NPR Ombudsman

NPR Ombudsman


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

NPR expects to spend about $7,000 on newspapers subscriptions, said deputy managing editor David Sweeney. "It's not a blanket no newspapers are coming into the building," said Sweeney. "It's more being prudent about how many we are bringing in.

Some blogs on the news industry recently scooped up an NPR internal memo that said NPR was canceling all newspaper subscriptions. While not true, the memo engendered some lively commentary:

"As a long-time financial supporter of public radio who also happens to be a veteran print media journalist, I find your actions disgusting," emailed Margie Bauman. "You expect listeners - including those who earn a living as print media journalists - to send money to keep you afloat, but you want the results of all our hard work free of charge."

"NPR has a fine reporting tradition of its own, but there is no denying how much it relies on print journalism, as well," wrote Amber Paddock. "NPR, of all organizations, ought to know what this nation and its democracy would become without strong newspapers. Guess what my response will be during the next pledge drive?"

Even the Los Angeles Times weighed in criticizing NPR.

The bottom line, however, is that NPR is not stopping all newspaper subscriptions. It is unfortunate that a top manager's internal e-mail went public. But then in the age of the Internet, it is to be expected and all of us need to be constantly reminded that 'the mic is always on.' Anything said, written or broadcast is now up for grabs.

The e-mail that became public and prompted complaints came from Ellen McDonnell, who is in charge of morning programming. That e-mail began: "As of April 1 NPR is canceling all newspaper subscriptions." What she told me was she wanted to let those who work on Morning Edition make the case for keeping subscriptions.

NPR currently spends about $100,000 on newspaper subscriptions. But one can walk around the building and often see neglected stacks of papers, unopened.

The network is facing a budget shortfall and needs to cut $8 million, in addition to a major cutback made late last year. Paring down subscriptions won't cover that, but it will make a difference.

"We need to cut expenses and solicited ideas from staff that might mitigate additional staff reductions," Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, said in an email. "We asked for unit leaders to identify where the subscription was essential to the job. We cut our expenses on subscriptions by about 90 percent -- including some online subscriptions to publications such as the Wall Street Journal."

Now the company expects to spend about $7,000 on newspaper subscriptions, said deputy managing editor David Sweeney.

For the record, NPR will still get 7 subscriptions to the New York Times, 2 for the Washington Post and 7 for the Wall Street Journal plus 5 online accounts, said Sweeney.

"If we are paying out more than $100,000 on subscriptions, that's the cost of one position," said Sweeney. "It's a relatively easy reduction."

The cuts don't affect specialty journals and Congressional Quarterly. The foreign desk will get Le Monde, the International Herald Tribune and the Financial Times, and overseas bureaus will get local newspapers.

"It's not a blanket no newspapers are coming into the building," said Sweeney. "It's more being prudent about how many we are bringing in."

categories: How journalism works

3:08 - March 25, 2009

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's a shame that NPR is accusing one side but not equally going after the other," said John Visser. "How many times do you think I have had to walk through public areas where there are signs that say, 'God hates fags?'

Dan Savage and his 11-year-old son were listening to Morning Edition in Seattle when a segment on gay marriage came on that angered Savage and upset his son.

"I heard a piece that basically said gay people are horrible monsters," said Savage, who is gay, married for 15 years and blogs at The Stranger. "What my son takes away is that his family is being attacked. What I took was that gay people are not allowed to protest a violation of their civil rights."

Savage immediately wrote a post attacking NPR. Soon it went viral, and emails (348 so far) and phone calls started pouring into my office.

At issue was NPR reporting on California's gay marriage controversy. Until last November, gay marriage was legal in the state. But on Nov. 4, voters passed Prop 8, a ballot issue that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. On March 5, gay rights supporters went to the state Supreme Court hoping to overturn Prop 8.

NPR's coverage plan for the morning of the legal challenge was a 9-minute package with two stories to help listeners better understand this highly emotional issue, said Philip Bruce, national desk editor for California.

