Ari Shapiro tells his own story

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro Photo: Victor Jeffreys

Ari Shapiro is deeply invested in the power of storytelling. The co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered has spent his career listening to other people’s stories and relaying them to public radio listeners. But, he says, like most journalists, he has often felt like he needed to put himself—his identity, his opinions, his point of view—in a box to do that work.

“I started to feel like it was time to open the box and explore what was inside,” Shapiro says. “What I found was that over time, there are stories that have shaped the person I am, and on the flipside, the person I am has shaped some of the stories that I’ve told.”

In many ways, his new memoir The Best Strangers in the World is an exploration of that interplay. It’s also a chronicle of the many lives and stories he’s encountered over more than two decades as a journalist—from his youth as the only out gay kid at his Portland high school to his time as a White House correspondent during the Obama administration, to visiting war zones and reporting on the Pulse nightclub massacre. There are also “musical interludes;” Shapiro is a frequent guest singer with the band Pink Martini and has created a cabaret show with Tony-winner Alan Cumming.  

“I realized over the course of writing this book that even though these things may look very different, they actually share the common goal of helping us to connect to one another, to make the foreign seem a bit less strange, to get people out of their comfortable self-reinforcing bubbles,” Shapiro says.

Ahead of the book’s release, Shapiro joined LGBTQ Nation for a chat about the importance of stories, LGBTQ+ media, and his wide-ranging career.

LGBTQ Nation: The subtitle of the book is “Stories from a life spent listening,” and one of the themes of the book is how important it is to hear other people’s stories, to think about the lives of people whose experiences are so different from our own. How do we foster that sense of deep curiosity—in ourselves and in others?

Ari Shapiro: I think that many of us have that curiosity and have that instinct. We just live in an environment where well-funded corporate and political interests want us to believe that we’re different from each other, want us to believe that strangers are our enemies. And so, the solution to that is in some ways very simple; it’s going back to some fundamental qualities of listening, empathy, and curiosity. And I think it has less to do with building new structures and more to do with returning to some very old ones.

I think storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool, and I say that not only as somebody who tells stories but also as somebody who absorbs stories through journalism, through fiction, through theater, through other forms of narrative that allow me to see the world through the eyes of somebody else.

And so, yes, we might live in a world where our Facebook feed tells us what we want to hear. But then I pick up the novel Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters and I’m able to see the world through the eyes of a trans woman living in 21st-century Brooklyn. Or right now I’m in the middle of reading Victory City by Salman Rushdie, in which an entire city is created through stories—which is mythic and metaphorical, and in a way, I think, also real.

I quote in my book the author Etgar Keret who’s Israeli, who talks about shifting from writing op-eds to writing short fiction, because he believes that he’s able to reach people through short fiction more effectively than through op-eds. Look, I think op-eds have their place, and obviously I believe journalism has its place because it’s what I’ve devoted my life to.

But I also think that singing with Pink Martini is both entertaining and powerful. What Alan Cumming does and what I do are actually very similar in that he plays a character in a film and transports an audience somewhere, and I go into a war zone, interview a refugee, and transport a listener somewhere. And in both cases, we’re helping people bridge that chasm of perceived difference.

Caitlin McNaney Alan Cumming onstage with Shapiro

I was surprised how much of the book deals with your identity as an out gay person…

AS: I think a lot of people have been surprised by that, including my mother. And Nina Totenberg, and the list goes on. [Laughs]

Well, I think there’s still this perception that journalists are supposed to strive for that “view from nowhere,” to not make themselves part of the story—and this is something you definitely address in the book. Can you tell me a bit about how your identity has shaped the kind of work you do?

AS: I think that being an outsider allows people to perceive systems a little more clearly. Being an outsider can take many forms, whether you are an immigrant, a racial minority, a religious minority, your sexual orientation. In my case, I’m Jewish, I’m gay. There are other aspects to my identity: I’m white, I’m male, I’m cis, I’m American. But the ways in which I’m an outsider, I think, have allowed me to perceive systems and structures that might not be obvious to people who are not part of marginalized groups. So, there are certainly specific stories where approaching the story as a gay man has, in my view, made a difference. Like covering the Pulse Nightclub shooting. But I also think that, generally speaking, when I am trying to relate to somebody’s experience that is different from mine, my own experience being an outsider is a useful tool that I can rely on.

And I also wanted to explore in this book how I, as a journalist, can both pursue the ideal of objectivity and embrace the fact that I carry my identity with me wherever I go. So, I don’t want to negate the idea that I can approach a story as an objective journalist. Nor do I want to negate the idea that who I am matters. And that’s a complicated push-pull.

You write at one point that you felt like your “identity as a reporter felt at odds with my identity as a queer person.” How do you think about that conflict now?

AS: You’re talking about when I got married, and that was very controversial. Being married to a person of the same gender is no longer controversial. But there are other ways in which sexual orientation and gender identity are being weaponized today—which I surely don’t need to spell out for you or your readers.

And as I think about the way that relates to my journalism, I can’t help but think about the way in which my colleagues who are Black cover police violence against Black people. Or my colleagues who are women cover debates over reproductive rights. Not to equate these things, but as I say in the book, every human pays taxes, so who can objectively report on the tax code and debates over tax cuts or tax increases? That might not be something that is essential to our identity, but it is something that we have a stake in, that affects us personally, and so, as journalists, it’s disingenuous for us to pretend that that doesn’t exist.

