SHOULD NPR INTERVIEW RELATIVES OF STAFF MEMBERS?

During this heated political season, Day to Day interviewed a relative of an NPR staffer for a controversial segment highlighting a Sen. Hillary Clinton supporter who won't back Sen. Barack Obama in November.

Listeners didn't know at the time of the interview that Atlanta attorney and author Barbara LeBey is the aunt of NPR correspondent Laura Sydell. But what they did know was that they didn't like what LeBey had to say about the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.

LeBey spoke with co-host Madeleine Brand for five minutes on June 10 about why, although a life-long Democrat, she expected to vote in November for likely Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.

"I haven't seen Barack Obama do anything, truthfully," said LeBey. "He has done nothing. I'm afraid of him. And the reason I'm afraid of him is because we're in a very dangerous world. We have enemies who hate us more than they love their own lives. And he wants to go and make nice, you know, with the leaders of these rogue nations. I think that's terribly naive but it comes from a lack of experience."

Twice in the five-minute interview LeBey referred to Obama as a blank slate, asking just what the Illinois senator had accomplished.

In interviewing LeBey, Day to Day was following its mandate to get people behind the news. According to a recent CBS News poll, one in four Clinton supporters said they would vote for McCain rather than Obama. Day to Day wanted an example.

Someone at the Los Angeles-based show suggested that guest booker Jolie Myers contact Sydell, who works in NPR's San Francisco bureau. Sydell recommended her aunt, who had been a Vietnam War protestor, marched for civil rights and championed the Equal Rights Amendment.

Following good journalistic practice, Myers researched LeBey's background to make sure she was, in fact, a life-long Democrat. (The maxim goes: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out.")

"Just a simple Google of LeBey comes up with her campaign contributions over the past few years, all of which were to Democratic candidates," said Myers. "I've never met Sydell and that brief email exchange is the only time I've ever had contact with her."

After Day to Day producers and Brand were told about LeBey's connection to NPR and that she did represent the trend shown in the CBS poll, they decided to go ahead with the interview. "She was vetted," said Brand in an email. "In other words, we did not (and do not) believe she was a Republican plant, despite what some of our letter writers assert."

For the most part, listeners were furious that LeBey got five minutes to pass judgment on Obama without any counter from his campaign. One listener called it an "unpaid ad for the McCain campaign."

LeBey "asked a few times what has Obama done," said Connie Allenbury from Cambridge, Md. in a phone call to me. "I'm not affiliated with Obama, but the guy just won the Democratic nomination against Clinton who was supposed to win. I thought certainly someone from Obama's team would come on after that and counter what she had said."

Tony Imbimbo, a freelance writer from Darien, Ct. wrote: "If you had intended to campaign for John McCain, you wouldn't have needed to conduct the interview any differently. At the very least, Day to Day could have interviewed four Hillary Clinton supporters — three who support Obama and one who doesn't, better reflecting the reality of the political spectrum."

Balance is something that NPR takes seriously, and is acutely aware of, said Deborah Clark, the new executive producer for Day to Day. She pointed to a five-minute piece on June 9, the day before LeBey's interview, with two Democrat comedians who back Obama.

"When making THIS assignment to talk to someone who wouldn't vote for him no matter what," wrote Clark in an email, "we were taking balance into account with the previous day's coverage in mind."

How to achieve balance is a question that NPR — and all news organizations — face on a daily basis. A listener or reader may get one side of a story on one day but miss an opposing side presented on another day. So, it's best, whenever possible, to present both sides at the same time. In this case the ideal would have been an interview with LeBey along with an interview of a Clinton supporter now backing Obama. At the very least, Day to Day should have announced that it had carried an opposing view the previous day.

In addition to the one-sided nature of the LeBey interview, some listeners didn't find her believable.

"Scores, scores, scores of our listeners wrote to question whether Ms. LeBey was actually even a Democrat," Brand said on-air the day after her interview, "and some of you wondered if she was, in fact, a Republican operative."

To prove that Day to Day knew LeBey's background, Brand added: "She is actually an aunt of one of our reporters."

Journalistically, Day to Day was correct in pursuing a story about disaffected Clinton supporters, but the show should have looked harder to find someone representing the CBS poll results. LeBey was a starting point. Myers should have asked her for help in finding others to interview. This would have avoided the cozy appearance of an NPR host interviewing an NPR reporter's aunt.

