NPR’s Julie McCarthy

NPR’s Islamabad correspondent and recent Peabody Award winner offers an update on the situation in Pakistan.

It's been said that Julie McCarthy begins her day thinking about news. As a foreign correspondent for NPR, the Peabody winner has traveled the world, including reporting from Europe, Africa and South America. She was the first staff correspondent to head NPR's Tokyo bureau and, in '09, moved to Islamabad to open its first permanent bureau in Pakistan. McCarthy studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned a JD from Antioch School of Law. She worked for a DC law firm before landing her first job in radio and began working at NPR in '85.


Tavis: Julie McCarthy is a foreign correspondent for NPR who has spent much of her time of late reporting from Pakistan. There continues to be tension, of course, between the U.S. and Pakistan following the raid that killed the world’s most wanted terrorist. Julie McCarthy, an honor to have you on this program.

Julie McCarthy: A total pleasure, Tavis. Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Let me start by telling you congratulations. You’ve been picking up awards this week, and you deserve every one of them – the Peabody, the Gracie award for your reporting, so congratulations on that.

McCarthy: Thank you. Thank you. It’s a tremendous honor, tremendous honor.

Tavis: When you’re in that part of the world and it is so dangerous and you’re navigating that danger to get these stories out, I assume it feels nice to know that that work is being appreciated by Americans when you come back home and receive these kinds of esteemed awards.

McCarthy: Well, it’s my 25th anniversary at National Public Radio, so it’s a wonderful way to mark that milestone, and yes, it is. Because when you’re in the thick of it and you’re producing it, you’re not thinking about the accumulation of it all, because it really is what’s the next disaster up.

So you’re really on a locomotive that just doesn’t stop, and then when it does and someone says you’ve been honored, it’s extraordinary and it is extremely gratifying to know that people are interested to hear what’s going on in that part of the world.

I think that’s a big part of the awards, is that Pakistan is in the frame. It’s a big part of the foreign policy narrative in the United States. It’s a tense part of the narrative that the foreign policy apparatus has to deal with now, and it is likely to become much more so after the capture and killing, as you mentioned, of Osama bin Laden.

Tavis: I want to talk about Pakistan and the U.S. specifically in just a moment, Julie, but since you raised it, and some might regard this as a softball, underhanded pitch across the plate for you to put over the fence – it is not – I raise it because you mention this is your 25th anniversary at NPR. NPR has been under vicious attack over the last few months.

I think that’s behind us at the moment, but it’s worth noting that NPR is the only network – you and I both do public radio, of course, but NPR are the only network of all the networks that has picked up listeners over these last few very tense years in this country and around the world.

McCarthy: Yes, yes.

Tavis: What is it about the reporting that NPR is doing that’s got people by the millions tuning in to hear what you’re doing?

McCarthy: Well, I think people want to hear things in-depth. First of all, they want to know what’s going on in the world, not just, I think, on the shores of the United States, and as you know, National Public Radio has made a huge commitment to expanding its foreign news coverage over the years.

That’s answering a call that the listeners are telegraphing to us. We want to hear about the world, and we want to hear about it in an intimate way. Radio is an extremely intimate medium, and it allows people to, wherever they are, take in harrowing stories, take in touching stories, take in stories that are life-affirming, which is what I try to do in the middle of all the mayhem, and to make people feel yes, there are divergences in this world that you have to understand, but there are plenty of convergences about the way we live.

Those, I think, are stories that the audience responds to and they touch and they feel and they like.

Tavis: I take your phrase “life-affirming.” Unpack that for me, because when I hear life-affirming, to me, what that ought to represent is that we’re offering a balanced view of the story, not just the American side for public radio, but the lives that are being lost, the drones that are killing innocent women and children in Pakistan. When you say life-affirming, what do you mean by that?

McCarthy: What I mean by that is to present an entire picture of a country and the way it lives. Yes, it’s under turmoil. Yes, it is dealing with terror attacks. Yes, it is stressed beyond – no question, its economy is stressed and its education is under tremendous strain and the budget isn’t enough for education, and they’re having to deal with all of these traumas, national traumas.

In the middle of all that, life still gets lived, babies get born, people get married and children graduate from school. All the touchstones of celebration that people know around the world still take place.

So in that way, you affirm life. You tell the story of floods, for example, that washed over Pakistan, and just the indomitable spirit of people having to soldier on and allow us to be exposed to their lives in a way we would have never been given outlets like that. That’s sort of crisis as opportunity.

So all of that, I think, affirms a common experience that people here have, and that’s what I think we need to do just as much of. Have the world understand the place is not a cartoon, Tavis. It’s not a cartoon, it is a complex, multilayered, multidimensional ancient culture.

