He’s reported on Isis in Iraq and presidential elections and is now one of the most listened to news broadcasters. With a toastie in hand, he talks about foraging and trust.
“When I graduated from Yale, where I studied English, I got an internship at NPR with Nina Totenberg, the legendary legal-affairs correspondent. I moved into a one-room apartment that I found on Craigslist, with a lesbian I’d never met; I had no money to pay rent so I slept on her pull-out sofa. At the end of my internship I got a temporary position at NPR and, finally, I had a pay cheque. So I rented an apartment of my own in that same building and I’ve been here ever since.
I think most people in Washington will tell you that the city is more Veep than House of Cards. It’s not a grand conspiracy; it’s [about] desperately trying to prevent things from falling apart. I do think this administration is less orderly than its predecessors. That all makes it harder to do the daily routine stuff, which is challenging enough in a typical administration.
By the time the 2012 presidential election campaign began I’d been covering the Obama White House for a couple of years. The challenge of covering a presidential campaign is similar to the challenge of covering the White House: you are being spoon-fed pre-packaged information and it can be hard to break out of that bubble and find an original story.
I do feel like we’re at a really important moment in American history. For journalists there is an even more acute obligation to accurately reflect the way things are changing and what the implications of those changes are. But I think Americans still care about great stories. And sometimes you have to give a listener what they don’t know they want.
My reporting assignments in northern Iraq were a really powerful experience. I arrived just as Isis was being pushed back; we visited some towns where it had just been, around the base of Mount Sinjar. There are some stories from that time that really stuck with me. One in particular is the story of a Yazidi temple called Sarfudeen.
I had been reporting in this tiny town called Sununi, where Isis had been driven out, and the mayor said, ‘I want you to see something.’ He sent me out in a car with his driver. I had no idea where we were going. This temple was one of the most holy sites in the Yazidi religion. The group had been targeted for elimination by Isis but a small band of Yazidi fighters decided that they would rather die than see this temple fall. So, they resolved to defend it even though they were outmanned and outgunned.
They managed to hold Isis at bay for months. The Kurds eventually started airlifting food and ammunition to them. And it was only when we arrived that I understood the story. No other western journalists had been there yet to see this place gloriously standing intact and talk to the fighters who had been part of the siege for months. It was the kind of story that you hear in ancient Greek mythology or read in the Bible; it’s hard to believe that it actually happened. Except that you’re there, standing right in front of it.
Big Bear Café opened in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighbourhood in 2006. It serves unfussy plates of elevated US comfort classics, the ingredients for which are sourced from Big Bear’s weekly farmers’ market. It also plays host to weekly wine-tastings, occasional sign-language classes and infrequent nuptials. bigbearcafe-dc.com
Grilled-cheese sandwich, with two-year-aged cheddar from Shelburne Farms, Vermont, garnished with red-apple slices from Reid’s Orchard, Buchanan Valley, Pennsylvania
Chilled cucumber soup, topped with blue-corn tortilla, radish, corn
Growing up in Oregon we had easy access to an abundance of really delicious, simple ingredients. Wild salmon was everywhere, fresh out of the Columbia River. My family would go wild-mushroom hunting. Blackberries grew at the foot of the hill that my parents still live on and after dinner we would go and pick them.
We would always have family dinners, which I think is really important. We had Shabbat dinner every Friday night and so the rituals and traditions of food were always there. But my family was never precious about food. I still love to cook, especially with friends; to come to the farmers’ market here at Big Bear on a Sunday morning, see what looks good, bring it back to the house and decide what we want to do with it. Play it by ear.
I came out when I was 16 and, relative to other coming-out stories, there’s nothing dramatic or extreme in mine. But coming out is a difficult process in any situation. There was this amazing moment, earlier this year, when I went to New York for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. I moderated a panel with some of the rioters who were there in 1969. One of the organisers, Martin Siegel, said to me afterwards, ‘Part of what we were rioting for was the ability to have somebody as public and prominent as you be able to do your job as an out gay man in the open.’ To hear him say that made me appreciate how much I owe the generations that came before me.
There’s something intimate about the radio: people have an emotional attachment to NPR. Some even put NPR on their dating profiles. I feel very lucky to be the beneficiary of some of that affection and I feel like I am entrusted not to mess that up. I’ve been given the opportunity to deepen that attachment by, hopefully, telling stories that stay with people, that move them, and that will motivate them to tell their friends about something that they just heard on the radio.”
Ari Shapiro was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1979 and raised in Portland, Oregon. He is one of four hosts of All Things Considered, the flagship afternoon news programme on National Public Radio (NPR). With nearly 15 million listeners a week it is one of the most listened-to news broadcasts in the US. Shapiro was previously NPR's White House correspondent and chief international correspondent, based in London. He has covered stories ranging from conflicts in Israel, Ukraine and Iraq to the 2012 US presidential election; he has won awards for stories, including one that uncovered the failings in Louisiana’s justice system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Shapiro is married to lawyer Michael Gottlieb and is a guest vocalist with musical group Pink Martini.