"Ideally, I think we would have preferred to find someone NOT connected with an employee of the company," wrote Clark. "Ideally, we don't want a closed circle and that's why we all cast wide nets when were looking for interview subjects. But in an instance where this person is NOT serving as an expert, rather as an anecdotal example of a broader trend we're trying to illustrate, I think we felt comfortable with that choice."

Had LeBey been the head of a group of "McCainocrats," then it might have been necessary to use her, and in that case, it would have been wise to disclose LeBey's connection to Sydell when the interview aired. But in this case, there are millions of other disaffected Clinton supporters out there — one in four, according to the CBS poll — that Day to Day could have used.

It was not a huge journalistic transgression, but I think the show set itself up for criticism by not taking the time to find someone other than an employee's relative.

"I think it proves particularly tricky when you're dealing with loaded topics such as politics," said Clark. "But yes, I agree, ideally we cast a much wider net. And such is the disconnect between ideal and practical on daily stories."

-30-

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

I am Barbara LeBey and can say with complete honesty that I am not a Republican or a McCain plant. I have been voting for Democrats for many years. I voted for Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. I have contributed money to all of these candidates, and maxed out in contributing to Hillary Clinton. This anger on the part of Obama supporters because I was interviewed on NPR is just one example of why Hillary Clinton was trashed throughout her campaign. I used to believe Democrats wouldn't stoop to the tactics of the Rovian Republicans, but I have seen that type of ruthlessness in the Obama campaign. It is very troubling. That's exactly what they did during the caucuses. They blocked Hillary people from entering the caucus rooms to vote for her. Many of my friends related stories of Obama thugs shoving them, shouting at them, and trying to prevent them from voting for Hillary. And why? All this for a man with 144 days of being a U.S. Senator, during which time he roamed the halls of the Capital, shaking hands and making his presence known. To me, Obama is a glib, inexperienced opportunist. Who would submit to surgery with a doctor who had 144 days of roaming the hospital hallways? But we are being asked to submit our security to this man. What breathtaking stupidity when we consider that we did the same thing by putting George W. Bush in office. I didn't do it then, and I won't do it now.

Sent by Barbara LeBey | 12:34 AM | 7-4-2008

I think the real issue her is balance, not a relative. I think it's better to present both sides on the same program. We listeners are alwasy listening for the balance.

Sent by Emily Riddell | 12:28 PM | 7-4-2008

First, NPR should check the poll's numbers.

Example: The CBS poll (http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/may08b-GENERALELECTION.pdf) has a standard deviation of plus or minus 4. They say 12% of Democratic Party members will go to McCain, and that is more than the 8% of Democratic Party members that voted for Kerry in 2004. It is true that 12% is greater than 8%, but the two statistics confidence intervals cross. The foundation for the intent of the statement is not statistically significant.

I thought you all fact checked? The approximations inherent in statistics necessitate the reporting on a poll's error when the intent is to inform.

How does NPR decide which polls get attention and which ones get ignored? I remember when NPR joined the assault and helped obfuscate the Lancet's report on Iraq deaths; and later, NPR did not report (BBC did) that the British government though the report was robust: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6495753.stm. NPR ignores the public polling on impeachment and illegal wiretapping. What does NPR do to avoid the use of results from bias poll questions?

I sometimes hear statistics mentioned on NPR without referencing a source. That would get a student an F.

Sent by andrew hennessy | 9:51 PM | 7-5-2008

I think the real problem lies with not mentioning the relationship of the Aunt and the staff member, right up front. It's fine to interview realations of members of the staff if it is mentioned as part of the introduction. I do agree that it would have been better to also offer somone who had been a supporter of Sen Clinton and was now going to support Obama.

Sent by Judy Long | 12:46 AM | 7-7-2008

The answer to Mr. Hennessy's question as to how NPR chooses the polls on which to elaborate and those to ignore is very much related to how NPR chooses which authors to interview, which questions to ask, which callers to let through, which events to discuss... it all depends on how well NPR's left leaning agenda is represented.

I can sympathize with Mr. Hennessy and his feelings that NPR is ignoring important subject matter; in this case topics that would portray President Bush and Republicans in general in a disparaging manner. I too feel that NPR dismisses other important topics. Why just today I read that boatloads (literally) of yellow cake were shipped from Iraq to Canada. Mr. Hennessy, please note that you are far from alone.