The package opened with a so-called "two-way," where host Steve Inskeep interviewed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a vocal advocate of same-sex marriage rights.

The Newsom 4.5-minute interview was followed by a story, of equal length, by NPR reporter Karen Grigsby Bates. It explored the angry backlash some Prop 8 supporters felt from gay activists after their financial support was made public. This is the story that infuriated Dan Savage.

"There are individuals who gave money to the Yes on 8 Campaign for religious or personal reasons," began the intro to Bates' piece. "Many then found themselves targeted by angry gay-rights advocates. And a few paid a big price for voting their conscience."

NPR was attempting to present both sides, but problems with the package hurt its effectiveness -- especially in the web version on

On air, the segment paired two stories back-to-back and used language making it clear they were a package.

But the web presentation was much less clear. The two stories were not visually connected. There is a link at the bottom of Bates' backlash piece to the Newsom interview, but not vice versa. There needed to be more to visibly tie them together. To make it worse, the Morning Edition page on that day highlighted only the Newsom interview. (These problems still aren't corrected.)

Once postings attacking the backlash story began pinging around the blogosphere, many went to to hear it. Quite a few who called me after visiting the website did not know about the accompanying Newsom interview.

Jeffrey Katz, a top Digital News editor, notes that the stories were packaged together on's home page on March 5. And, he says, the story pages should have been linked to one another. "The way we routinely do packages like this is to have a link to related stories either at the bottom of a story page or in an inset box near the top," Katz said. "That it wasn't done this time was an oversight."

Bruce takes responsibility for not working closer with NPR's web staff.

"I've learned a big lesson from this," said Bruce, who edited the segment. "Whenever I'm associated with something like this where we are going to do half on one side and half on another, I'm going to make sure what appears on air is also presented in the digital world in a comparable fashion. We got cherry-picked frankly."

But there is another problem. The two pieces really aren't balanced in my judgment, though Bruce disagrees. "While there may be people who have criticisms," said Bruce, "I feel what we put on the air was essentially fair."

In the Newsom interview, host Inskeep did what a good journalist should do: challenging the mayor by asking questions from the opposing perspective. A listener got both Newsom's reasons for overturning the ban and a feel for the opponent's position. The interview also was relaxed, with banter and laughter between Newsom and Inskeep.

Bates' story took a different approach. Her assignment, she said, was to find people against same-sex marriage who felt they'd been penalized for their beliefs. She did a reported piece with interviews and sound bites; the piece conveyed emotion, and thus, I think, had more power than a two-way conversation between a host and a politician.

Her story focused on four aggrieved Californians who donated money to the Yes on 8 campaign. One was a restaurant manager who quit after gay rights activists boycotted her restaurant -- some hurling ugly comments at customers.The piece also included the Yes on 8 campaign spokesman.

Many who complained said the story should have noted that boycotting is a legitimate, time-honored form of protest, and that those opposed to gay rights can be equally vicious.

"These people who gave money and supported Prop. 8 have the nerve to expect us to say, 'Hey, no problem. Strip us of our rights. We will still patronize your establishments.' " wrote Scott Eizenger. "No! We will hit you in your pocket books."

John Visser of North Carolina said sometimes gay rights activists do go too far. "But it's a shame that NPR is accusing one side but not equally going after the other," said Visser. "How many times do you think I have had to walk through public areas where there are signs that say, 'God hates fags?' "

But, by far, the biggest criticism was that the backlash piece did not quote a gay rights activist. The piece opened with a sound bite of a demonstrator and quoted a man who said he refused to eat at a restaurant owned by Prop 8 supporters. But it did not give either man a chance to explain his views.

"I kept waiting for the reporter to interview one of the protestors or anyone from the gay community in order to explain why they were so angry," emailed Robert Wright. "But not one voice was allowed along these lines."

