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After Almost 30 Years As Covering American Politics, Ron Fournier Heads Home

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ron Fournier is out of here. After a generation in the frontlines of American political journalism with the Associated Press, National Journal and Atlantic Media and inside the gullet of the D.C. beltway media monster, Ron Fournier's moving back home to Detroit.

He'll be associate publisher of Crain's Detroit Business. He said goodbye with a column, of course, which we want to talk to him about, as well as other things.

And Ron Fournier, three-time winner of the White House Correspondents' Association Merriman Smith Award, as well as many other honors, and author of the best-selling family memoir "Love That Boy" joins us from his about-to-be vacated office. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON FOURNIER: Thanks so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: I get the impression you want to go back to Detroit for family reasons. But you also look forward to the journalism there.

FOURNIER: Yeah. It's a good way to put it because, to be honest with you, a driving concern is we want to go home. My wife Lori and I are both from Detroit. We're the only members of our family who left the state. And with us becoming empty nesters, it's a time in our lives where we have a chance to follow our hearts while we still have some legs.

SIMON: Your departing column is a pointed guide to political journalism. And let me take up a couple of your points. You say, ignore the conventional wisdom in groupthink, which takes guts. Why should it take guts?

FOURNIER: Well, 'cause it's so easy to be a lemming. It's so easy, especially on a beat like the White House beat, where their narrative is handed to you. And it's human nature.

It takes a little independence, a little bit of guts because it's a little risky to be going after a story that other people aren't, to be asking questions other people aren't 'cause that means you're not doing the story that everybody else is.

So you better come up with something better. And my argument is if you're asking questions that nobody else is, if you're writing stories that are distinctive, you will stand out.

SIMON: Is 2016 the worst presidential election year you've seen?

FOURNIER: Oh, definitely. Now, I've only been covering them since, you know, '92, when I was an Arkansas-based reporter covering my governor, Clinton. But I think it's the worst we've seen in modern history.

Statistically, we've never had two candidates who are this disliked, who are this untrusted. And the atomization of media, where now we have, basically, 310 million publishers who can potentially be demagogues - you have a very coarse media landscape where there are very few referees left, which is what the media used to be.

So it's kind of like the Wild West of politics. And that kind of environment - we're racing to the least common denominator. We're not finding our better angels.

SIMON: You've, as you've noted, covered one Clinton or another for decades. Emails - concerned about the Clinton Foundation. Are these lapses or business as usual?

FOURNIER: I think lapse is actually too soft of a word. It really is a scandal. And it has undermined the credibility of somebody who came into this race really well-respected and really well-liked. And she's destroyed her credibility and put Donald Trump on the brink of the presidency.

SIMON: And yet you called Donald Trump unfit. I think that's a quote.

FOURNIER: Because in my opinion, he is. And I'm now an opinion columnist. So I can stack all the evidence as I see it. And when you look at it, Scott - and I know you've done this - when you talk about - Islam hates us - and total ban of Muslims.

And an American judge who happens to be Hispanic heritage can't rule on my case because of the color of his skin. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Really, it's almost like a punch in the face when you line them all up. And you see with each one he's demeaning somebody. He's using bigoted language. He's using sexist language.

And he's showing a total lack of understanding of policy - and even scarier to me - no interest in policy. The way I kind of boil it down is I'm disappointed in Hillary Clinton, and I'm disgusted by Donald Trump.

SIMON: You said on Twitter on Friday, God bless our public servants, and had good words for the Bushes and the Clintons.

FOURNIER: I wanted to step back for a minute and say something very basic and truthful and decent - that I owe a personal thanks to the presidents I cover. Them and all of the people who work for them are public servants who, at least, got into the business to do good things.

And most of them are still in the business to do good things. We need people who are willing to put their reputations and more lucrative livelihoods on the line to serve this country. But also, I think my next line was something like God bless journalists. Hold them accountable.

So we can respect and even like the people we cover. But that doesn't mean you let them get away with wrongdoing. And I think that's one problem in our politics - is too many Democrats let Hillary Clinton get away with this email stuff.

They didn't stand up last February. And too many Republicans walked away from the fight with Donald Trump. And they let a guy who, you know, most Americans don't think is ready to be president - to be their nominee. And until we start holding our own guys and gals accountable, neither one of these parties is ever going to be functional.

SIMON: Ron Fournier, good travels. And stay in touch.

FOURNIER: Thank you, Scott. Thank you so much for talking to me again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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