Unfortunately now, there is a very unique situation that just cannot be ignored... there happens to be a very definite split in the Democratic party. The "iron fist in a velvet glove" approach that NPR uses to bash the Republican party and conservatives in general seemingly is not deft enough to glue together these particular pieces.

Sent by Bill Avallone | 5:26 PM | 7-7-2008

This is one of a number of areas where NPR seems to have conflict of interest problems.

For example, NPR seems reticent to identify outside affiliations or employment of NPR correspondents. Three come to mind more or less immediately: Juan Williams (FOX News), Mara Liasson (FOX News), and Cokie Roberts (ABC News). While Mr Williams's and Ms Roberts's are identified in their "official" NPR bio pages, Mara Liasson's is not (though, perhaps ironically, it is on FOX's: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,2124,00.html).

It seems to me that these outside affiliations, *especially* those where the correspondent is in a position of offering opinions as a news "analyst", should be made clear each and every time the correspondent is on the air. Without such disclosure, the listener is left in the dark as to possible conflicts of interest or sources of bias.

Never, for example, have I heard on NPR's broadcasts, any mention of Mr Williams's or Ms Liasson's affiliation with FOX News, which might be considered, by some, to be rather important in judging the validity or even truthfulness of their remarks.

While I make no accusations of any sort, the fact that such questions rise at all it a symptom of something very wrong.

Sent by Steve Lamont | 7:34 PM | 7-7-2008

Mr Avallone:

None of us are alone. I wish you well.

The yellowcake is from before the first gulf war, and it was not enriched. Prior to our invasion it was controlled by the IAEA. What should NPR have reported? How about, U.S. government allowed yellowcake to stay in a war zone; how about, nuclear facilities were looted after the 2003 invasion, but the oil ministry was protected; how about, U.S. government pays for shipping of raw materials and further subsidizes the nuclear industry?

A case can be made that media/NPR is liberal on social issues, but on "news," economics, and foreign policy you will enlighten me with some examples?

NPR asserts they get criticized from the left and right, so they must be objective. However, while NPR covers things like "Goodnight Bush," there is no liberal perspective offered when talking of policy. NPR does not talk about war controlling oil resources, subsidizing oil companies, hegemony, or empire. Instead NPR talks about some ambiguous "National Interests." If NPR theoretically mentioned hegemony, would that in and of itself be liberal?

I am unschooled, so please offer some examples of NPR's "left leaning agenda?"

Sent by Andrew Hennessy | 5:50 PM | 7-8-2008

Hi Mr. Hennessy! 8)
I will provide better and more recent examples as well as elaboration on your last as soon as I can... but just one off the bat... a few years ago NPR gave / sold / provided the listing of NPR contributors to the DNC; I'm guessing that they didn't provide the same to the RNC. What are your thoughts, however unschooled, on that?

Sent by Bill Avallone | 8:54 AM | 7-10-2008

Good day Mr Avallone:

Do you have a source for NPR giving/selling members' names? I am certainly curious and would like to learn more.

Still even if we take your facts to mean what you assert, and that assumes much, I do not follow the logic. I must misunderstand your point? I think you are saying most listeners to NPR are liberal, so NPR is liberal? That would be equivalent to most people who watch TV are boring, so TV is boring. While I certainly think TV is boring, a characteristic of the observer does not demonstrate the objective state of observed.

In addition, membership in a group is only a parameter. It may or may not indicate X. K Philips has historically classified himself a conservative, but his analysis seems objective within the confines of classical economics.

Sent by Andrew Hennessy | 8:34 PM | 7-10-2008

Related to Mr Lamont's observation, I always thought that the "Fox" word was essentially an 'F' word on NPR. Fox is very clear as to the external affiliations of its contributors and duly notes that both Mr Williams and Ms Liasson are NPR (employees?). I believe that this is part of Fox's attempt at balanced representation. This is in contrast to NPR's balance model... NPR believes that they can keep themselves walking some arbitrarily defined center while Fox's protocol attempts to simultaneously provide opposing viewpoints. No doubt that the left of center viewpoints are in the minority at Fox, however, they still exist just the same.

Sent by Bill Avallone | 2:07 PM | 7-11-2008

Try this. Mr. Hennessy... http://www.allbusiness.com/services/motion-pictures/4849084-1.html.

