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Faces of NPR: Leila Fadel

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel

Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Leila Fadel, new co-host of Morning Edition and Up First.

The Basics:

Name: Leila Fadel

Twitter Handle: @LeilaFadel

Job Title: Host, Morning Edition & Up First

Where you're from: "Does that answer have to be one place?"

You're about to be the new host of Morning Edition! How do you feel?

I'm really excited. I've contributed to this show for a long time and listened to it for much longer. So it feels pretty incredible to now be a co-host with Steve Inskeep, Rachel Martin, and A Martinez. I'm still digesting it.

What are you looking most forward to in the new role?

For me, I've always done sort of specialized beats or covered specific regions of the world. So the idea of delving into a bunch of different topics every day, from art and music to Russia and Ukraine, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Afghanistan and beyond. The prospect of that is incredible. I'm excited to try to bring new and different voices to our airwaves every day, so that for me is what I'm looking forward to most.

Speaking of your time abroad, I know you went to many different countries. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

I was abroad for over a decade. The majority of my time was spent in the Middle East. And although a lot of people like to talk about that region as this monolithic place, it is so different from country to country. I spent a lot of my time in North Africa living in Egypt, traveling to Morocco, Tunisia. The dialects are so different. The culture, so different. The food, so different, the political realities and everyday lived experience are completely different. I drove through the Rif Mountains in Morocco and ended up in Tangiers. You know, I spent so much time in Cairo, which is this absolutely thriving, cosmopolitan city that's always awake. So when I would come back to cities and places that closed at 10, it was kind of a shock for me, because life was going all the time till two, three in the morning, it was a place that came to life at night. Baghdad is just an incredible historic city and also a really sad place in many ways because it was invaded, occupied and in the middle of a conflict for the entire time that I covered it.

Covering the Middle East at the time that I covered it, after I moved from Iraq to Egypt, was a time of uprisings in the region that people refer to as the Arab Spring. And for me, covering these revolts was so interesting because in many places, people had never had a voice in their government before. It was just sort of expected that the same person would win a generally rigged election in places like Egypt. And so it was a very hopeful time, to watch people really stand up and make their voices heard. To see people feel that they could have a say in the future of their nation. But it was also incredibly difficult and fascinating to watch how hard change is and how people sort of pull back into what is stable and familiar when they see unexpected obstacles ahead. Because the path to something different and possibly better can seem scary, it can bring unexpected upheaval. That can include hits to the economy, elected officials you didn't expect, didn't vote for and don't agree with. It's often easier for people to pull back into the familiar then a potentially better long-term future that is filled with obstacles.

So, you know, it was really interesting to watch the sea change in other people's countries, and then I came back to the States and I found it wasn't that different than all these countries I covered. This nation has the same societal problems that every society struggles with, societal divisions on what is and isn't important, who gets protection and who doesn't, who lives with privilege and who doesn't, who has access to power and who doesn't and the daunting questions about how to address these issues.

Leila Fadel, Baghdad 2009
Leila Fadel, Baghdad 2009

I think that's one of the most beautiful parts about traveling, is that you realize that yes, while every country can feel so completely different, we really are a lot more similar than we think.

I think that is the beautiful part of storytelling. You get to go to these places that maybe people think of as "so different" but like you said, people are people, and they're driven by very similar ideas, right? Stability, pursuit of happiness, being able to be safe and feed your family and find some joy in life. And so for storytelling purposes, I really found that joyful, to be able to bring that to our airwaves and also really educate people, because I think there is a tendency, especially in a region like the Middle East, to make some assumptions, like somehow these people are more prone to violence. And none of that is true, and nothing can be divorced from the political context of these countries. And those are things that we're now struggling with in the United States when we think about political violence in a different way, after January 6.

So like you said, it's a real blessing to be able to not only go to these places but bring stories home that really show the broad experience of being human around the world. Because no matter what's going on in your country, even if it is ripped apart by war or it's in political turmoil, life goes on, life happens.