Bates pointed out that NPR had spent more air-time reporting on opposition to Prop 8 activities because initially the Yes On 8 people were less accessible. She saw this piece as a chance to balance things out, noting that it was intended to follow the Newsom interview.

"I do understand that people outside NPR don't listen to radio the same way we do at the network," she said. "If I'd known there wasn't going to be some linkage between the two in the introduction I would have included a point of view from the LBGT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender) community in my piece."

Bates said she has no agenda. Bruce, her editor, said she "has pushed to make sure this incredible civil rights story remained on our air."

Even so, the piece would have been more effective, more balanced and less subject to criticism had she included a gay rights viewpoint.

This episode also illustrates that it's increasingly important for NPR's editors and reporters, when conceiving pieces, to take into consideration that the audience is consuming programming on several platforms -- not just radio -- and that they listen in hit-or-miss ways.

"We've listened," said Bruce, of all the criticism. "We are not going to back away from covering things that will make people on both sides angry. But we are going to make a greater effort to make NPR's trademark of balance and fairness apparent regardless of the platform."

categories: Balance

5:04 - March 18, 2009

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I would ask Mr. Inskeep when might it ever be "right" for someone to throw an object at the president of the United States? -- Judy Gruen, Los Angeles

On Thursday, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep did what's known in radio parlance as a "two-way," with NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro talking about the Iraqi journalist who threw shoes at President Bush.

After Garcia-Navraro described the trial scene where the shoe thrower was sentenced to three years in jail, Inskeep interjected:

"We should mention this is a guy who was praised rightly or wrongly throughout much of the Islamic world and caused more than a few chuckles in the United States. Was it expected that the sentence would be three years?"

Judy Gruen of Los Angeles was offended at Inskeep's finding any humor around the shoe-throwing incident.

"I would ask Mr. Inskeep when might it ever be "right" for someone to throw an object at the president of the United States?" asked Gruen, who admittedly is a fan of the former president. "I've no doubt that at NPR you were rolling on the floor laughing when this stunt to try to humiliate President Bush took place. But to most Americans who respect the office of the presidency and who respect President Bush for the work he did to protect this country post-9/11, this comment revealed Inskeep's arrogant assumption that this president was not worthy of any respect at all."

Gruen believes Inskeep would not have been light-hearted if the same thing had happened to President Obama.

"Inskeep's tone would have expressed shock and dismay at this egregious act," she said. "One final note: when this incident happened, President Bush quickly ducked aside and was not hit, and immediately made a joke about it, showing the kind of presence of mind and quick wit that Inskeep et al have never given him credit for."

I shared Gruen's comments with Inskeep and he believes that she misinterpreted him.

"I agree that I generally should not express an opinion about the President," said Inskeep. "Fortunately, I did not. I stated a fact: people chuckled at the shoe-throwing. Not everybody, but people laughed-- 'rightly or wrongly,' as I said. I happened to be a couple thousand miles west of NPR's headquarters when it happened, and people were laughing there. TV comedians and others siezed on it nationwide.

"Don't take my word for this. Here's a selection of TV and other jokes about the incident - and again, these are their jokes not mine.

"If I state a fact, that is different than saying my opinion. The same report also described people who were very angry that the three-year sentence was too light. Neither of those statements is indicative of my opinion. I expressed no opinion.

"As for how we would cover Mr. Obama if a shoe were thrown at him, I would do my best to bring you facts, and reaction, whatever it may be.

"There may never be an identical Iraqi shoe-throwing where you can test my claim; but I can give you one recent story where you can compare quite directly. After President Obama's recent speech to Congress, NPR did a fact-checking report exactly as we had done after President Bush's speeches. This prompted a number of letters from listeners, some of whom were quite pleased, and a few who were actually unhappy, that we had held both presidents to the same standard."

categories: Language

5:19 - March 12, 2009

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Can guest explain why "Talk of the Nation" hosts seem compelled to interrupt conversation to insert a program i.d. It's often awkward, frequently rude, and always irritating.

