Portrait of a Girlboss: Why Rachel Martin, Host of NPR’s Morning Edition, Wants You to Ask What’s in the Sausage
Circa the time acid wash denim was being traded for flannel and Doc Martens in the early ‘90s, there was a window in a women’s clothing store in a mall in Idaho Falls in which Rachel Martin, age 16, stood sweating beneath hot lights, holding a pose in imitation of a mannequin, while her friends on the other side of the glass tried to make her laugh. “It was a thing!” Rachel recalls, laughing. “I probably made, like, 20 bucks off that.” That was Rachel’s first job in the small, rural Midwest town in which five generations of Martins before her had put down roots. “I grew up like so many people around the country grew up,” she says. “We were raised with a really strong sense of who we were and our own values.”
But as it turned out, Rachel wasn’t destined to stay put like her family before her. Fast forward a few decades and she’s traded in her uncanny ability to stay still for an award-winning journalism career with NPR that spans a decade and a half. Most recently, you may know Rachel as one of the hosts of Morning Edition and as the host of Weekend Edition Sunday for the four years prior to that, but over the course of her career, she’s served as the national security correspondent and as a foreign correspondent in Berlin; she covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the debate over women in combat positions in the military, and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; she covered the terror attacks in London in 2005; and she was on the scene within hours of the Virginia Tech shooting.
Rachel credits the foundation of her accomplished career to an insatiable curiosity about the wider world, something that was fostered by her lawyer father and artist mother. After completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Puget Sound in political science and international affairs, Rachel moved to Japan to teach English and went on to travel widely; “I just loved traveling and being in new places and learning about people who had different backgrounds than I did,” she says.
Armed with a vague sense of wanting to do “something that had a sense of mission to it,” Rachel worked for a nonprofit in San Francisco after college and briefly flirted with following in her father’s footsteps and studying law—that is, until a lawyer at a firm she was temping for dished out some real talk: “Unless you're really passionate about the law, if there's anything else in the back of your mind that you feel like you might want to do for a living, try to investigate that first,” he told her.
That thing lingering in the back of Rachel’s mind was journalism, of course. And though she had no relevant experience, Rachel decided one day to cross the Bay Bridge and cold call the journalism grad program at UC Berkeley. “I was just walking around, looking at flyers on the wall, and one of the professors was in [her office], so I just knocked on the door. I told her a little bit about my background and asked if I would have a chance at getting in,” Rachel recalls. The answer was an unequivocal no (“She was really nice though!” Rachel says, laughing.) After taking the professor’s advice to get an internship somewhere, Rachel ended up applying at the NPR station in San Francisco, where despite her lack of experience, she had a really great interview.
And would you look at her now. The intervening years were filled with hard work, crazy hours and intense on-the-scene reporting, but Rachel’s dedication to informative, ethical and compassionate journalism has been a significant contribution to the news industry, and in today’s political and media climate, her work is perhaps more important than ever. Rachel chatted with Girlboss further about the importance (and impossibility) of work-life separation, the “trust gap” between the public and the media, the challenge of telling stories outside dominant points of view, and what aspiring journalists can do to get in the mix.
Your entire adult career has pretty much revolved around immersing yourself in current events and staying up to date on every detail as it comes in. Meanwhile, us millennials looooove to talk about “work-life separation.” Is that concept...absurd to you?
[laughs]. I will say that it's a constant struggle, because the nature of the work is all-encompassing. But you have to create boundaries around it. That means that when I'm eating dinner with my family, I'm not going to take my phone to the dinner table, which may sound ridiculous to some people. But when you're tethered to your device because something could be changing at any second, and it might affect an interview that I just did or I'm about to do, it's really hard to not keep looking at your phone.
I think especially as my kids are growing older—they're just two and four, but they're at the point now where they can tell if I'm on my phone all the time—and they're like, "Mommy, put the phone down." That's when you're like, "Ugh, this is a problem."
