As Ombudsman, one of my roles is to appear on local public radio stations, especially when listeners can call in with questions about NPR's journalism. Recently, I learned first-hand how easily it is to be misinterpreted.
I appeared on WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show in Washington, DC on Oct. 20. Thirty minutes later I got this response:
"I was outraged by your comment today on the Kojo Nnamdi program that NPR should have more people like Glenn Beck who represent a certain point of view not heard on NPR," wrote Stefanie Weldon, of Silver Spring, MD. "The reason he isn't heard on NPR is because, like Holocaust deniers, flat-earthers and Creation Science proponents, NPR used to understand that not all points of view deserve airing. You apparently disagree and think racism, sexism and mendacity have a place at NPR. Until you convince me otherwise, not one penny of my money will go to pay your salary — I guess that means not one penny of my money will go to NPR."
Usually I am the one examining those on air, and now I know how it feels to be on the other side of the mic, where it is perceived that I did something wrong.
First I want to explain that when listeners donate, the money goes to your public radio station — and not directly to NPR. The donations are used in a variety of ways — including but not solely —to pay for NPR content. So I hope that Weldon will continue to donate to WAMU.
After sending her an email, I went back and listened to the broadcast.
"When Glenn Beck is on NPR, I can be assured there will be a lot of emails," I said on WAMU. "I feel like, 'Hey you should hear what Glenn Beck has to say. Like it or not, he's influential.' "
That quote does not indicate that I think Beck should be on NPR every day, nor do I think that sexism, racism or lying have a place on NPR. But if Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Sarah Palin or any other prominent conservative firebrand is making headlines, NPR should report that as part of the news — not to promote them but to include when putting news in context.
The same goes for prominent liberals such as MSNBC's Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow.
NPR media reporter David Folkenflik referenced Beck in an Oct. 14 report on All Things Considered on the Obama administration taking on Fox News. Folkenflik did not quote Beck. But he did explain a Beck-event that angered the White House:
"For example, Fox's Glenn Beck last month described Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, as 'a man that believes that you should not be able to remove rats from your home if it causes them any pain.'
Sunstein's allies say his beliefs are a bit more nuanced than that. But Republicans were making related claims, and the next hour, Fox News aired a story by James Rosen in which the reporter told viewers: 'Rats could attack us in the sewer and court systems if all of Cass Sunstein's writings became law.'"
I've said it before, and I will reiterate it. NPR is a mainstream news outlet. Its duty is to inform the public of all that is going on — and that means airing voices and stories that many listeners might not like or agree with.
If Beck or any other prominent commentator, from either the right or the left, is making news and seriously influencing the political process, then their actions should be reported on NPR. That doesn't mean I think someone like Beck should replace David Brooks as the conservative voice on Friday's news roundup.
But listeners deserve exposure to all sorts of voices discussing a wide range of perspectives on NPR — not just those that are palatable to them.
Ironically, Beck is discussed more on NPR than heard from. The last time NPR listeners actually heard his voice was March 23, on All Things Considered.