Jason Carlson was driving home listening to All Things Considered (ATC) on March 24 when he heard a gay man say he would not vote for Sen. Barack Obama because the senator's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was anti-gay.
That didn't gibe with what Carlson, an Evanston, Ill. high school science teacher, knew about Wright. Later, Carlson did a quick Internet search using "Wright" and "anti-gay," and discovered that what he had heard on NPR was, in fact, wrong. In a piece edited before broadcast, ATC had put something on air without checking to make sure it was correct.
Carlson immediately emailed NPR pointing out how much Wright has done for gays and lesbians. "With the craziness that is already swirling around this campaign, diligence is required on everyone's part to keep the misinformation to a minimum," his email said.
Wright has some controversial stands but he is not anti-gay. Wright's record of outreach to gays and lesbian is extensive and well-documented in the public record.
The three-minute segment that drew Carlson's ire was filed by veteran public radio reporter Joel Rose, who was reporting on the Obama campaign's effort to recruit independent voters to register as Democrats for the upcoming Pennsylvania primary. As Independent voter Chuck Aronson was switching to the Democratic party, he said Obama lost his vote because of Wright, whom he mistakenly described as anti-gay.
"That actually really upset me, being a gay man and hearing like anti-gay and anti- all kinds of things," Aronson said in the ATC piece. "It's really — you know, I just — it sort of disappointed me that he just, at some point, didn't get up and go, you know what, I just really don't want to be a part of it."
In using this tape in his story, Rose made the kind of mistake even an experienced journalist can make, but shouldn't: he assumed. He assumed that Aronson knew what he was talking about.
"Chuck (Aronson) was so sure of himself that I got distracted by his enthusiasm," said Rose in an email. "I'm still glad he was in the story because he helps make the point that not all former independents are planning to vote for Obama. But clearly I should have been more selective about what was in the quote (and what wasn't)."
Rose's story came in the context of a national flap over Obama's relationship to Wright after some clips of the pastor's more inflammatory sermons were shown repeatedly on cable TV networks and spread across the Internet.
"There's no doubt that Wright has said some questionable things," said Carlson, the listener who alerted NPR to the mistake, who is an Obama supporter. "I just think all the sudden it's spun way out of control. It seems like people have attached an anti-whatever to his name."
Ultimately it is the reporter's responsibility to get information right, said Steve Drummond, NPR's national editor. "Joel left out the context," said Drummond. "People tell us wrong stuff but that doesn't mean you can use the quote and say, 'Oh well, it was wrong.' Either we should not have used that piece of tape or we should have put it in context."
While Rose should have made sure Aronson was correct, his editors also bear responsibility to question the material. Typically, campaign stories are edited by NPR's political desk. But because of scheduling demands, at the last minute, editing fell to regional editor Andrea de Leon, who is based in Maine. She is not a regular political editor, and says her knowledge about politics was not as deep as it should have been.
"As far as I know, I was the only NPR editor to see the script before Joel filed," De Leon emailed me. "This was a screw up on my part...As with any error, I feel terrible that this one made it to air."
In an email explaining what happened, Rose said: "I just want to stress that if I'd known Chuck was wrong, I would have definitely shared that information with my editor, and would have tried to reach a mutually acceptable decision on how to use the tape (if we used it at all). But as you say, the larger point is that I feel sick about the mistake. And I wish I could have it back."
Clearly this error shouldn't have happened in this highly charged campaign where accurate information is at a premium. Not only did NPR add to the vast pool of misinformation about one of the two Democratic candidates, it also reinforced a stereotype that all black ministers preach against same-sex relationships.
"That is a pretty serious error, one that should have been caught, said Kelly McBride, an ethics expert with the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "In lumping the Rev. Wright in with that stereotype, NPR missed an opportunity to bring more light to a complicated discussion and instead turned up the flame."
To its credit, All Things Considered corrected the mistake on air the next night after verifying that Carlson was correct. ATC has done what it can to reach those who might have missed the on air correction by adding it to the online version of Rose's story and to NPR's Corrections page. To be consistent, it should also be appended to the transcript. (ATC is to be commended for recently starting a nightly "Letters" segment, departing from the weekly "Letters" format that other NPR shows use.)
And as for Aronson, he too is contrite.
"Wow, was I misinformed," he said in an email. "I heard some things way out of context and formed a negative opinion. I feel awful. Before I open my mouth again, I better do my homework. Emotions are running high with this whole primary. I need to chill."
Not bad advice for journalists as well.