How we hold those two ideas in our mind at once, of approaching a story in a way that is thoughtful, fair, thorough, and perhaps aspirationally objective, and also allowing for the fact that we come with lived experience—that’s the trick. And the goal is to allow our lived experience to enrich our reporting and deepen our reporting and add nuance to our reporting rather than allow it to impose blinders on the stories that we tell.

So, as you said, that quote comes from the chapter about marrying your husband, Mike, in 2004 when Gavin Newsome briefly allowed same-sex marriages in San Francisco. You mention that one of your first impulses was to run the idea of getting married by your boss at the time. Can you describe what your thinking was there and how you think about that impulse now?

AS: To this day, I still ask permission for stuff that I probably don’t need to ask permission for. I think that’s part of who I am. And if I don’t get permission for something that I believe I deserve permission for then there’s another conversation to be had. But I think I’ve always wanted to… From the time that I came out, it was about having the conversation and engaging in the difficult discussions, and confronting the friction rather than ignoring it or hoping it doesn’t appear.

So in 2004 the friction was between my identity as a young journalist who believed my role was to narrate major news stories rather than participate in them and, on the other hand, my love for my college boyfriend who is now my husband who grew up in San Francisco and wanted to get married in the town that was one of the first to allow same-sex marriages. And I wasn’t quite sure how those two tensions should play out. So I went to my boss, and I said, “I want to get married. Is this an issue.” And she said, to her credit, “No, it’s not. Congratulations.”

You mention in an early chapter that when you were trying to sort of figure out what you wanted to do after graduating college, one of the things you were interested in was LGBTQ+ advocacy. Obviously, you’ve had this amazing career at NPR, which is a particular kind of traditional news organization. But that mention of LGBTQ+ advocacy made me want to ask you about LGBTQ+ media and advocacy journalism. I guess I’m curious what you and others at more traditional news organizations think of LGBTQ+ media and the work we do.

AS: It’s all variations on a theme, right? We’re all telling stories. We’re all trying to illuminate the world. When I look at LGBTQ media, I don’t see a bright line between those outlets and the kinds of outlets I work for any more than I see a bright line between Substack and mainstream news organizations. Or even between news journalism and opinion journalism. They’re all different in certain ways, of course, but they’re all forms of storytelling, interpretation, helping people understand the world.

Do you have any thoughts on the state of LGBTQ+ journalism today? What are the most important LGBTQ+ stories out there right now?

AS: Journalistically, I have had straight colleagues ask why we are telling so many stories about trans people, and my answer often is, because state legislatures across the country are making trans people the focus, and they’re doing so in a way that… I’m being careful in my wording here, because as a journalist who’s covering these issues, I don’t want to slip into advocacy. But it is not the trans people who are raising the issue. It is the state legislatures that are raising the issue and the trans people who are trying to defend themselves and their allies who are also coming to their defense. That is the moment that we live in and as journalists we have an obligation to tell those stories.

At the same time, we risk falling into a trap of only telling stories of adversity and not also telling stories of joy. Part of my goal as a journalist, and also in this book, has been and continues to be to reflect the world as it is and not merely the world at its worst. So, when I think about the LGBTQ stories that are urgent to tell, there is undoubtedly a wave of legislation targeting trans people. But I also think it’s important that we go beyond those stories to accurately reflect full lives as they’re lived today.

We’re speaking a little over a week since a group of New York Times contributors wrote a letter to Times management criticizing the paper’s coverage of transgender issues. As a journalist and as a queer person, do you have any thoughts you want to share about that letter and the Times’s response?

AS: To be entirely candid, I did not read the op-ed in defense of JK Rowling. I saw the letter but was not asked to sign it—I’ve never written for the New York Times. One of the things that I really appreciate about journalism and NPR specifically is that I often find myself at a table, literal or metaphorical, with a lot of people who disagree fervently and are trying to reach the right answer. And sometimes those disagreements are private and sometimes those disagreements are public, and both can be valuable, and the answer can be debated, and those debates are really important.

In the book you recall how, early in your career, you would tell people that you wanted to be “the first Ari Shapiro.” At this point in your career, do you think you’ve succeeded? And what does that mean to you now?

AS: One of the reviews of this book—and I’m paraphrasing here—said something like, “He was one of the few Jewish kids at his elementary school, the only openly gay student at his high school, and today he’s likely the only public radio host who sings in a cabaret show with Alan Cumming”—which, I know Alan well enough to say is a factually true statement. I’m the only one!

Of course, every human is unique. But I do take pride in the fact that I have carved out a niche for myself that I do think is uniquely mine, and feels like a really lovely mix of the things that I enjoy and the things that I’m good at and I have found ways to continue challenging myself—most recently by writing a book for the first time. And I like the fact that I have never allowed myself to get too comfortable. But the things I’ve done have always felt consistent with my overarching set of values and my view of the world.

Honestly, it wasn’t until I wrote this book that I was able to identify and articulate that kind of superstructure that hangs over everything I do. And so, in answer to your question, yes, it is satisfying to take a step back and look at the way all of those pieces fit together.

Do you have anything coming up on the cabaret front?

AS: Alan and I are bringing our show to New York City for the first time. We are going to be at the Café Carlyle in residence, April 5–14.

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