NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard Takes Your Calls

From NPR's coverage of the Tiger Woods scandal, to what to call the president, NPR's ombudsman fields a daily barrage of listener complaints and comments. NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard shares what's on listeners' minds about NPR coverage.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

If you're a regular NPR listener, at some point or another, you've probably had a question or a gripe about something you've heard. If you've written in, the chances are your note lands in the inbox of NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard -lately, email about NPR's coverage of Tiger Woods, how NPR journalists refer to the president of the United States, and the role of corporate sponsorship here.

Ombudsman Alicia Shepard joins us today, as she does from time to time to answer your questions about our reporting. If you have questions for the ombudsman, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let me begin with this email that we got from Craig(ph) in Austin, Texas. Why can't you avoid the Tiger, Michael Jackson, et cetera frenzies when they come to the rest of the media? Celebrity worship and bashing are not news or interesting. And I know that's along the lines of a lot of complaints that you've gotten from listeners.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Well, I think for Craig, the answer is that's it's a matter of proportionality. That it would be almost egregious for NPR to ignore the Michael Jackson story or the Tiger Woods story. That is news. That's what people were talking about. So then it's a matter of how long do you cover that story.

And, you know, NPR covered, let's say, the Tiger Woods story pretty intensely for the first couple of days, when they were focusing on it as a traffic accident. But, you know, there are going to be some people who will say: Too much. And I would say that most of the emails I've gotten say, too much, enough already.

CONAN: You should also understand something about the process; when you write in to Alicia Shepard, she writes us an email and says, what do you think about this? Not putting her - not arguing either way or the other, but to ask you for an explanation.

SHEPARD: Yes. And I was very struck by Chris Turpin, who's the executive editor of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and this was during the first week of the Tiger Woods story. And he wrestled with it. He said, you know, it is news. It's what people are talking about. But I have to go home and listen to my wife say, enough already. So, listeners would be remiss in thinking that, you know, NPR editors and reporters aren't uncomfortable with this story. But it's just not a story that you can ignore. But do you have to go as far as the number of mistresses? No, leave that to others.

CONAN: All right. Slight misstatement, Mr. Turpin is the executive producer, not the editor. But anyway...

SHEPARD: I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's okay.

SHEPARD: Thank you.

CONAN: That's all right.

SHEPARD: That's it. Thank God for editors.

CONAN: Thank God for editors. We have one sitting in the next room who caught that. And as you look at the other issues that come in, there is a hardy perennial, I would say, and that involves the second reference to the president of the United States.

SHEPARD: Yes. I would say, at least, on a daily basis, if not more, phone calls of - and what's interesting is that NPR has a policy of referring to President Obama on the first reference. So listeners would hear President Obama went to Copenhagen, and then they would hear Mr. Obama, and that's when their ears seem to perk up. When they hear mister, they think it's disrespectful when, in fact, it's NPR's style to do that on the second reference or to say "the president," but to not use President Obama consistently. And it's been the policy to do that with every president, you know, going back to Gerald Ford. Listeners can go to npr.org/ombudsman. We have audio that will show the consistency of the policy.

Now, the next question is so what, we don't like the policy, and...

CONAN: Even if it's consistent, it's dumb.

SHEPARD: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHEPARD: And I brought that up to Ellen Weiss, who is the executive editor of the news department here. And she said, for consistency reasons, we are going to stick with Mr. Obama on the second reference. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Ellen Weiss is senior vice president for news.]

CONAN: Because to change it after all these years - why would you change it for this president as - anyway.

SHEPARD: Exactly.

CONAN: So, it's a matter of policy, and people are not going to like it, but...

SHEPARD: And consistency and just having a style. And all news organizations have their own style guides. Most of them do follow the Associated Press. But in this case, it's NPR's style. And I just felt that I would hear from listeners saying, well, you never would have said "Mr. Bush" on the second reference when, in fact, NPR did do that.

CONAN: And if you go to that Web site, by the way, that's how you can also find out how to contact the ombudsman and register your complaints...

SHEPARD: Right.

CONAN: ...in the unlikely event that you ever have one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHEPARD: Hey, today, I got two phone calls saying what a good job they thought NPR was doing, which shocked my assistant, and she passed them on. So that does happen...

CONAN: In general, when people take the trouble to email or call in, it is to make a complaint as opposed to pass on...

SHEPARD: Or a constructive criticism, I will say. But, you know, I often say hey, I never call my cable company and say, you are doing a great job. But if they make a mistake on my bill, I'm on the dime.

CONAN: There you go. Our guest is the ombudsman here at National Public Radio, Alicia Shepard. 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. Let's talk with George. And George is on the line from Arlington, Massachusetts.

GEORGE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I have a question for the ombudsman about the way NPR News contributors are identified on other stations when they appear. And I'm - you know, not embarrassed to admit that occasionally I do tune in to Fox News and I'm saddened when I see Juan Williams or Mara Liasson sullying NPR's reputation, and I wondered why they're not labeled as Fox News contributors.

CONAN: Oh, as opposed to them being labeled as National Public Radio.

GEORGE: Yeah. I mean, clearly, when they appear on Fox, it's - it raises the profile of Fox. It makes it look like a (unintelligible) news organization, and yet, you know, they're just - they're (unintelligible) Fox.

CONAN: And Alicia, I know that George is not alone. There has been a rash of complaints about this.

SHEPARD: Oh, no, no, no. George, you're not alone. But you know, it's a great world that we live in that you can watch news on all different stations and get different opinions. And as you said, you do sometimes watch Fox. I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about. I think that it's important to, you know, find out all sides. And I'm not sure that I can answer the question exactly as to why NPR does not also identify Mara Liasson as a part-time Fox contributor. But you know, I think that on Juan Williams' bio it says that at npr.org.

But the issue of whether or not they should appear on Fox comes up all the time. And you know, I have a personal take, which is that if they are on Fox and elevating the debate and informing the debate, that's great. If they're just there to be a fall guy to have a quote-unquote, "a liberal take," as some people believe that NPR has, then that's probably not helpful to NPR.

CONAN: George, thanks very much for the call.

GEORGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email. This is from Richard in St. Louis, and I don't know whether this is coming up in your inbox in other cases. I suppose my main complaint sometimes on TALK OF THE NATION or MORNING EDITION, you feel compelled to include an opposing point of view who can be best described as fringe when there is not really a solidly informed and fact-based point of view, then it can be called a point of view. Perhaps it's time to acknowledge bigotry, prejudice and ignorance for what they really are.

SHEPARD: That would be great. I would ask Richard for specific examples of where, you know, they - somehow he feels that it's not a balanced point of view. My opinion - my take is that there should be many points of view on a particular issue, that there are not always two. And write to me at npr.org/ombudsman if you've got specific examples. It's hard to deal in generalities.

CONAN: And we were talking earlier about consistency, and indeed it came up involving this program shortly after our Political Junkie segment last week with, obviously, Ken Rudin. We were talking about gay marriage and I interviewed Marc Multy of Stand for Marriage Maine and said after he had won -had been among the team on the campaign that had won the referendum there, and I said congratulations. And some people called in to say, why did I say that?

SHEPARD: Right. In fact, I have an email right here: I'm horrified that the host would congratulate the head of the anti-gay marriage campaign on their defeat of gay marriage. And so I did bring that up to Neal because also on the show was the president of the Human Rights Campaign, who was celebrating the District of Columbia's - the D.C. city council's vote that sanctioned gay marriage, and Neal did not say congratulations to them.

CONAN: And in my reply to Alicia, as soon as I got the email after the show, I said it is my policy, generally, when people are involved in campaigns or referenda or they win a prize or something, I say congratulations, and I should be more consistent is the answer. Point taken.

Let's see, we got another caller on the line. This is Ahmad(ph). Ahmad with us from Minneapolis.

AHMAD (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. My question is, how would you think - what is the consistency in identifying someone who is in the news their race and their religion? One of the points that actually shows up to me as a pet peeve of mine is that I'm an American Muslim. And whenever there happens to be a Muslim who's a shooter, he's always identified as a Muslim shooter and as radical Islam, which by the way is a complete wrong term because Islam is a name of the religion so even a proper term would be a radical Muslim. But if there is somebody else in a church shooting or somebody who kills an abortion clinic, there is no mention of their ideology, there is no mention of their religion.

CONAN: Well, Alicia?

SHEPARD: Well, I think that you identify race or religion when it is relevant to the particular story. And I can think of the shooting of Dr. Tiller, who was the doctor who performed late - er, abortions. And at that point the person who was accused of shooting him was identified as a Christian and the explanation for his involvement in that case did have a religious base. So you know, I would like news organizations and NPR, in particular, to be consistent that you bring it up when it's relevant.

CONAN: And if there are times when it's not and we do, we apologize. Ahmad, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to Rick. Rick with us from Cleveland.

RICK (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Rick. Go ahead, please.

RICK: Hi. My question is when referring to security contractors such as Blackwater, how come none of the media refers to them as mercenaries, which is I believe what they are?

SHEPARD: I'm not sure that I can answer that question. You know, I believe that Blackwater now has a new name, so I would say just anytime the new name is mentioned that they should also explain that they're - that Blackwater, well, that it is Blackwater, but Blackwater is also a contractor. So I'm afraid I'd have to look to more into that, Rick, as to whether or not you would use the word mercenaries, but it certainly is characterizing them.

CONAN: And indeed, unless the story we saw at the New York Times turns out to be correct, they are hired for security, for guards. It's not necessarily - you think of mercenaries being hired to overthrow a government or something like that. Anyway, Rick, thanks very much for the call.

And let's go to Chris. Chris with us from Tallahassee.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: First of all, Neal, I love your show and sometimes I get so mad when I can't get in there and, you know, ask a question or something. So I'm really glad to ask this. I wanted to ask the ombudsman - just after President Obama was elected, what - was there any rise in calls or a difference in complaints that you noticed or was it just kind of the same...

CONAN: How have things changed since last January 20th, or last November 4th, for that matter?

SHEPARD: You know, that's a great question, Chris. I don't think that there was a significant change. People who are critical of the fact that they felt that NPR was not hard enough on the Bush administration are also feeling that NPR is not hard enough on the Obama administration. I think one of the interesting things is that there's a perception that NPR is to the left and I think maybe, you know, a long time ago when it started in early 1970s it may have been. And now I think NPR considers itself a mainstream news organization. So I would say that I get more complaints than not of saying that NPR is too conservative.

CONAN: Well, thank you all for the calls. And we will pass along any emails that we have not been able to get on the program to the ombudsman. Again, you can go to the NPR Web site at...

SHEPARD: Npr.org/ombudsman. And if I'm on again, I'd like to hear from some of the women listeners.

CONAN: Okay. Let's hear from some women next time. Alicia Shepard is NPR's ombudsman. You can read her blog again at npr.org. And she was kind enough to join us in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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