NPR journalist talks about stories he found compelling

In a talk before a student-packed audience in the Davenport College master’s house, National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent and Yale alumnus Ari Shapiro described his first encounter with President Barack Obama as a “powerful” and poignant moment.

Shapiro, who has served as NPR’s White House correspondent since 2010, was on Air Force One for the very first time. The president had wandered to the back of the plane where the press corps was sitting. Along with others on the plane, Shapiro had just finished a pasta dinner, and his plate — still covered in red sauce — rested on his lap. He discovered then that the microphone he needed to record the president’s conversation was under the seat in front of him, but he knew that if he bent down to retrieve it, he might end up in an embarrassing situation.

“I had a choice,” recalled Shapiro. “I could either dive for the microphone and splatter the leader of the free world, or I could fail at doing my job.” Panic-struck, Shapiro then realized that the cameraman next to him was recording, and luckily he signaled the NPR correspondent that he’d share the audio.

More relaxed, Shapiro looked at Obama, who was standing very close to him.

“I noticed razor bumps on his chin and realized, ‘Oh, he’s just a guy who gets up and shaves every morning and sometimes gets razor bumps,’” Shapiro recounted. “He’s just a guy who’s doing a job that just happens to be much harder and much more consequential than the jobs other people do, but he’s just a guy.”

Shapiro said that encounter was one “profound” moment among many he had during his first weeks as the NPR White House correspondent. He went on to tell of how, on one of Shapiro’s early days on the job, the president approached him at a party and asked him how he enjoyed his new position. Shapiro answered, “I don’t think I’ve ever been as singularly focused on anybody in my life as I have on you,” he told the audience with a laugh.

Shapiro spoke as the guest at a master’s tea sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism. A graduate of Yale College in 2000, he described how he landed a job in journalism just after graduating as an English major, with no concrete career goals.

He thought about applying to the Juilliard School in pursuit of an acting career, Shapiro said, but a Yale friend convinced him that he’d just have accrued more debt for a career that narrowed him. So with her help, Shapiro came up with a list of potential jobs, and then applied for many.

“On the list was activism work, working for the Peace Corps, Club Med — I kid you not,” he said. “I applied for basically everything, and got rejected for almost all of it, including an internship at NPR.”

After accepting a job to teach English in Greece, Shapiro learned from his “cousin’s friend’s daughter” that NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg hired her own interns. He forwarded his resume through his connection, and when Totenberg called him at home, it was “sort of like Meryl Streep [calling],” the Yale alumnus said.

His luck in being offered the NPR internship, Shapiro said, taught him that it is sometimes good to have open-ended goals rather than specific ones.

“If you start out with a specific goal — like ‘I want to be the CEO of Coca Cola’ — and you end up the CEO of Pepsi, you’ll feel you failed,” he commented. “But if you set out with ideals like ‘I want a life and a career with purpose and challenge, and that teaches me new things,’ you can find that in a lot of jobs.”

Shapiro began his internship with Totenberg just as the Clinton/Bush transition was taking place. One of his first assignments as an intern was to “run bad sandwiches” down to the parade route where NPR reporters were covering the Bush inauguration.

“It was a sleety, wet, awful, cold day,” Shapiro remembered. “I had probably the shittiest job of anybody at NPR but I was so eager to do it. It felt like a job of purpose.”

Shapiro shared the story of his rise from intern to editorial assistant and then assistant editor for NPR’s “Morning Edition” before becoming a regional reporter in Atlanta and Miami and later the justice correspondent. He will start the new year as a correspondent in London.

Of all the stories he has covered during his tenure at NPR so far, Shapiro said, one of his favorite assignments was covering hurricanes.

“The best narratives are those of relatable people, who any of us could identify with in circumstances,” the journalist said. He shared a tale about the time he was assigned to talk to people at a Houston Home Depot just after a hurricane. Not sure what to talk about, he asked people waiting in a long line what they were shopping for. Everyone had the same answer — a generator. But one mother and daughter described the reason they needed a generator: A family member at home had a breathing problem that required a machine run by electricity. They were afraid that they would soon lose him if the store ran out of generators before it was their turn.

Shapiro described how he followed them through the line and then, once they got their generator, stayed with them as they landed in yet another long line at a gas station, where they bought the fuel to power the generator.

“It was an incredibly powerful, incredibly human story,” Shapiro told his audience.

Such stories were a little more challenging to find as a White House correspondent, the journalist said, but they did exist. He cited as one example a story he did about former White House ethics adviser Norm Eisen. When Eisen was appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic, Shapiro learned that his Jewish family had originally fled Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation. As ambassador, Eisen planned to have a kosher kitchen and light Shabbat candles in his residence in Prague — which once served as the Nazi headquarters in the country.

Shapiro spent half of his visit to Davenport College answering questions from audience members. Asked how he learned his storytelling skills, the journalist said, “The skills of being a storyteller have more to do with curiosity and a passion to learn things.”

He noted that his visit to Yale marked the 15-year anniversary of when he met his husband, Michael Gottlieb, while the two were fellow students on campus. Shapiro added that it was at Yale that he honed some of the skills that helped him in his role as a reporter.

“The best thing is that you learn to read and write and think,” he said. “The skills I used in writing papers about Chaucer are the same skills I use when I read a Supreme Court opinion.” He added that being in a community as diverse as Yale, with classmates who were passionate artists, scientists, athletes, and more, also fueled his own creativity.

Shapiro said he is eager to begin his new post in London, where, he said, he’ll start simply by just asking people what they find interesting.

“I loved covering the White House, but I’m not a political junkie,” Shapiro commented. “In London, I’ll be able to report on a larger range of subjects. It’s really exciting to me.”