Interview: David Greene

Every weekday, David Greene's alarm goes off at 2:46 in the morning (it's less painful than 2:45, he says). He arrives at NPR around 3:30, does prep work, and from 5 to 7, he cohosts Morning Edition. Here, he discusses what news means to him, curiosity, and the questions he loves to ask.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?

Curiosity is the most important thing to me; it’s one of the big reasons I got into journalism. It drives me every morning when it comes to talking to people [and] diving into stories. When I’m on the air, I hope that the curiosity can be contagious, and people hear it and share in it and I can inspire people to be curious, or more curious themselves, and we can explore things together.

Has that always been the case for you? Or is curiosity something you’ve developed?

A lot of it came from my late mother. She was a really curious person who just loved people. She was a college professor; she would march across Franklin and Marshall’s campus with her dog and talk to everyone. The respect that she showed to everybody - wondering what was on their minds, what they were going through, what their story was - I just felt that. It was a really beautiful thing. People were drawn to her and willing to open up to her because of it.

What does news mean to you?

Sometimes we think of news in the breaking news sense - we’re covering an earthquake or a bombing at an airport in Turkey. That's absolutely news. I think we’re getting better at being in the moment, being on top of things that are terrible, that are great, and all in between, when they happen, but to do it with such care.

I also think news is broader. It’s figuring out ways to tell really important stories in the right way. The presidential election is one of them. This has been an incredibly unpredictable and challenging election to cover. There’s a lot of noise, lots of soundbites, lots of people with opinions everywhere. To cover a really complicated story fairly and keep reminding ourselves what the story is truly about is so critical.

An election is about people making a choice about their lives and about their hopes for their country. The more we can emphasize that, listen to people, try to understand what they want to know, how they’re making their choices, and what is behind their votes, then I think we’re doing a service to our audience.

What kinds of questions do you most like to ask? Are there questions that you really enjoy answering?

I enjoy answering questions about this job because, especially today, the lines seem to be blurring in some people’s minds [about the role of journalists]. I grew up watching nightly news and looking at Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings and thinking that that anchor desk was absolutely sacred and the person behind it was objective, and certainly personality driven.

I would watch Tom Brokaw and be brought in because of his humanity and his intellect. But it was also this sacred relationship, he was behind an anchor desk. I knew there was objectivity there. What does an anchor desk mean today? It doesn’t mean the same thing, but to me it does.

When [Morning Edition cohosts] Steve [Inskeep], Renée [Montagne], and I are sitting there, there’s still that sacred aspect. And I hold onto that. While the news business is changing and platforms are changing, I wouldn’t want to be in this business if it didn’t hold onto those values that I grew up really respecting.

To the questions I like to ask, I’d say two things. I love to get beneath the soundbites and get to substance. One example: we kept hearing Donald Trump talking about immigration, and [his] ideas on immigration are very controversial. At one point, we brought Jan Brewer, the former governor of Arizona, onto the show. She had actually tried to implement some of the things that Donald Trump was talking about.

So, I was really excited to ask her some specific questions as to what Trump’s policies might look like if he were actually president, to really scrutinize them, stop focusing on soundbites and talk substance about what this might look like.

I love questions that cause someone to reveal something surprising. This interview [I did] with Bette Midler stays with me. She was the Divine Miss M, she was brash and crass. But I’m sitting there with her and there was a teary moment when she was talking about what she wanted her legacy to be. And she wanted it to be that she planted thousands and thousands of trees in New York City.

So, I just saw a woman who I had never seen before in the Bette Midler I knew as a celebrity. It was a beautiful moment. I think the real her came out. I hope she left it feeling like she connected with people listening in a way that she hadn’t before.

Is there an art to asking those kinds of questions?

There is an art to asking them, but it’s not just how to craft the words. It goes beyond that. I would more say there’s an art to an interview and an art to a conversation. The key is to always listen, to be willing to hear things that surprise you, to be willing to wait for a moment that throws you off of your plan for the interview.

[Before] a conversation, you study someone’s life, study the issues, work with an editor and producer to come up with questions. But if [in the interview] you’re focusing on the clock or looking at your script and thinking about the next question, you stop listening and that can totally poison a conversation.

It’s not good for you, it’s not good for the person you’re interviewing. Like the Bette Midler moment - that wouldn’t have come had I not really forced myself to be focused and to listen, because that certainly wasn’t part of the conversation we planned.

You keep a very different schedule from most folks. How do you think about time and the way that you use it?

I wish I could say it’s not a big deal, [but] the schedule rules my life in many ways. On a personal level, my wife and I both make sacrifices that are crazy. She owns a restaurant [Compass Rose] and works 10 times harder than I do, and can be there sometimes until two or three o'clock in the morning. And I’m waking up at two or three o’clock in the morning.

