroadcasts of the Feb. 13 interview (although that did not help those who heard the original live interview). The online transcript should also have included a note about the added material, in my opinion.

Finally, I'd note that complaints about interviewing Gorka aren't unique to NPR. You can read PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler's views here.

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