NPR White House correspondent visits UP

By The Beacon | September 14, 2011 9:00pm

Professor Elayne Shapiro’s son, Ari, speaks to UP students about his work

(-- The Beacon)

By Caitlin Yilek Opinions Editor

Ari Shapiro, White House correspondent for NPR, spoke at an informal campus lunch with journalism students and Beacon staffers Monday about his experiences covering the Obama Administration, his career path and his second "career" – singing with Pink Martini.

"I thought that the business of journalism was in such a bad state when I was in college I didn't even really think it was worth pursuing," Shapiro said. "Obviously, I was wrong."

Shapiro, 32, is the first NPR reporter to be promoted to a correspondent position before the age of 30.

"It wasn't like I always wanted to be an NPR reporter," Shapiro said. "Although now that I'm there I can't imagine any job I would enjoy more."

After graduating from Yale University magna cum laude with an English degree, Shapiro accepted a job teaching English in Athens, Greece. He turned down the position after NPR's Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg offered him an internship in her department.

"Nina would get invited to all of these parties and she would take me as her ‘date,'" Shapiro said. "It was great because we both had the same priority: we would show up at these events, there would be a sea of senators and Supreme Court justices, and we would both make a beeline to the buffet. After we finished that, then we would go schmooze with the important people."

After his internship with Totenberg, Shapiro worked at Morning Edition – the morning news show at NPR – as an editorial assistant, writing scripts, booking interviews and coming up with story ideas.

On the eve of Sept. 11, 2001 he was working the overnight shift.

"I was hoping to go home early because it looked like it was a slow news day," Shapiro said. "(When the first plane hit) I started making phone calls to people who were in the top of the World Trade Center to describe what was going on and ask them to go live on-air."

In the weeks following 9/11, Shapiro worked 15-hour days in order to broadcast a 7-hour live program of Morning Edition.

After his temporary position at Morning Edition ended, Shapiro worked for NPR as a regional reporter in Atlanta and Miami, and had a reporting fellowship at WBUR in Boston before being promoted to NPR's justice correspondent. Shapiro covered the U.S. Department of Justice as well as the Supreme Court during the end of Pres. George W. Bush's term in office.

"After about five years of covering the Justice Department, I moved to the White House beat," Shapiro said. "So, I've been covering the White House under President Obama for about the last year and a half now."

As a White House Correspondent, Shapiro routinely travels with Pres. Obama on Air Force One.

"The first time I saw the President up close was actually the first time I traveled with him," Shapiro said. "This trip took us to small towns, and when we go to small towns, they take a smaller airplane than the typical Air Force One. They call it ‘Baby Air Force One'"

According to Shapiro, in response to a story written about Obama being more distant from the White House Press Corps than his predecessors, the President walked to the press cabin in the back of the plane.

"(Pres. Obama) said ‘So what do you guys think of the little plane?" Shapiro said. "And I being the shy, retiring type said, ‘Oh it's my first time, so I'm having a ball!'"

As Shapiro watched the president speak, he noticed he had razor bumps on his neck from shaving.

"In that moment I thought, ‘He's a real human being,'" Shapiro said. "Yes, he's the leader of the free world. Yes, he has the hardest job in the world. Yes, he's the president of the United States, but he's also a guy who shaves and gets razor bumps."

Shapiro's connection to UP is personal: His mother is communications studies professor Elayne Shapiro, an avid NPR listener ever since Ari can remember.

He attended Beaverton High School and was a teenage fan of Portland-based band Pink Martini. Their paths would later cross.

"A few years ago they came to Washington (D.C.)," Shapiro said. "I threw a party for them on my patio and the barbeque went late into the night and it turned into a sing-along around my piano."

According to Shapiro, the following day, Pink Martini's band leader Thomas Lauderdale asked him to sing on their next album.

"The first time ever I actually sang live with Pink Martini was at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 18,000 people," Shapiro said. "One thing led to another, and now I do a bunch of songs with them and sing with them regularly."

His visit to Portland this week coincided with three Pink Martini concerts at the Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Jennette Lovejoy, assistant professor of communications studies, asked Shapiro to speak with students after she heard he would be in Portland with Pink Martini.

"Ari is amazing," Lovejoy said. "He reports (the news) for all the right reasons. He was dead on when he said journalists have to be curious."

Lovejoy said Shapiro's visit to campus was a valuable experience for students.

"It's so important for students who practice journalism to hear from someone so accessible."

Senior Danielle Bibbs appreciates the outlook Shapiro has on life.

"He has that attitude of whatever happens, happens," Bibbs said. "He makes the best of it and he inspires me to do that same."

Senior Marit Tegelaar noticed how personable Shapiro is.

"He was very easy to talk to and it was very good to see someone in person who you've heard on the radio," Tegelaar said.

Shapiro has Tegelaar's dream job.

"He gives me hope," Tegelaar said.

"You know, in terms of advice for the future, I would say: be a generalist," Shapiro said. "Don't be so intently focused on one thing that if that one thing doesn't work out you'll be at a loss for anything else."

(-- The Beacon)