Tavis: You used the word “intimate” just a moment ago. It would appear to me, and I think most of us here in the States, that our relationship with Pakistan is anything but intimate these days. It’s getting more and more tense, but I’ll let you tell me what the relationship is post the capture and killing of Bin Laden.

McCarthy: Well, Tavis, the takeaway, I think, from the capture and the killing is that we see in very stark relief two different dimensions of how to view the world.

We look at this and say, “My God, Osama bin Laden has been in Pakistan, not living in the tribal areas, but living within shouting distance of the major military training center in Pakistan for what, five years. And we’re staggered by this and we ask how can they not have known and how could this be?

They look at this in a very different lens. They’re not asking themselves how could Osama be – yes, people are asking themselves, wow, he’s been here for five years? How could that be?

But for them, it’s the violation of their sovereignty. That’s what they took away. They take away how did the Americans land here, pull somebody out, kill him and take him out of the country, and not tell us until they crossed out of our airspace? They view this as a hostile act.

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick. I get that, and that makes total and perfect sense to me. What I do not get, and I’m glad you’re here to unpack this for me, is prior to the capture and kill of Bin Laden this same country has been allowing us to send Predator drones there, as I suggested earlier, to kill people, oftentimes innocent women and children.

So you’ve been letting us drop drones all over your country, and now you’re amazed or surprised that we came in to capture and kill Bin Laden? If we’re going to do anything in Pakistan, we’re going to get Bin Laden. So if you let us drop the drones, why then are you surprised that we came to get Bin Laden? I don’t get that.

McCarthy: Okay. A lot of it’s geography. The tribal areas, no one ever sees the tribal areas. These are areas that hugs the border with Afghanistan. It’s a no-go zone. It’s a no-go zone for Pakistanis. People can’t go there. Only the people who live there can go there. I can only go there if the military takes me there, and they’re not taking anybody there in recent months.

So when you have a man who shows up in Abbottabad, two and a half hours outside of the capitol, and we can still navigate our way in and navigate our way out undetected, it’s a major humiliation for the army – the army, which is the vaunted institution, the one thing that’s supposed to work.

Tavis: So they feel humiliated by what we did.

McCarthy: There’s a deep humiliation about the fact that they weren’t told, number one, and number two, that it was done with such stealth, and they were undetected.

Tavis: So this does what to our relationship?

McCarthy: I think it – well, in many ways, you could call it a body blow. It’s a very serious – and this had to have been part of the calculus as they sat in the situations rooms in the White House. They knew there would be blowback. But the anti-American strain now is deeper, I think, than it’s been in years. It may be the nadir.

People who are progressives or liberal-minded are extremely offended by this. This is across the culture, across the country sort of outrage at how did – where did you get off, United States?

Tavis: And in the midst of their humiliation, John Kerry, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Senate, shows up and gives them a quick lecture about how much in danger they are of losing U.S. support. So how does that go over in Pakistan?

McCarthy: That’s a very interesting debate, because now you’ve got one school saying, “Take your money. Just take your money,” and another school saying, “We had better figure out how to get this relationship back on track, because we’re in a world of hurt, and we can’t function without that aid.”

Tavis: So what’s going to prevail? What point of view is going to prevail?

McCarthy: I think what you’ll see is the relationship beginning to get back to some sort of normal state. “Normal” is a relative term, as you know, Tavis, in that relationship. It’s always prickly.

Tavis: There’s a new normal here in Pakistan, as they say.

McCarthy: Yes, yes, so it’s always prickly. Pre-Osama bin Laden it was prickly and delicate and difficult to navigate. It’s just more so now. I think they will find some sort of equilibrium, but the trust has, to the degree that we’re trying to build it, the trust has really been dealt a serious setback.

Tavis: I’ve got 30 seconds. When are you headed back to Pakistan and why, given the danger, are you going back?

McCarthy: Well, I think it’s important to be there. I think it’s important to tell the story of a vitally critical place – critical to them and critical to us and critical to the region – and that’s what we do. That’s what we do, and you calculate how you can do that and you try to minimize your risks.

Tavis: But you’re a woman.

McCarthy: I’m a woman.

Tavis: Yeah, and that makes it how much more difficult?

McCarthy: Well, I think in some ways yes and some ways no. I get access to women that male counterparts don’t get. But yes, it is – it’s a different – maybe it’s just an added level of what it is you need to cope with and deal with.

Tavis: Julie McCarthy has just picked up the Gracie award, just picked up a Peabody award for her wonderful reporting that we listen to every day on NPR. I’m honored to have you here. Congratulations, and save travels back to Islamabad.

McCarthy: Thank you. Pleasure to be here, Tavis.

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Last modified: May 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm