NPR Ombudsman Ponders Journalism's Big Questions

NPR's new ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, has spent more than 30 years reporting and editing for some of the nation's most prestigious news outlets. He joins NPR's Neal Conan to talk about what it means to be a journalist and the role journalism plays in a democracy.

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NEAL CONAN, host: And now, let me introduce NPR's new ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos. If you're not familiar with that term, it's from the Norwegian, and it means the public's representative. He is, in other words, your advocate and responds to compliments and complaints about our coverage - mostly complaints, I suspect. He's been in the job for four months but in journalism for more than three decades. He also taught at Harvard, written a recent column - a weekly column for the Washington Post, and served as the ombudsman for the Miami Herald. He works in an environment where readers and listeners trust the media less than ever.

So what's a story that inspired or eroded your trust in the media? And yes, of course, we're including NPR in that: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Edward Schumacher-Matos, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, and a belated welcome to NPR News.

EDWARD SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Hi, Neal. Great to be here.

CONAN: And what do you every day as ombudsman?

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, I'm having a lot of fun, to be honest with you. You know, I've got this dual role. On the one hand, it's like an extra set of eyes looking over the shoulders of the editors, trying to maintain NPR's already high standards. I have total independence. I have a three-year contract that says I can't be told what to write or what to say. You know, usually an ombudsman is some guy who's been around the block a long time, several times. In other words, they essentially find an old fart to do the job, and that's me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: So I don't have to worry about being fired, and I can do what I want. The second thing, really, is to represent the audience, as you say; to listen to readers' complaints and listeners' complaints, and take it to the newsroom and get their response, and try to see if it's right or wrong. And in that way, the whole idea is to try to build up the trust of the audience, you know; to show people that somebody is listening to the listeners, or listening to the readers of the website.

CONAN: And what have been people - have people been exercised about in your first months on the job?

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, in the last few weeks, it's been the whole coverage of the Wall Street protests.

CONAN: Occupy Wall Street.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yes, the Occupy Wall Street. Before that, we had a spate on abortion and before that, a spate on gay rights. And so it's been a lot of fun, I can say that.

CONAN: All quiet, demure issues where people, I'm sure, have been most respectful in all of their communications.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yeah, of course.

CONAN: How is this different, do you think, from the time you spent in Miami as the ombudsman?

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, the issues here are much more national. I mean, we did hit some issues, national issues in Miami, but there were - a lot there that had to do with local concerns as well as regional concerns in Latin America, the Caribbean Basin, that type of thing. The NPR audience is such a smart, intelligent audience. It's a privilege to interact with this audience. And, you know - and then the NPR staff is just so talented that, you know, sometimes I think, you know, I don't know if I should be the one looking over their shoulder. They should be looking over my shoulder. So - but it's just an intellectual, you know, gem of a job every day.

CONAN: Before those roles, tell us a little bit about your past. Among other things, you founded four Spanish newspapers in Texas.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yes. You know, I spent a decade at the New York Times and a decade at the Wall Street Journal. When you were at the Journal, all of a sudden, this sort of this entrepreneurial bug starts to bite you. And then - so I went out and started my own papers. I had headquarters in San Antonio and we publish in Houston, Austin and the Rio Grande Valley, too. They were dailies. It was a huge throw of the dice. We thought that by doing four papers at one time, we might really attract a lot of ads. We had tremendous fun, and it flopped.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And we were talking earlier, and you reminded that you were part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yes. When I was at the Philadelphia Inquirer, before joining the Times. It was on Three Mile Island.

CONAN: That's some time ago.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You were just a copy boy at the time.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: I wish.

CONAN: Newspaper is your first love?

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Oh, I love them. I love them. I, you know, I didn't really set out to do that. But I served in the Army in Vietnam, and when I was there, I originally had thought I wanted to be a diplomat in life. And that just sort of - I got disenchanted with the concept of working for the government. And - but journalism looked to me like a way you can contribute to society but have your own independence.

CONAN: And where did you have your - was it Philadelphia, your first job?

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, no, no. I went back to graduate school up at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and then started working part time with the Boston Globe, and then started as a reporter out at the Quincy Patriot Ledger, on the South Shore of - south of Boston.

CONAN: We know you spent time there because you pronounced it correctly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: You're right. You're right.

CONAN: People get exercised about all kinds of things. And I assume, being the ombudsman at NPR, you get many complaints about grammar and usage.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: We do. We get it on pronunciation, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: And Neal, and I'm not really a great grammarian, so I have to go back and check the stylebooks on these things myself.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from you about which stories - since Edward Schumacher-Matos says his job is, in a way, to help inspire trust in what we do here at NPR News, what stories or what pieces of coverage have inspired trust on your part on the media - or the opposite, mistrust? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And I wonder, looking back over - well, we've had a rocky year here at NPR, and not just NPR News but at NPR. And do you find that, in your correspondence with listeners, that they trust this organization less because of some of the things they've found out about it?

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, I think NPR took a little bit - a hit. I think we all recognize that. But I think, you know, the listeners, the real listeners, the core audience are willing to cut NPR a little bit of slack and understand that anybody can make a mistake. And I think we've all seen that NPR has tried to self-correct, which is good. You know, I don't think anyone disagrees that mistakes were made. But through it all, what we've all seen is that the quality of the news has remained high.

CONAN: Here is an email we have from Catherine(ph) in Bristol, New York. I do not trust the media - even NPR - when I hear so many of the stories about the new iPad. Features of the new iPad is not news. It's a commercial, and you guys spent a lot of time touting all kinds of products as if it's news. Please stop. And I guess the most recent was of the new iPhone, the 4S.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Right. Right. Well, you know what? I don't know that I agree with that reader and listener because it's - I mean, it's a phenomenon in society. It's something new. It's something that's growing. It's something that we all - if we don't have one, we aspire to. It doesn't have to necessarily be that brand, but that whole concept of moving to the tablet from off of a - what were laptops and before that, the bigger desktops and so forth. And so it's a worthy thing to report. Is it overdone? That's a good question. I have to go back and take a look at it.