The flip side of doing something that feels all-encompassing like that is that it’s always work I would be doing anyway, if that makes sense. [Everything I read] is what I’d be reading anyway; it's who I am. I love what I do so much. I do feel really lucky, because I found my thing. All we can do is try to find our thing, or make the best of where we're at and try to make that fit into our lives.
But you have to relax sometime, right? How do you find the headspace to do that?
I need moments to be able to channel the other parts of my personality, my other interests, to just do nothing. I think you need the space to just totally unplug and not have an agenda and not have a list of novels you want to read or TV shows you want to catch up on. For me, I need an empty day once in awhile. That's really rejuvenating and it's important because that's how you can be better at your job. You're a better colleague. You're a better boss. You're a better partner in your marriage or your relationship. It's so important!
So, wild times for journalists right now. You’ve been in the industry long enough to see these drastic changes as far as formats and information dissemination goes, and now we’re up against things like fake news. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing journalism right now?
I think it's a trust gap that the public has with journalism. I think that's been exacerbated by the rise of fake news, and social media has given rise to a lot of disinformation. It's incumbent upon us to keep doing what we do, and I think NPR is a brand that actually people do trust. We need to just keep doing what we do. But at the same time, something I think we can do a better job at—and I think all media needs to do a better job at this—is to explain how we do what we do. It's not enough to just be like, "Oh, trust us. Yeah. We need anonymous sources in this story about the intelligence community. We're not going to tell you why. We're just going to do it."
I think we have to be more transparent about our own process, and that hasn't always been comfortable. It means pulling the curtain back a bit on the sausage-making of journalism. It's not all a science. It's subjective to a large degree. There are rules, there are ethics. There are norms that shape what we do. It's a profession, journalism. There's a reason. I think now more than ever, we have to stand up about what those norms and standards are and be more willing to talk about them publicly.
Especially in the wake of this election, and ahead of covering ideology and policy that the media wasn’t really counting on covering, I’m curious to know about how you guys decide what to cover and how. I’m thinking of the recent NPR interview with Richard Spencer, a leader of the “alt-right” movement, and pushback asserting that exposure on that scale is normalizing his perspective. Or how in another interview, you mentioned the challenge of giving voice to people whose beliefs are contrary to what many see as human rights, like gay marriage.
I think this is exactly the right question to ask. It gets to the nut of what's hard about this moment. Take something like gay marriage. The Supreme Court made a judgement and as a society and a culture and as journalists, [we assume] the debate's over. The Supreme Court has ruled, so the debate's over. But what happens when there's a sizeable portion of the electorate that feels like it's not? Even if we happen to personally disagree with that point of view and the Supreme Court has made its decision, it doesn't mean those people feel any differently.
They vote. I don't think it means we stop hearing their perspective. I still think there has to be space for that. It's complicated, right? NPR made a decision that climate change is a real thing. We're not going to talk to climate change deniers. I'm not in a position to reevaluate that choice, but it has in some ways been thrust upon us with this election, because of who the President Elect is [appointing to] different cabinet positions. Do you just ignore that perspective or do you try to talk to people who hold that perspective, always caveating it with the phrase, "The consensus from the scientific community is that climate change is real"?
Speaking of the President Elect, how’s everyone holding up in the trenches as he wages his war against the media? What’s the mood like in the newsroom?
I think people feel animated. I think people feel really, really driven. It feels like it matters a lot, the ability to sort fact from fiction and to get out into the country and to tell people stories and to try to get Americans to talk to each other—people who hold different political opinions. It really does. It feels like a great moment to be a journalist.
Indeed. Any tips you can pass on to girls looking to get into journalism?
You just do it. I think journalism in particular is a trade that you learn best by just doing it. If you're interested in journalism and storytelling and investigative reporting, go find a way to do that work. You will find people who will help you along the way. When you identify people who are good at what they do and who you personally admire for the way they walk through their life, attach yourself to them and try to learn everything you can from them. I'm only where I am because of all the people who encouraged me, supported me, told me when I was screwing up, and opened doors for me. Take risks and get out there and just do things. Don't be afraid to mess up.
interview by Deena Drewis