On Monday I appeared on a call-in show, Open Line with Fred Andrle on WOSU, the public radio station owned by Ohio State University in Columbus. A local listener, Robert Singleton, sent this email:

"Can guest explain why "Talk of the Nation" hosts seem compelled to interrupt conversation to insert a program i.d. It's often awkward, frequently rude, and always irritating."

Andrle's show is heard locally and doesn't have quite the same problem that the nationally distributed Talk of the Nation (TOTN) has: an absolutley unforgiving time clock.

TOTN is broadcast on 302 NPR member stations and begins each weekday from Monday to Thursday at 6 minutes and 30 seconds after the hour. The first segment runs until 19 minutes after the hour when host Neal Conan says without fail: "You are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News."

Then the show cuts to music -- no matter what.

"Because so many stations these days are operated by computer, all program content STOPS DEAD at that second, and there's a one-minute break," said Conan in an email.

This strict time clock isn't arbitrarily set. It comes from the member stations, who in reality are NPR's bosses.

During that one-minute break, the local station can identify itself and provide traffic, weather or promote events or programs.

"Our station normally does a 30-second promo of a show on our station and then a 30-second voice track of the weather or some upcoming event," said WOSU mid-day host Amy Juravich.

But Juravich isn't doing WOSU's local announcements at the breaks live.

"Our computer shuts off NPR and turns on the station computer that airs promos," said Juravich. "Some stations do have a live voice for that minute. Or they just play NPR's music."

Juravich noticed Monday that Conan's guest kept talking at one break and was automatically cut off. "Neal missed and went over the 2:19 break by one second," she said. "So our automation cut Neal off because he talked over and into the break. That happens sometimes. When a guest is long-winded, you can hear Neal trying to get them to finish or hold their thought."

TOTN comes back at exactly 20 minutes after the hour.

There are three so-called "hard posts" or "hard breaks" in one TOTN hour: 2:19, 2:39 and 2:59 if the show is heard on the East Coast. They are called 'hard' because they are going to happen no matter how frustrating it is for the listener -- and sometimes even for the host.

"There are inevitably moments when I have to interrupt a funny or heartbreaking story to go to the break," said Conan. "From time to time, I ask a caller, to hold that thought while we go to a break...but it's always awkward to do so. Most of the time, it's my fault, for taking a call too late in the segment, or not juggling things properly."

Take a look at TOTN's time clock.

Continue reading "Is Neal Conan Rude? " >

categories: How journalism works

12:43 - March 10, 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The interview was an edgy exploration of unspoken sexual desires Bergner says are within us all. It both captivated some listeners and gave others the creeps.

Amber Pinter had just picked up two of her children from Fayetteville, Ark. schools when an NPR interview about erotic longings far outside normal acceptance came on the radio.

In the Feb. 17 interview on All Things Considered, host Melissa Block talked with author Daniel Bergner about what he calls "the far realms" of lust and longing. He told about a man with an extreme foot fetish.

Mr. BERGNER: For me, his story reflected on the way all of us -- all of our erotic longings -- come up against cultural norms and codes and constraints.
BLOCK: But in his case, this goes far beyond just giving his wife foot massage. I mean, for him, this desire is so overwhelming that the word feet -- I mean, I could be talking to him about how many feet of snow we're expected to get, or how many square feet my house is, and that would be torture for him.
Mr. BERGNER: Thrilling for him, on the one hand, because this is the language of his desire, torture because he feels himself to be so different that shame overtakes him. And so when he gets turned on, he's also sort of being tormented in a way by his own difference.

And then Bergner described another man convicted of fondling his 12-year-old stepdaughter. "It wasn't that his desire was aberrant," said Bergner. "It was his loss of control. It was his stepping over the line and acting that made him criminal."

Pinter quickly snapped off the radio. "The kids were actually listening and responded by looking up with this look that said, 'What's that?'" said Pinter, a mother of four and self-described devoted public radio listener.