CONAN: OK. And some people say all the news we hear is about Google and Apple; we don't hear about anybody else.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: I think Google may be controlling our lives. That could be it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. We'll start with Brian(ph). Brian with us from Charlotte.

BRIAN: Hi. I just have a quick comment with regard to reporting and the reporters' use of statistics. Often, they tend to blend causality and correlation when two things seem to align. In particular, there was a story on the national news last night about vitamins and mortality in seniors taking vitamins, and they implied a causality there when, in fact, I think they're really just correlated; that people taking vitamins may be more likely to take them if they're ill to begin with.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: When you say it was on the national news, you mean on NPR or somewhere else?

BRIAN: Yes, well, that was on NBC News last night, just as an example. But more often across the media as a whole, they cite statistics and imply this cause, where one thing causes another, as opposed to really digging deeper and showing that they just correlate, more often than not.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: I couldn't agree with you more on that causation and correlation. I spent the last four years up at Harvard teaching on migration policy, and spent a lot of time looking at a lot of economic analyses and studies and so forth. And that very issue of causation and correlation is key to anything you have to say about any kind of social science research. And I think most journalists understand the difference, but sometimes they do make that mistake. And I will say if you catch it at NPR, please let me know.

BRIAN: I will.

CONAN: Brian, thanks for the call.

BRIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Atchka(ph) - and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - pretty much all of NPR's coverage of obesity and health has completely disappointed me time and time again. No balance whatsoever. And I'm not sure which side she feels is unbalanced.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yeah, I think there's the issue: Which side does she feel unbalanced about on obesity versus health? That's a great issue, and that's going to be growing issue going forward, as we have a country and the world - not just the United States - becoming increasingly heavy, if not obese.

And how to write about that is - and report about it is a sensitive issue because on the one hand, you have to be sensitive people and you have to recognize social trends about what's going. But on the other hand, we have to be concerned about people's health. Certainly, the emphasis has got to be on health and not on beauty.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Victor. Victor with us from Fort Myers.

VICTOR: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you very much for taking my call and bringing up this subject. I've been disillusioned with the local NPR affiliate here. Usually, it's once a year. By trade, I'm a law-enforcement officer and any officer, no matter what part of the law-enforcement community you've been, is an officer. And there was an unfortunate incident where we lost a correctional law-enforcement female in the state prison system. And the one individual who does - I guess you could say her - your local person who sits in the chair, is basically calling this person a guard. That to me - and I call them, like, could you please have her - it's - this is an officer, sworn officer of the court, doing her duty. And every year in June, she calls her a guard. And it totally peeved me on that.

And you know, because of her I'm not - I didn't stop listening to it, but I've lost respect for her. I even know who she is. And I'm just like, you know what? If you can't call black as black and white as white, then I'm not going to respect your opinion. And I'll take whatever you have - comment off the air.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Did you take that complaint to the local station?

VICTOR: Yes, I did. I actually called the local number. I called directly into the newsroom. I never spoke to the ombudsman there just because of the fact...

CONAN: They may not have one. It tends to be a job that's in larger organizations.

VICTOR: Right.

CONAN: But thank you very much for the call, Victor. And Edward Schumacher-Matos, does your writ extend to local stations coverage? Because a lot of the time, people can't distinguish what's NPR and what's the local station.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: You're right. That is a problem. No, it doesn't extend to local stations. And one of the things that I'm even thinking about is to what extent it should extend to shows like "The Diane Rehm Show," which are not produced by NPR but distributed by NPR.

CONAN: But distributed. Yeah. We're talking with the NPR ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see. This is an email from Robert in Santa Rosa. NPR, my most trusted news source - is my most trusted news source, yet too often I get the sense that NPR's pursuit of accurate and comprehensive journalism is blunted by fear of the liberal tag.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yeah. That is a growing complaint coming in. For the longest time, the criticism came from the right, that NPR was too liberal. But, you know, we're seeing - I'm seeing more and more, and particularly in these last couple of weeks with the Wall Street protest, that people saying just that, that NPR has become cowed by the criticism by the right and is not covering things as fully as it can.

I even had this back and forth with Jay Rosen of New York University on, you know, how far NPR should go in drawing conclusions from its reporting. And he feels that NPR is just too cowardly. I don't agree with him but frankly, it's something I'm willing to follow much more closely.

CONAN: So the question being: After you report the fact, should you draw a conclusion from there; therefore, we can see that X?

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yes. It's so seldom as a reporter that you can draw a firm, hard conclusion. If you do an investigation then, by all means, you should draw your conclusion. But if you're reporting something that's an ongoing event and there are different sides on this thing, you can't draw a conclusion so often, or so many things are ideological differences. What's the conclusion on the best way to create jobs in America, for example, or so many things like that? You know, listeners and website readers then rely on us to try to give them the unfettered positions of the different sides so that we can always decide for ourselves.

CONAN: And present a variety of opinions.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Present a variety of opinions and give analysis. There's a huge difference between analysis and opinion. It was the hardest thing for me to learn when I joined the New York Times - was that, you know, how do you write an analysis piece and not have it be opinion? And you do an analysis where you try and - analysis means you explain why and what and how. Opinion means should, which is very different.

CONAN: We'll have you back. Thanks very much for being with us today.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Thanks.

CONAN: NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, here with us in Studio 3A.

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