A REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Words matter, but tone and how the words are said often matter even more.

A good example of this is a recent feature that ran on Weekend Edition Saturday (WESAT) about a Baghdad press conference where American and Iraqi journalists got a chance to quiz U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Mukasey had flown there to observe Iraq's new legal system, and NPR Justice correspondent Ari Shapiro went along and later filed two news stories, including an interview with the new attorney general.

But as is the case with most reporters, there is always material left in your notebook that never makes it on air. For this reason, Scott Simon's WESAT often runs a feature known as "Reporter's Notebook." These segments tend to be a correspondent's personal observations and are more essay than news story. Most recently, NPR's Tom Goldman did a moving piece on golfer Arnold Palmer's legacy, and how it feels to have the inexorable aging process erode your talent.

Shapiro's "Reporter's Notebook" set out to describe how a typical press conference works — it doesn't matter where — identifying the types of questioners. There's the attacker (wants to make a point), the rambler (can't get to the point) or the left-fielder, "whose question has nothing to do with the topic at hand."

Shapiro's goal, he told me, was to share with listeners the brave new world for Iraqi journalists who, often for the first time, can openly question high-ranking government officials.

He even interviewed NPR's former Baghdad bureau chief Jamie Tarabay, who explained what a new experience it was for Iraqi journalists to be able not only to ask questions in public, but to ask them of senior American officials.

The piece ended with Shapiro expressing admiration for the Iraqi journalists. "And Jamie reminded me, many of these newly minted journalists are also operating under death threats, risking their lives daily to be part of an emerging free press."

I've been a journalist for almost 30 years covering my share of press briefings, and when I heard the "notebook" on a Saturday morning, I knew what Shapiro was talking about. It wasn't until the emails started pouring in attacking Shapiro for what many called his "dismissive" tone in describing the Iraqi journalists' questions, that I thought twice about a piece I'd enjoyed.

To date, the office of the Ombudsman has received 165 emails criticizing Shapiro since March 4. In a normal week, the Ombudsman's office receives about 350 emails, so 165 is eye-popping. Only there was a reason for the outpouring in this case.

The onslaught was inspired by FAIR, (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) which orchestrated a campaign instructing its constituency to write the Ombudsman:

"Ask the NPR Ombudsman why NPR responded so dismissively and condescendingly to the questions Iraqi journalists posed to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey." FAIR included contact information, a link to the story and a link to a transcript of the Feb. 13 press conference.

FAIR has a left-of-center orientation and generally goes after news organizations for being too cozy with big business or Republicans. In this case, it would appear that FAIR was intent on proving that NPR, in Shapiro's piece, was letting Mukasey off the hook.

FAIR's complaint concerned Shapiro's characterization of a question by one of the Iraqi journalists. Shapiro labeled one long, spoken-through-a-translator question to Mukasey, as "come again?" because it was difficult for the attorney general to follow.

A reporter, who works for U.S.-funded Radio Sawa, asked: "Yesterday the Iraqi government announced that the ability of prosecuting the Iraqi people, the ability of prosecuting the Iraqis —- the American soldiers by the Iraqi people. Do you think your presence has to do with it now, and do you think...?"

In his piece, Shapiro didn't let the tape continue. "I'll save you the whole thing," he said. "But suffice it to say Attorney General Mukasey had a difficult time understanding exactly what the question was driving at. Mukasey diplomatically attributed it to the translator rather than to the journalist."

Mukasey asked the reporter to try again. He did.

"Yesterday, the Iraqi government announced certain decisions," the translation of the reporter's question continued. "And one of them, a resolution, one of them states that it's possible to prosecute the American soldiers in the —- it's possible to prosecute the American soldiers by the Iraqi citizens. Is it one of the aims — of the procedures, the things that you have done while your visit here, or one of the outcomes of your visit here?"

Shapiro's comment about this question, in his piece, was: "On the second go-around, it became clear that a good translation would not help this question."

