Teddy Fischer's first big scoop as a journalist started out as lark.
Fischer learned of a May Washington Post story that had accidentally published with a photo showing Keith Schiller, President Donald Trump's bodyguard, holding a stack of papers. On one page was a yellow sticky note with the words "Jim 'Mad Dog' Mattis" scribbled on it, followed by a phone number.
James Mattis is the retired four-star general who is now Trump's defense secretary.
Fischer flipped the image and zoomed in on the phone number so he could read it.
And that's when his journalistic instinct kicked in.
Fischer, who's 17 and a rising high school junior, is a reporter for his Seattle-area school newspaper, the Mercer Island High School Islander.
So Fischer texted the normally press-shy Mattis a request for an interview.
And to his surprise, Mattis agreed.
But for all the thrill and excitement of such a huge exclusive, there were logistical problems.
They scheduled a time to talk in late May, but to Fischer's disappointment, Mattis didn't call.
A few more days passed, and then Fischer learned a time-tested journalistic lesson: a source will only call back after you've stepped away from the phone.
"I left the room, and I come back to my phone and it says that he called," Fischer tells NPR. "I was devastated because he called late — that's not his fault — but I didn't think that he was going to call back."
Fischer, working alongside his classmate and editor Jane Gormley, prepared a series of questions on both policy and human interest angles — from "How will the U.S. help rebuild Arab countries after ISIS is inevitably defeated?" to "Any advice for graduating seniors?"
To the former, Mattis called for international cooperation. To the latter, he gave a frank piece of advice.
"I think if you guide yourself by putting others first, by trying to serve others, whether it be in your family, in your school, in your church or synagogue or mosque or wherever you get your spiritual strength from, you can help your state, you can help your country. If you can help the larger community in the world, you won't be lying on a psychiatrist's couch when you're 45 years old wondering what you did with your life."
Mattis, known for being both a bellicose and thoughtful military strategist, also proposed greater cultural outreach. Asked how the U.S. could "defeat an ideology," the secretary mused to Fischer about inviting more students from countries like Afghanistan or Syria "to Mercer Island or to Topeka, Kansas, or wherever."
The former Marine Corps general also shared his thoughts Hillary Clinton during her years in the White House.
"I was a NATO officer and then a central command officer under President Obama and he was trying to reach out to the Arab people. He unfortunately didn't always have the best advisers — or he didn't listen to his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — so we missed some opportunities there."
Fischer was particularly pleased to have elicited a compliment for Clinton from a member of Trump's cabinet.
"That's new news," he says.
And what did the student journalists learn about the news business from their big get? Substance doesn't trump clickbait.
"Our paper put out a lip-dub that our school made — like everyone dancing around the high school and lip-syncing to songs — on our Facebook page and that, to this day, has more likes than the Mattis interview does," Gormley tells NPR's Rachel Martin.
So does Fischer still have Mattis' cell phone number saved on his phone?
"I do. I texted him a link to my article," Fischer says.
So far, though, Mattis hasn't texted him back.
Jeffrey Pierre (@MrJeffPierre) is a news assistant at Morning Edition.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And, you know, sometimes the key to landing a good story is to just make the call. Well, that is exactly what Teddy Fischer did. And it landed him an interview with the normally media-shy Jim Mattis.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You know, Mattis, the retired four-star general who is now President Trump's defense secretary? Well, this fall, Fischer will be a junior at Mercer Island High School near Seattle. When The Washington Post accidentally published a photo of a Trump aide carrying a sticky note that contained Mattis' phone number, the student journalist knew just what to do.
TEDDY FISCHER: I just took that picture. I just zoomed in and just turned it upside down and found the number on the sticky note.
JANE GORMLEY: Yeah, I did not believe him at first.
GREENE: OK, that other voice there is Jane Gormley, Fischer's classmate and editor of the Mercer Island High School Islander. They agreed that they would text Secretary Mattis with an interview request. And, as they explained to our co-host Rachel Martin, the secretary called back.
FISCHER: When he called, it was in journalism class, which I think was pretty funny.
GORMLEY: Yeah, I think it was a couple of weeks after that initial call that we really got serious and were writing questions. We knew from the beginning that Teddy would want to do his piece that was more policy-related and then mine that would be more of a reflection. So we split the questions up that way.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Which were very good, by the way.
FISCHER: Thank you.
GORMLEY: Yeah, thank you.
MARTIN: I guess - I'm curious to know, what exchanges stood out to each of you?
GORMLEY: I think when I was asking him about - or when Teddy was asking him about history. And he said that - not a direct quote - but it'll - it won't give you all the answers, but it'll show you the questions to ask. You hear that kind of thing from history teachers all the time, but to hear it from him - to hear it from someone who's making history - really just kind of solidified it and made me really realize how real that is.
MARTIN: Yeah. Teddy?
FISCHER: The key parts in the policy questions were - I think there was one moment where we were comparing how the Obama and Trump administrations differ on their approach to combating ISIS. And there was - at one point in the interview, he criticized Obama, saying that he would have been better served if he had listened more to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which I think was something that most professional journalists would like to get out of an interview.
MARTIN: Yeah, that was news. That's like - that qualifies as news.
FISCHER: That's new news. And I agree with Jane in what will stick with me is probably the conversations about history and political divide.
MARTIN: On the issue of political divisiveness, he said, generally speaking, just because someone disagrees with you doesn't make them crazy or evil. And he goes on to say, I don't care for ideological people. It's like those people just want to stop thinking.
FISCHER: Yeah, I think he followed up with that by saying people reaffirm their own bias all the time by watching and listening to things that cater to their tastes and just reinforce what they already know, which I guess has helped me because I like to explore different sides of the news. I think there's a lot of gray area. And so I listen to many different news sources on each end of the political spectrum.
MARTIN: How did this interview go over with your audience - with your readers?
GORMLEY: (Laughter) That's also kind of a funny story. So our paper put out a lip dub that our school made - like everyone dancing around the high school and lip-syncing to songs - on our Facebook page. And that, yeah, to this day, I think has more likes than the Mattis interview post does.
MARTIN: Wow. Such is life, right?
MARTIN: You did take the opportunity to just say, hey, Jim Mattis, what guidance do you have for young people? And it was an earnest and lovely response. He just said...
GORMLEY: Yeah, it really was.
MARTIN: ...You have to put others first - and then I'm going to quote here - "if you can help the larger community in the world, you won't be lying on a psychiatrist couch when you're 45 years old wondering what you did with your life." You guys going to take that to heart?
GORMLEY: Yeah, I love that one. Yeah.
MARTIN: So do you still have the secretary of defense's cellphone number saved in your phone?
FISCHER: I do. I texted him a link to my article and...
MARTIN: You did?
FISCHER: Yeah, I'm not - he hasn't - we haven't been in contact with him since the interview, but I think it went through.
MARTIN: Teddy Fischer. He interviewed the Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis for his high school newspaper, The Islander, at Mercer Island High School. He worked with his editor, Jane Gormley, on this. And we've been speaking with both of them. Teddy and Jane, thanks so much and congrats on the big get.
GORMLEY: Yeah, thank you.
FISCHER: Thank you.
GREENE: Don't let go of that number, Teddy. Those two young journalists - wow, I'm feeling inspired - they were talking to our co-host Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.