I will always remember the "Day of Rage" in Egypt, on Jan. 28, 2011 when police around the country abandoned their posts in the face of mass protests. We were in Suez and I was with another reporter and friend, we had just watched the police be completely overwhelmed by protesters, people broke out of the local jail, it was this chaotic scene. We lose our driver, flag down a taxi and get ourselves back to Cairo and this taxi driver won't take us any further because there's a fire on the bridge where we're entering the city. So we have to walk. And we're walking through these alleyways trying to get to the train and find our way home and there was a wedding going on in the alley, because somebody was getting married that day. Life happens. No matter what's happening around you, people get married. People are having babies. People are pursuing the best life they can have, no matter what is happening around them.

Absolutely. And I think it's really beautiful that throughout the midst of all these difficult moments that you are able to find beauty and love and happiness in it. So my next question is, through the difficult moments, how did you deal with them? What would help you through them?

People. In Baghdad, I worked in a very wonderful bureau with great colleagues, that became like family, both Iraqi and American. After a particularly hard day, we would blast music in the office and dance around. We would make jokes, sometimes dark humor really helps you get through difficult moments, you know. When you're going through it together and you're able to laugh at even the darkest moments, that's what got me through it and got all of us through it. And it's not lost on me that for the most part, when things got really hard in a lot of places that I worked, I could leave if I needed to, and a lot of people couldn't. So that was something that I thought about a lot.

Which lesson that you've learned throughout your entire career do you think has been most imperative to your success?

I think for me, it's really listening. Checking my assumptions at the door, because we all come with them. My job is to really let people speak and be heard. Because in places like Iraq, there were things that were happening that maybe we could never have imagined and didn't ring true to us at the time. Places like Abu Ghraib, for example, it proved to be true that there was torture going on in this prison. That seemed unfathomable at the time, because it went against the stated values and foreign policy of the United States. And so for me, it's really checking assumptions at the door, and not assuming that people in power tell the truth, right? Not making the assumption that because it's an official paper from a government authority or a law enforcement authority, it's true. Really questioning and listening to what people say who may have no access to power. Our job is to keep those in power accountable and to listen to the most vulnerable.

So that, and also, looking at the small details, as much as the big. I had a wonderful mentor and dear friend who died in Syria, Anthony Shadid. He was an incredible journalist that so many emulate. He told me once that he would ask a throwaway question, he didn't really care about the answer, then he'd use that time while the person was answering to study the room or environment right, so you can remember every picture, every wall, everything in the room of the home or office or street where you are doing the interview. Because maybe something will bring a person to life in the place that they live or work. And if, for example, the person you were interviewing did a walk each day, or had a particular journey they took, he would then go do that journey also, to study that environment, because often those are things you can bring into your story that are part of this person's daily lived experience.

Yeah, I've never thought about that. Like those little details matter. And if you're able to experience it in real life, I'm sure it would paint a completely different perspective for you.

It does. I mean, it puts you into the shoes of the person telling their story, their home, their daily routine. And at NPR, you can do that audibly. I've had people just record their journey back and forth to work, for example, when I was doing a story on an activist in Cairo he recorded his bike ride for me. So those things are just as important as the big questions, sort of the mundane, silent moments. And I often find that when you're sort of wrapping up and you're finished with your official interview, you have the most genuine moments between you and the person you're interviewing. And so remembering not to just walk away, but sit in the silence for a moment, listen and let the other person have the time to open up.

In this age of news, it's sometimes depressing and there's a lot of misinformation. How do you navigate this landscape?

I think that's a question we're still trying to answer, and I'm not going to pretend that I have an answer to it, right, because we're navigating a space where there is so much noise. And it's really hard for people to know what's true and what's not true. And we work in fact-based media. There are facts. There is true and untrue. There are some things that are subjective, but one plus one equals two, two plus two equals four. And we just have to continue to do the work without leaning into biases. But we also have to remember that being fact-based and being truthful is not a bias. And so I think we just have to continue to do the work, and do the work well, and make people feel heard, but also not get into this sort of "bothsiderism" when it comes to truth.

