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Ari Shapiro On Covering The Pulse Shooting

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ari Shapiro is a journalist here at NPR. We hope you know him as one of the voices of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED during the week. Five years ago, he got on a plane to report on the Pulse nightclub shooting. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in the country. And it would have been a difficult and draining story for any journalist to cover, but even more so when Ari realized it hit closer to home than he had first understood. He wrote about this for The Atlantic, and he's here with us now to tell us more about it. Ari, thanks so much for being here and spending some time with us on this day of remembrance.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, I do hope people read the piece, but I hope you don't mind if I start with a bit of a spoiler, which is that it wasn't until you got on the scene and started talking to people that you realized you had actually been there. You had been at the Pulse. How'd you figure that out, and how did it strike you when you did?

SHAPIRO: So the shooting took place in 2016. And when I headed down there, I knew that I had been barhopping in Orlando in 2004, back when I was based in Florida, covering the state for about nine months for NPR. I was on a reporting trip to Orlando and had a quiet Monday night and decided to just go to the nearest gay bar, which was pretty empty. And I made friends with a couple of bartenders named Nathan (ph) and Bobby (ph). And we had a great time. And the next night was their night off, so they invited me to go out with them. And we had this really fun time. They showed me around their town, Orlando.

And so, you know, you fast-forward 12 years, and I'm flying down to Orlando to cover the Pulse nightclub shooting. And I knew that I had been barhopping in Orlando, so I felt a connection to this city and this community. And it wasn't until close to the end of my reporting trip that I was interviewing the editor who has since passed away of the free gay weekly paper Watermark. His name was Billy Maines. And I was just kind of making small talk with him before our interview. And I told him, yeah, I'd been barhopping in Orlando all these years earlier. And I told him the story. And he said, well, what was the name of the bar? And I said, I don't know. I'm sure it's closed. And he asked me to describe what it looked like. And so I described the layout - sort of you walk in, dance floor to the left, cocktail bar to the right. And he said, that was Pulse.

And I had been covering this story for the previous week and not realizing that I had had this memorable experience in that very club where the shooting took place. And I looked on my phone, and I found the number of one of the bartenders who I had met that night. And when I got back home to Washington, D.C., I reached out to him. And we had this really sort of lovely reconnection more than a decade later.

MARTIN: Did it make you feel some kind of way to realize you're sitting right there?

SHAPIRO: Oh, of course. How could it not? I mean, so I think in the back of my mind, I probably the whole time thought, well, this could have been Pulse. But, A, the story isn't about me. And, B, you know, there's no way of knowing. And trying to find out is the opposite of what I'm supposed to be doing here, covering this massacre and telling the stories of the people who are at the center of it. But ultimately, I think this gets to a question about the value of journalistic objectivity weighted against the value of lived experience, because the way that I told those stories included a piece of myself. And I think I was able to tell different stories because I'm a reporter who is gay and had not just been to Pulse specifically, but had been to gay bars and understood the role that those places play in a community.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about that now, if I can, because...

SHAPIRO: Sure.

MARTIN: ...You know, we're never going to know the motive of the gunman in his own words because he was killed the night of the shooting. He didn't leave some, you know, manifesto or anything like that. But for whatever the reason that - this was a devastating event on multiple levels. And I just wanted to ask if you would talk about the fact that it took place at a place like Pulse. What could a place like Pulse mean to somebody?

SHAPIRO: I think for queer people especially, bars and clubs have always been a haven. It's a place you can go no matter how your family feels about you, no matter how the rest of the world treats you. And you know you belong there. And you will be embraced, you know. And you can find your people. And you can just look at my experience on that Monday night in Orlando in 2004, when I wasn't oppressed or persecuted, but I was in a town where I didn't know anybody. And I showed up at this place that I had never been before. And I walked away with two friends who, 12 years later, I was able to connect with. And they remembered. And, you know, Nathan said to me, we didn't want you to feel alone. And I think that's an experience that so many LGBTQ people have had when they show up at a bar or a club. And so for this massacre to take place in that kind of a setting, as horrific as any mass shooting is, that adds another layer to it.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I wanted to ask if you could kind of think with me for a minute about both understanding something on a visceral level and then having to think about it on an intellectual level. And, you know, you'd think that many Americans now have had this experience of being both and, right? They've been to a supermarket. They've been to - you know, that was the site of another - they've been to a school. They've been to - they - maybe they work in a warehouse. They shop at a Walmart. You know, all of these are places that have experienced these terrible things. I just wonder - if I can put you on the spot, like, how - do you have some thoughts about - how do you think about that? I mean, how do you think about the fact that you could have been sitting there?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I think for us as journalists or just for us as people, it's so easy for us to distance ourselves from experiences as a form of self-protection, that those are the kinds of things that happen to other people, people who are somehow different from us. And we can jump through these intellectual hoops to try to rationalize that to ourselves. And I actually don't think that helps anyone. And I think ultimately, understanding the commonality and the shared humanity and the shared experience that we have with people who are going through these horrific traumatic events, even as journalists covering those events, I think helps us relate to one another in a more authentic way.

MARTIN: Ari Shapiro is a host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. He wrote about covering the Pulse shooting for The Atlantic. Ari, thank you so much. Always good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.