Is Mel Gibson Newsworthy of NPR?

Some listeners let All Things Considered know they didn't think much about ATC's report on movie star Mel Gibson's foul mouth.

The listeners weren't complaining about the litany of bleeps in NPR's audio. Instead they questioned why NPR thought Gibson's girlfriend troubles warranted nearly 5 minutes of air time.

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LOS ANGELES, CA - Actor Mel Gibson (R) and Oksana Grigorieva attend The Hollywood Reporter's Nominees' Night Prelude to Oscar on Thursday, March 4, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) hide caption

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Mel Gibson

LOS ANGELES, CA - Actor Mel Gibson (R) and Oksana Grigorieva attend The Hollywood Reporter's Nominees' Night Prelude to Oscar on Thursday, March 4, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Back in 2006, ATC ran a 4-minute piece after Gibson was arrested for driving under the influence. The piece focused on his apology for his anti-Semitic rant to the arresting officer. That story involved an arrest.

But the latest is based on unverified audio-tapes from the website, RadarOnline. ATC played some of the tapes during a July 12 interview with Los Angeles Times writer John Horn, who placed Gibson's alleged indiscretions within the context of other Hollywood stars boorish behavior.

During letters segment the following day, ATC read comments by Julie Goldberg of Cambridge, MA and two others.

"Your story on what may have been Mel Gibson's voice in a phone conversation is entirely outside what NPR has always been about," wrote Goldberg. "Shame on the producers of ATC for allowing such a scrape at the very bottom of the barrel."

Ellen Curtain of Kentucky wrote: "I urge you to think twice or however many rethinks it takes before devoting time to any story that requires you to say 'alleged' multiple times in the opening minutes."

I have always respected that ATC reads listener letters every afternoon, giving its listeners a regular opportunity to have their say. (I wish Morning Edition did this as well.) But what is the value if a legitimate gripe isn't answered?

While ATC read the complaints, the show did not answer with an explanation of why producers decided that Gibson was a story.

So I asked.

"The Mel Gibson story is totally defensible," said Christopher Turpin, ATC's executive producer. "To me Mel Gibson is a huge international star. It's a story that everyone is talking about. I was in the coffee shop and what were people talking about in line? They were talking about Mel Gibson. So I don't think we can pretend these things don't happen. I think because there's a huge amount of business involved, there are very interesting questions about the entertainment industry, what happens to celebrities when their personality or character is undermined by their personal behavior."

While the story uses the tapes, it also explores Gibson's bankability and what the latest scandal might do to the Gibson Economic Empire. As Turpin noted, the Gibson flap raises questions about the entertainment industry and what happens when a major Hollywood figure undercuts his own success.

Then there's the issue of the audio. Michele Norris' piece makes healthy use of RadarOnline's audio, but stops at confirming that the audio listeners hear is actually Gibson. Instead the reporting to set up the tapes goes like this:

"Audio tapes recently released appear to show Hollywood actor Mel Gibson threatening violence against his then-girlfriend, confirming that he had beaten her and insulting blacks."

"On the recording, the man alleged to be Gibson sounds unhinged..."

"What do we know about how and when these tapes were allegedly recorded?"

"They were apparently-allegedly recorded by his ex-girlfriend secretly...."

If NPR isn't sure that it is Gibson on the audio, why use it? Why not just talk about the existence of the tapes and then move into the interview with reporter Horn, where they discuss the business implications.

Turpin said that NPR was "as sure as we can be that they are his voice on those tapes. No one, including his people, has suggested that it's not his voice on the tapes."

If that's the case, why use allegedly? The answer I got is that it was done to protect NPR legally and journalistically in the off-chance that it's not Gibson's voice.

While I understand that NPR programs struggle to find the right balance between serious news and tapping into the zeitgeist in the story of the moment, I agree with many who complained that NPR could have skipped this story and lost nothing. After all, NPR has built its reputation on in-depth reporting of important news and arts and entertainment coverage that rises above the ordinary.

Listeners generally do not turn their dials to public radio for the kind of gossip featured at the grocery store check-out counter. At the very least, if ATC really believed this story deserved airtime, something less than 4 minutes and 31 seconds would have done the job.

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