The answer to that question is something I think we're all still trying to figure out. Because people are pulling into physical and virtual echo chambers where they feel comfortable, where they're confirming their own beliefs, where they're seeing information that continues to support whatever it is that they've decided is their opinion on a matter. And so we're in a time where people are questioning science. People are questioning experts and academics in all fields. And so for me, we just keep doing the work, and keep talking to everyone who will speak to us, and putting those voices on the air, but also not putting unchecked voices on air.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel

I read that you grew up in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, correct?

I did. Yeah.

How do you think that has impacted your journalistic career?

Saudi Arabia was an interesting place to grow up, I think of myself as a third culture kid. I grew up in a country that I'm not from, around a bunch of other people from around the world who were all there for work or because of their parents' work. I lived there because my father worked for ARAMCO. I lived in a very small town and went to a very small school. But in my class of about 16-17 people, there were 12 nationalities from around the world. So I had this very small town childhood, but I also went to school with people from the Philippines and Argentina and the U.S. and Jordan, Pakistan, so many places. And so we used to joke that we were all the weird kid at lunch, you know what I mean? We just all were very different and came from very different cultural backgrounds. And we were bonded by this experience that when we went home to wherever our families were from, nobody else understood. They didn't grow up in this little town, in somebody else's country. And I think for me, it opened the world to me. Despite living a small town experience, I still had this global experience, exposed to different people's cultures and foods. And so none of that struck me as strange or different. That was normal.

I also was there during the first Gulf War, when I was 10 or 11, and CNN for the first time was being broadcast in Saudi Arabia and I do remember watching. I ultimately went to high school in Beirut because there were no high schools for foreign kids in Saudi Arabia at the time. And so I went to an American school in Beirut. It was only a two hour flight. I lived with my uncle, his family and my sisters.

Prior to moving to Lebanon, I spent every summer visiting during the civil war since I was an infant. And I felt when I watched coverage of the Gulf War or the civil war in Lebanon, I felt like I didn't see people that looked or sounded like me or people I knew. I wanted to be able to get into this industry to fill that out, to stop making people so two dimensional, especially when it came to conflict in the region. I felt like there were a lot of two dimensional characters, women screaming and hitting their faces, people seeming violent for no reason. You know, these types of stereotypes divorced from the political context and the regular people stuck in the middle weren't talked to, weren't heard. And there was also great journalism going on, but I think that's really what drove me, and I feel like it drove a lot of people that got into the industry at the same time as me. And there are so many Arab Americans, American Muslims who are doing incredible work now, and I think they kind of got into the industry for the same reasons.

I'm glad you said that, because my next question was going to be, can you tell me the moment you decided to be a journalist, but instead I'll ask you, do you feel like you've fulfilled that? Like you were able to create a less two dimensional perspective?

I hope so. I don't know. I mean, you write every story, or you tell every story, and you hope somebody is listening. I do think that as an industry, we have more stories that go deeper, we tell stories with more nuance and sensitivity because we have more and more journalists that are from marginalized groups who have different lived realities involved in conversations about coverage, or in charge of that coverage. I think of Anthony Shadid who I mentioned as a mentor and I think of so many others currently working, too many to name at NPR and beyond that I think bring voices and ideas that we saw were missing when we were in our seminal years. We're better as an industry. But there is more work to do.

NPR is constantly evolving and changing. How do you feel about the current state of NPR and what do you think about the future of NPR?

