Celebrated NPR reporter Melissa Block talks to Pittsburgh
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Celebrated NPR reporter Melissa Block talks to Pittsburgh

Recognizable voice shares stories from distinguished career.

Melissa Block, left, and Lucy Perkins chat. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Melissa Block, left, and Lucy Perkins chat. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Melissa Block has reported from the epicenter of global events such as New York City, in the aftermath of 9/11, and Chengdu, China, when a 2008 earthquake left 69,000 people dead. Block, who began working at National Public Radio 34 years ago, shared some insights from her heralded career during a visit to Pittsburgh last week for Point Park University’s Media Innovators Speakers Series.

Melissa Block (Photo by Allison Shelley/NPR)

The March 19 program featured auditory examples of Block’s work, as well as a collegial conversation. Serving as interviewer, and seated beside Block on the Pittsburgh Playhouse stage, was Lucy Perkins, a reporter and producer for 90.5 WESA. Through prepared questions and audience submissions, Perkins explored Block’s professional endeavors, including the latter’s 12-year-span as co-host of “All Things Considered,” NPR’s flagship news program. (Prior to holding her Pittsburgh post, Perkins worked with Block in Washington, D.C., on “All Things Considered.”)

During her tenure on the show, Block reported on Dujiangyan parents’ search for their child and his grandparents amid the rubble of a collapsed six-story apartment building. At the event last week, an excerpt of that 2008 recording was aired. After hearing Block’s narration interspersed with the parents’ cries and an excavator’s hum, Perkins asked, “What is it like to report on the worst day of their life?”

Block recounted following the child’s parents, Fu Guanyu and Wang Wei, throughout the day in question.

“There were moments where I wondered should we be there or should we give them space,” said Block. “There is a struggle with how invasive this can feel.”

Regardless of story or locale, though, reporting on horror is a necessity, explained Block. When disaster strikes, “people want to do something. As a journalist, you have an outlet and some role to play.”

For decades, Block has been celebrated for filling that charge.

In 2019, she received the Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism, awarded by the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. One year earlier, Block won a James Beard Award for reporting on the legacy of the Chinese community in the Mississippi Delta. In 2001, her reporting after 9/11 helped NPR earn a George Foster Peabody Award.

These days, Block serves as special correspondent and guest host of NPR’s news programs. Although she reported on the shootings in Charleston, S.C., and Parkland, Fla., she did not cover the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building on Oct. 27.

“You just sort of dread getting that call of having to go cover a story like that,” she said following the event. “It’s always really hard and there are seldom any good parts of that story, except in this case the community coming together as beautifully as it did.”

Her advice to those chronicling the Tree of Life tragedy is to focus on “how a community rebuilds and what happens to faith when something like that happens in your midst.”

Larger issues are also worth pursuing, she added.

“Especially thinking about what just happened in New Zealand, I think exploring the roots of what is behind these shootings and the growth of anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism” is critical, she said. “I think the temptation can be this sort of, if you ignore it, it’ll go away, and I think the challenge for all of us is to pay attention and to really spend the time to explore what exactly is going on and challenge the notion that these are local factors, because there’s clearly broader societal things at play and networks that really need to be paid attention to.”

Block, who is Jewish, was born into a family of craftsmen. Her parents owned Handcrafters, a crafts store in Old Chatham, N.Y. Block’s uncle was “a leather craftsman and fiddler who made sandals and music in his Greenwich Village shop — which became a bubbling hub of folk music during the 1950s and ’60s; a showcase for talented pickers and singers like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Doc Watson and Maria Muldaur; and a destination for aspiring musicians like John Sebastian and Bob Dylan,” according to The New York Times.

“My family’s Jewish,” said Block. “I’m not an observant Jew and I was not raised with any particular faith. I was never bat mitzvahed, and our daughter, we’re not raising our daughter in any religion, but my family is Jewish on both sides.”

Attendees said they found Block to be approachable.

“She seemed so natural when she talked,” said Arlene Berthenthal of the South Hills.
“Being in the same room as her and seeing her, I was finally able to put a face with the voice,” noted Maryann Jordan of Scott Township.

Well aware of the fact that she has been broadcast into listeners’ homes, bedrooms and cars for decades, Block has not tried any tricks to become more relatable. Instead, her tactic is “active listening.” That, and following a subject’s body language, informs her whether to push a subject or ease up.

“I think your first role is to be a human being and then journalism comes second,” she said. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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