Listening again to the two-minute piece, I can see how listeners might perceive Shapiro's tone as flip. While Shapiro said that was not his intention, and I'm certain it wasn't, it's important when NPR editors and reporters are editing a piece to think about tone and how the listener might hear something differently than it was intended.

FAIR sent Shapiro an email asking him about his Feb. 23 "notebook" piece before the New York-based group began its campaign. Shapiro responded on March 2 explaining his admiration for the Iraqi press corp.

But that didn't make it into FAIR's March 4 action alert.

"I was disappointed in your decision not to quote my response to your email in FAIR's column about my story on Weekend Edition," Shapiro emailed FAIR. "I think it is important that listeners be able to express, and publish if they wish, their concerns about what they hear on NPR. I find that a good-faith dialogue is generally the most productive way to address those concerns. It was in that spirit of good faith that I responded to your initial email."

While FAIR might have a point that the piece could have been better produced to achieve the respect intended for Iraqi journalists, how fair is it to not include Shapiro's response?

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Comments

 

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I remember the Ari Shapiro interview of Mukasey. Mukasey said victims of water boarding "self selected" themselves for it. Shapiro did not follow up on the circular logic: 1. what happens if someone resists water boarding i.e., do we do something more extreme at that point 2. what does resistance to establish techniques have to do with the legality of water boarding? What about putting the full Mukasey Shapiro interview on a NPR website (instead of sound bites and paraphrases)? That would be nice for all NPR interviews.

What was Shapiro's response to FAIR? Can we see the entire thing on an NPR page? It seems like FAIR should have posted Shapiro's response, but I am also only getting NPR's side of the Shapiro response.

What about FAIR's main assertion: NPR's reporter's lack critical gusto? If nothing else, FAIR offers a specific example? Can you address their main point instead of the tangent?

Please define "left-of-center orientation" (the label you put on FAIR), or can someone tell me the parameters of "center" (without making vague assertions)? How is center measured?

Sent by andrew hennessy | 6:10 PM | 3-20-2008

While I agree that it was not fair to include Shapiro's response, I still question the lack of helpfulness that both Shapiro and Mukasi displayed. Rather than just forcing the Iraqi Journalist to struggle twice with phrasing the question in a perfect manner, why didn[t they at least try to answer what they thought he was asking, much as anyone would do with a member of their family who may be struggling to perfectly articulate something that was nevertheless very important to them?

Sent by Ted Shohfi | 1:03 PM | 3-24-2008

Blah, blah, blah. Spin is spin, whether it's NPR or FOX doing the spinning. If these are the things Shapiro really wanted to express in the feature under discussion, then why did NPR feel the need to air it in a way that was clearly condescending to the Iraqi journalists?
And further, my hat goes off to FAIR for actually making an attempt to bring the voices of common people into the fold of "public" opinion. This is the real story here, after all. Any trained journalist that pretends that this public opinion isn't severely restricted and guided by the media needs to go back to school.

Sent by Scott Edelen | 1:41 PM | 3-24-2008

Not really very persuasive I'm afraid. You blame the thrust and tone of the piece on insider baseball, I blame it on a condescending attitude of "white man's burden". I think even Mukasey would have to be very dense not to know what the Iraqi reporter was getting at. Average Iraqis have regularly been gunned down and/or had their property destroyed by both military personnel and more disturbingly by private security contractors. Apparently this is an issue that is of interest to average Iraqis as they must still move about the streets and highways of THIER own country. This is an issue which has not apparently been addressed to their saticefaction. Mukasey and Shapiro, unless they are fools who do not follow the news from Iraq, used the reporters trouble forming the question using correct American idioms as an excuse to avoid the issue. Mukasey's motive is clear, Shapiro's less so. That so many were moved to complain after reading the story on FAIR does not make the criticism less valid.

