NPR Apologizes for WikiLeaks Mistake; Nina Totenberg and Teena Marie

Thanks to one persistent listener, NPR published a correction admitting that it has mistakenly – and more than once – inflated the number of State Department diplomatic cables released recently by WikiLeaks.

Since the cables first became public on Nov. 28, NPR had repeatedly referred to "thousands" of confidential State Department cables. In reality, as of December 30, 2010, only 1,947 are publicly available.

Here's a hat tip to Henry Norr, a San Francisco listener who frequently complains about NPR's news coverage. He first contacted to me on Dec. 13. about this NPRWikiLeaks story.

"Do you guys just make stuff up and present it as fact?" Norr asked in an email. "You begin your 'review' of this story by saying 'First, the website released thousands of confidential U.S. documents.' That's simply not true. All you have to do is go to the website in question and you'll see that it has thus far released precisely 1,344 of the documents in question - less than one percent of the 251,287 apparently in their possession. 1,344 is not 'thousands'!"

I checked with the story's editor and learned that NPR considered it technically accurate. Last July, WikiLeaks released the Afghan War Diary, which made public 77,000 documents about the Afghanistan War. In October, WikiLeaks released almost 400,000 documents about the Iraq War. So, it has, in fact, released thousands of documents.

Norr agreed. But, then he did more homework and came up with 9 examples where NPR reporters, hosts and newscasters talked about "thousands" of State Department cables being released.

I admit it. I let it go. But that didn't stop Norr, and for that I thank him. A week later, he emailed: "So... my message from last Tuesday didn't convince you there's been a problem with NPR's reporting?"

It did. But every day the Ombudsman's office is deluged with emails and phone calls from folks pointing out where NPR may have failed to live up to its promise of ethical journalism.

On Dec. 21, I sent Norr's 9 examples to NPR top editors and asked that a staff memo be sent out reminding everyone to be more careful in talking about the November document release. The memo went out on Christmas Eve.

Still Norr was (rightly) not satisfied. "Aren't you going to run a correction as well?" he asked. He prodded me. I prodded Stu Seidel, NPR's deputy managing editor who handles corrections. (corrections@npr.org)

And, so thanks to Norr's doggedness the correction is on the Web and hopefully, NPR won't make the same mistake again.

"In recent weeks, NPR hosts, reporters and guests have incorrectly said or implied that WikiLeaks recently has disclosed or released roughly 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Although the website has vowed to publish "251,287 leaked United States embassy cables," as of Dec. 28, 2010, only 1,942 of the cables had been released." Published on Dec. 28, 2010.

It's not just NPR that has been careless in its reporting on the actual number of recently leaked documents. Matthew Schafer, a graduate student at Louisiana State University, noted in his blog, Lippman Would Roll (LWR), that a bunch of other news organizations made the same mistake as NPR.

He cited the Associated Press, the New York Times, Politico, UPI, The Economist, Mashable, BBC, the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor among others whose reporting implied that all 250,000-some documents allegedly obtained by WikiLeaks had been were released in the latest go-around.

Schafer lauds NPR for finally fessing up to its coverage blunder but suggests others should do the same.

"LWR has pulled a non-random sample of news organizations falsely writing that WikiLeaks published all cables in its possession," wrote Schafer. "The following examples are just a few instances of lazy journalism. Some illustrate ambiguous language, while others' language is just flat out wrong....The bottom line is that newspapers and other news media should be more careful when referring to WikiLeaks' release of documents."

Schafer is correct. It's just plain sloppy and embarrassing to the profession to have so many reputable news organizations getting the numbers wrong.

So thank you Henry Norr and Matthew Schafer for your vigilance.


NINA TOTENBERG AND TWISTING CHRISTMAS

Many of you have written or called NPR to complain about comments Nina Totenberg made on "Inside Washington" in mid-December. That got my attention until I looked into it.

Nina Totenberg did not say what she's accused of saying. This seems like an intentional distortion and I can't figure out why Brent Baker of the conservative Media Research Center would twist it. I have always respected the Media Research Center and feel that they do an important job.

But not this time.

Nina happens to love Christmas. Whether one likes it or not, it has become common practice to use the term "holiday party" for those office gatherings that occur at Christmas. She was making fun of the Justice Department for referring to their gathering as a "holiday party" rather than a Christmas party.

"It was hardly an apology- just an expression for calling it something it officially is not," said Totenberg to me.

It baffles me how this could be interpreted as Nina hating Christmas. This article in the Washington Post might clarify.

Wouldn't it make sense for Mr. Baker to ask Nina what she meant, rather than make assumptions?

I appreciate those of you who have asked for an explanation first. We live amidst an intense culture war. No one needs to look for things that are not there. There's plenty that people actually do say that need apologies.

This isn't one of them.


TEENA MARIE'S RACE: DOES IT MATTER?

This week, a pop music icon died. She was known as the Ivory Queen of Soul. When Motown first signed her, they didn't want to put her picture on the album cover.

Why? Because Mary Christine Brockert, aka, Teena Marie, was a white woman who sounded to many as though she were African American. She was one of the first white acts Motown signed.

Her race figured prominently in NPR stories about Teena Marie's death at 54 on NPR newscasts, Tell Me More and All Things Considered.

ATC host Audie Cornish said this about Teena Marie:

Marie was one of the first white acts to sign with Motown. The company was so skittish about her debut record that they didn't put her face on the cover. But she'd captured the ear and the heart of funk super artist Rick James. He became her producer, mentor, lover and collaborator.

One listener, Jim Sack, heard Trina William's newscast piece, which identified Teena Marie as Caucasian, and was offended.

"I would ask you to listen to that story, change references to her race from Caucasian to African and contemplate how it would sound and the fury it might prompt from Black audiences," wrote Sack. "I was surprised and ticked that no editor in house would consider it racist, if it had been written about a Black performer."

When to mention someone's race is complicated for all journalists. But simply put, it should be included when it's germane to the story. In this case, the fact that she was a white woman who sang on the Motown label always was a significant factor in her career, and so it definitely was germane to the reporting about her death.

"Marie called herself the "Ivory Queen of Soul." She was one of the few white artists who crossed over to a black audience and built her career on that distinction," said Keith Woods, NPR's vice president for diversity. "Her race was a huge part of her musical story."

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