I love NPR. I love public media. I love the purity of it. But I think we struggle with the same things that many organizations struggle with; making sure that we are reaching out to new listeners, to listeners that are different than the ones we've had for 50 years, along with keeping the listeners we've had all this time as well. We also have the continued need to diversify the voices of the journalists and the guests on our air. Of course we are doing some of that and you can hear it in our stories, our podcasts and our shows. That's really important. And I want us to continue to thrive in that way, and I want us to take our incredible work and incredible storytelling and package it in many different audio spaces, making sure that we're reaching different listeners who listen in different ways. And we're doing that. And I think we're going to continue to do that. So I have a lot of hope for the future of NPR. I think it's an incredible medium, and I think that we need to be better in certain ways and we're working towards that.

As a new host, have you thought about any strategies to reach this new, young and diverse audience?

I mean, for me, I just want people to respond to hearing things that reflect their interests and who they are. That includes the journalists who are out telling stories. Often groups made to feel marginalized say they hear stories about them but not for them. So, are we reflecting the diversity of this nation and the world, be it identity, race, socio-economics, age and so on? I think that is key. And then packaging it is the final part. Most importantly, it's about the work that brings listeners to you, making sure that they feel that this is interesting to them, that they feel seen, that they feel heard, that they hear and see people like themselves on our air. And for me, that is the best way to get people to listen, to do great work that is not exclusionary, that has this sort of broad sweep.

So what would you go back and tell your younger self? What do you wish you knew?

I mean, this is going to sound so ridiculous, but I think I would tell myself that it's possible to succeed. I didn't know how to get into the newspapers I read, or on NPR. To me, that was a far-fetched dream, not a possibility, and definitely not a reality. And so I think I would just tell my younger self, it's possible, not to be afraid. And I am really impressed by this new generation of journalists that's coming up that is bolder and louder than we were coming up. That are saying, we're going to tell stories in this way. We're going to represent the communities that we come from along with everything else, and we're going to do it unapologetically. And I think that's really beautiful and important for our industry. And so, yeah, I think I would just say, don't be afraid, that it is possible, it can be a reality. I mean, I'm about to be a co-host on Morning Edition. I never thought that was a possibility for someone like me.

Wow. So you didn't expect to end up here?

No! I mean, I'd always grown up around headline current events, right? Politics had always been spoken about in my home. I'd always loved to write. I'd always loved to tell stories, mostly fiction, actually. My dad really wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, and that wasn't going to pan out. So I was like, well, I like writing, and I think current events are very interesting. Let me try this thing. And I remember, I took my first job in Fort Worth, Texas, as a night cops reporter covering crime in suburban Fort Worth. And somehow, my path brought me here, and so I feel really lucky. I also feel like I would tell my younger self, always be squeaky, always raise your hand, even when you don't think you're ready. Because those were the moments when I was the most scared. And when I said, OK, I can do this thing – and I definitely had doubts – I still did it. And so, yeah, I don't think I imagined this career path. I mean, I wanted something like this, but I didn't really imagine that it was possible, and I didn't really know how to navigate it. And I had wonderful, amazing mentors through the process that helped me navigate. And I hope I do that for others. Obviously, you have to have the skill. You can't just raise your hand and then do nothing. But, you know, don't be afraid, because those are the moments where you might take the most important leap in your career.

Is there still a place you want to go or a story you want to cover?

Oh my gosh. I don't know that there's only one thing. I think there are so many things, it's hard for me to say just one thing. Right now, for me, what I find most fascinating is the way that people are physically separating from each other, really globally. It is happening a lot here. But depending on your race, your political ideology, people are deciding to live in specific places. And I think that's fascinating and dangerous and interesting, and I want to explore that. But man, I have so many more stories I want to tell. That's why I'm so excited about this platform.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sommer Hill (she/her) is a social media associate for NPR Extra. She started with NPR in May 2021. Her primary responsibilities include managing the social media accounts for NPR Extra as well as creating blog posts for NPR.org. In her time at NPR, Hill has worked on many projects including the Tiny Desk Contest, the How I Built This Summit, creating a resource page for Juneteenth material, participating in the 'What Juneteenth Means To Me' video and contributing to WOC/POC meetings.