I nap during the afternoon, I wake up and we’ll go to dinner together, then I go back to sleep. Or sometimes we see each other for 10 minutes. That’s really hard. Yet we both love each other and we love what we’re doing. So we find a way to make it work.

But there’s an element to [my schedule] that I actually enjoy. The camaraderie of our staff at our show is really cool. In those middle-of-the-night hours, we’re the only ones in the [NPR] building largely. It’s us, our news cast unit, some editors, producers, it’s a skeleton staff, and we’re so tight. It just adds to this feeling of us against the world. In the middle of the night, we’re getting ready to put a radio show on as people are waking up. There’s a cool aspect to it.

What gets under your skin? How do you handle it?

I really don’t like when someone I’m interviewing is not playing it straight with me. That’s a complicated thing. You interview politicians, lawmakers, people in government, I know that they have a job to do, so there’s a way to “spin” or stick to their message that is still genuine.

I’m thinking about a recent interview I did with Tom Cole, a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma. I was talking to him about Donald Trump, and he kept bringing up Hillary Clinton over and over again, to a point where I finally had to say something like, "Congressman, we’re not asking about Hillary Clinton. We’re trying to talk about Donald Trump here." But it was real. He knew the job he was doing, I knew the job I was doing.

What bothers [me] is if people aren’t respecting me enough to know that I know what’s going on and I know the job he or she is doing. There are ways to be respectful of one another - don’t try to lie, don’t try to spin in a way that doesn’t respect us or our audience. If you’re coming on our air, just have a real conversation. That’s all I ask when it comes to interviewing people.

What gets under my skin more broadly in this job is when people are just not open-minded to hearing other points of view. If we look at why the country is so divisive, it sounds cliché, but I really think if people would listen to what someone else is saying and ponder why he or she might have a compelling argument, that would go a long, long way.

I’m thinking back to a project we did in North Dakota about same-sex marriage, a really sensitive issue. We just went and listened to voices. We talked to a young woman - an author who is gay - about her future with her partner and her family and coming out to her family. It was raw radio, we listened to her family working some stuff out.

We talked to a farmer who wasn’t comfortable with the word marriage when it comes to same-sex couples, but thinks that same-sex couples should enjoy all the rights of everyone else, but just hadn’t gotten there yet with the question of marriage. We talked to a mechanic who believes homosexuality is a sin. So, just bringing all of those voices out there.

When I heard from people who listened to it, the thing that made me happiest would be when somebody would say, "I completely disagree with that person, but I feel like I could have coffee with them and actually talk this out."

Are there ways you’ve learned to not take stuff personally?

People attack me on social media and, going back to my days at the Baltimore Sun, attacked me in comments. If it’s just incredibly personal, I’ll look the other way.

If it’s harsh, substantive criticism, I’ll pay attention. I’m heartened when it’s coming from both sides, it makes me feel that we’re fair [if we're] getting attacked from both sides. If someone is pointing out something that we need to understand better or something they found offensive or inaccurate, I’m always open to those kinds of criticisms. They can make our coverage better.

After people hear you on the radio, what do you hope stays with them?

I hope they hear someone who is open-minded, curious, and wanting to go on a journey with them. There is nothing I like more than giving our listeners the feeling that we’re going somewhere together. If someone can leave a story feeling like they just took a trip with me, not feel like they’re being talked to, never feeling like they’re being lectured at or told what to think. [But] we’re meeting people together, learning about new places and new stories together, if people are leaving with that feeling, that makes me really, really happy.

What are you still learning how to do?

How to host a radio program! In this job, you're learning every day. Every day, I listen back to conversations I had and things we did on the air, and I’m thinking about how I can do it better: How I could read more slowly, have written something that would be more accessible, not pay so much attention to the clock and make sure I’m listening to the person I’m talking to, delved more deeply into one question we jumped through too quickly.

It’s a strange, wonderful, and rewarding business. But if you’re not in that mode of "How can I do it better tomorrow morning?" then why be here? That’s one of the things I love about it.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?

One of the things I love about my wife so much is that we love exploring together. There is nothing we love more than going to a new country or a new city, whether it be a small town in West Virginia, which we did not so long ago, or a village in Georgia, the former Soviet Republic. We would learn about the world every single place we went.

My wife got more and more excited about food. She saw street food as this great equalizer. Any country is proud of its street food. It brings together people who are rich and poor, from cities, from villages. That led to her restaurant, and that's the foundation of it: everyone is welcome and casual street food can bring everyone together.

I think a lot of people don't have the time or don’t find the time to keep exploring and that makes me really sad. I’m happy to be married to someone who every single day, we can wake up and think what we want to see next, who we might want to meet next, where we want to go together. I just never, ever want to lose that.

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