Your deduction of "I think you are saying most listeners to NPR are liberal, so NPR is liberal" is close to the mark, but fundamentally in error. Try, "I think you are saying the entire staff of NPR is liberal, so NPR is liberal". 8)

Sent by Bill Avallone | 3:55 PM | 7-11-2008

Hi Mr Hennessy... just in case the previous link was unsatisfactory, I've provided another: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3169/is_30_39/ai_55275671, though I have no doubt in your capabilities to do your own research.

In a previous response, you stated, "NPR asserts they get criticized from the left and right, so they must be objective." Can this logic be applied to say that any statement one makes is to be considered truthful? Please excuse my simplistic question as I have avoided or been permitted to avoid the rigorous studies of mathematical deduction and induction during my academic career! 8)

Sent by Bill Avallone | 4:19 PM | 7-11-2008

When Lebay says, "A black community organizer, in the tradition of a rabble rouser. Also a twenty year member of a black activist church, run by overtly anti-American racist pastors, a friend to anti-capitalism leftists in search of proletariat control of all private resources and assets."

How is that Democratic rhetoric? Sounds like something even Rush wouldn't say. Give me a break. She is a shill or an off balanced self promoter

Sent by kent strock | 1:18 PM | 7-12-2008

I don't see Juan Williams or Mara Liasson who, as contributors to FOX News Channel's programming as a "conflict of interest", nor does that have anything to do with this particular blog post. If Juan Williams or Mara Liasson, or any interviewer happened to interview their family members to persuade the listener one way or another (particularly toward the view of the interviewer), that would be a problem.

It would also be a conflict of interest if say, Garrison Keillor used his monologue to push his political views upon a broad audience who listen to PHC to get away from the rigors of politics.

Sent by Stacey Hanrahan | 3:47 AM | 7-13-2008

Mr Avallone

I appreciate your delivery of sources. Once I expanded my search to CPB, I found the story. What was done seems wrong.

2 quotes from your sources, "Coonrod ... knew of no stations that had swapped or rented lists directly with a political group," and "...public TV stations have traded lists with at least 7 Republican organizations in recent years." Nevertheless, your logic is not logic; please see above. Your conclusion would not even apply to CPB if the facts were what you claimed, and your presentation of the facts is spin.

"The entire staff of NPR is liberal, so NPR is liberal" is only a declaration. I thought you were going to give some examples of that bias?

I certainly do not think NPR is objective. I said, "NPR asserts..." It is NPR asserting, not I. I assert that NPR asserts etc. All statements are not equal. I am clouded, but I believe in Truth.

Tell my why the liberal media says "hostage" when it is an official enemy that abducts an individual and extraordinary rendition" or "illegal enemy combatant" when the U.S. government does it.

Lastly, unless you have an example I will not reply again.

Sent by Andrew Hennessy | 7:00 PM | 7-14-2008

When Juan Williams is the ONLY regular and weekly African American contributor the problem isn't "liberal" bias. Is is shameful that the only African American voice is a conservative Fox news person. We don't hear Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates or Cornell West, who are respected academics and cultural critics.

Instead we get "thinkers" from right wing think tanks constantly.

Sent by kent strock | 12:43 PM | 7-18-2008

The real question is this:
Why does NPR veer so far "left wing" on most "social" issues (re gays, women, ethnic minorities), but so far "right wing" on American politics and so-called national security issues?
Answer: Because NPR can them claim: "Look, we're attacked by people on both sides, so we must be objective?"

An especially important subsidiary question:
Why has NPR spent all of 2008 strongly promoting McCain and denigrating Obama?

NPR frequently covers McCain when he has made no "news" yet often disregards Obama "news."
Especially infuriating is that most McCain stories uncritically allow McCain to repeat his campaign talking points, while most Obama stories are full of McCain surrogates attacking Obama.

Another answer: the neoconservatives who run NPR are willing to allow some leftist opinions on non-urgent issues, so long as NPR continues to serve as McCain's primary

Sent by MS | 5:53 PM | 8-6-2008

Should NPR interview relatives of staff members?

No! It is a sign of the reporter being either lazy or insular. Same with friends.
Get out there and find us, who are not in the NPR/news business orbit.

Sent by JP | 10:03 AM | 9-7-2008