The interview was an edgy exploration of unspoken sexual desires Bergner says are within us all. It both captivated some listeners and gave others the creeps.

"Mr. Bergner's mature, positive approach of understanding and helping his subjects, could help all of us balance our strict Puritan ethics with tolerance," wrote Daniel Graves of Los Angeles. "NPR's coverage is a step toward reducing a major prejudice in our country, sexuality."

But more common were e-mails like Kelly Parker's: "This is NOT an 'exploration'! It's disgusting. Some things are, yes, wrong," she wrote. "This sort of thing is simply too graphic for radio. I'm grateful I don't have children to whom I have to explain what a 'foot fetish' is!"

Block was drawn to the story because she had interviewed Bergner in 2003 about his book on Sierra Leone. "I found him to be a gifted writer and reporter, willing to plumb depths and dark places both in his subjects and his own perceptions," said Block in an e-mail. "There's a lot of sameness in what we hear on our radio programs."

She's always looking for writers, artists and musicians who challenge current ways of thinking. "I don't think we hear enough of them," added Block. "And I thought Dan Bergner's book fit the bill: not provocative for the sake of being provocative, but thought-provoking, well-researched, and well-written."

After Block read the book, she suggested it as a story. There ensued a great deal of discussion about whether to do it, said Susan Feeney, a senior editor at ATC. Everyone involved was aware that the subject matter was weighty but also might offend listeners.

"This is a good example of us knowing this is a story some people are not going to be comfortable with and us thinking about it every step of the way," said Feeney. "Here's a book that's interesting. What do you think? What's the best way to do it? Here's the interview, how is it going to be cut? What should we take out? Does the piece need a disclaimer? That's the best we can do."

As is customary with non-news topics, ATC edited Block's long, off-air interview with Bergner down to the eight minutes listeners heard. "There were times that it [the original interview] went to places that we decided not to air," said Feeney.

Feeney added she and Block both have small children and are sensitive to parental concerns like those mentioned by Pinter and others who complained.

Why wasn't a warning given in advance that the upcoming story included material some may find offensive --- especially since editors and producers recognized how the topic might be received?

Feeney said that adequate warning was given in Block's introduction when she said: "His book, The Other Side of Desire, is about paraphilia: erotic drives that fall well outside normal zones."

But Pinter said that wasn't enough. "If the warning isn't in words that interpret it as a warning, then it's not a useful warning," she said.

Pinter said she doesn't advocate censorship. But she does question running the story in the middle of the afternoon while parents were picking up kids without offering an adequate warning.

NPR occasionally takes on topics that aren't for the mainstream, and that's fine. I agree with Block that it's good to search for interviews that surprise and provoke thoughtful discussion. But ATC should have given a clearly worded warning on this piece for listeners who might have preferred to hit the off button.

tags: , , , ,

11:05 - March 4, 2009

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ira Glass was one of the first to say it out loud: you love public radio so much, you listen to the pledge drive.

This comes from The Mediavore, which bills itself as "Devouring public media daily to discover the best."

Why do YOU listen to the pledge drive?

Posted: 02 Mar 2009 10:35 AM PST

Ira Glass was one of the first to say it out loud: you love public radio so much, you listen to the pledge drive.

Most of us do. And those folks who are always the first to raise their contrarian flag and insist they turn off the radio don't actually have much impact because on-air fundraising is the most effective technique that public radio has to raise support. The day may come when that's no longer the case, but we're not there yet, even though some days, we wish we were.

June Thomas has written a fun piece for Slate that picks apart a few of the techniques employed by WAMU and WNYC, and if you're a veteran public radio listener anywhere, you'll recognize all of them. And dang it, I think every one of them has worked on me at one time or another.

Guess I'm hooked.

Slate: Let's Get Those Phones Ringing!


7:10 - March 2, 2009



Alicia Shepard

Alicia Shepard

NPR Ombudsman

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