Sent by mark swisshelm | 4:18 PM | 3-24-2008

Yeah I agree with the comments posted above. I can see where you might think the discussion would be "fair"-er if FAIR had reported that Shapiro had claimed off the record to have a lot of respect for Iraqi journalists - but I still think that's actually a little bit off the point. The point is that Mukasey was having a hard time being respectful of an earnest question being put in English by someone not speaking English as a first language - when that someone's first language was that of the country where the press conference was taking place which happened to have been bombarded, pillaged, marauded and occupied by Mukasey's country for the last 5 years. I think it may well be, for most of the world, a typically American attitude that everyone should be speaking English and anyone who doesn't speak it well needn't be taken too seriously - but, actually, it's pretty much undeniable that graciousness and generosity is valid and valuable in almost any context and might be a particularly good idea if you're a conquering invader...

Sent by Brad Taylor | 6:25 PM | 3-24-2008

I remember the interview of Mukasey by Shapiro
(http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18958544). It was rather shocking that Mukasey said people who were water board "self-selected" themselves for it. Even more shocking was Shapiro's
complete lack of follow up on Mukasey's circular logic: 1. If someone resists water boarding, what other extreme techniques would that person be self-selecting themselves for; 2. what does resistance to one technique have to do with the legality of additional techniques? We will not know the answers to these questions because Shapiro does not ask. It would be nice to get the complete interview instead of sound bites.

How does Shapiro know, "it became clear that a good translation would not help this question." Does he speak the language that the question was originally asked in? How do we know it was not a translation issue? Can we see the Shapiro response to FAIR?

Why is the Ombudsmen spending time talking about if FAIR was fair? Are there no listener concerns?

Sent by andrew hennessy | 7:00 PM | 3-24-2008

You say "The onslaught was inspired by FAIR, (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) which orchestrated a campaign instructing its constituency to write the Ombudsman...."

Sorry, but FAIR does not "instruct its constituency" -- of which I guess I must be one since I read their stuff. I only take up the cudgels FAIR proffers when I think they are on to something, as I did in this case. And I took the time to read the transcripts. After doing so, I agreed with FAIR -- and that is not always the case. I suspect that most of the FAIR readers are like me, and only act when they are persuaded (not "instructed"). That you got 165 e-mails suggests your guy screwed the pooch on this one.

Sent by Ray Firehock | 9:02 PM | 3-24-2008

It was clear to me what the Iraqi reporter was seeking from the questions. If there was truly difficulty in interpreting the intent of the question(s) by Mukasey, a reasonable response would have been to offer "did you mean this?" or "did you mean that?" The evasiveness strongly suggests of a desire by Mukasey to not let the discussion go to where the Iraqi journalist was wanting it to go.

Sent by Kyle Elwood | 11:47 PM | 3-24-2008

I must agree with swisshelm. I understand the dynamic you are describing as a general state of affairs. But there was a far more important question in play, one that it appears Mukasey did not want to answer and that Ari Shapiro knew Mukasey did not want to answer. That is what disturbs me, and why I think it was not only a failure of tone but also a failure of journalistic obligation to a legitimate question which I had no trouble gleaning, and which unless he was under some sort of stress that had his focus elsewhere, Ari Shapiro is more than capable of gleaning. I promise you that Mukasey knew exactly what the Iraqi journalist was driving at.

Sent by David | 11:55 PM | 3-24-2008

Your conclusion about the public response to Shapiro's "flip" piece, as an "onslaught" "inspired by FAIR", is itself, condescension confirming the public's complaints. Has it ever occurred to you a thoughtful, listening public might gravitate towards an organization such as FAIR for a reason?

By resorting to a defensive labeling tactic: ("FAIR has a left-of-center orientation and generally goes after news organizations for being too cozy with big business or Republicans."), you expose your own prejudices. As long as you parrot such labeling tactics and feign ignorance of the recurring machinations and scandals that have politicized NPR's board and institution, (to say nothing of the process by which "center" gets defined), you fail to function in the objective capacity, we the public, expect from the Office of the Ombudsman.)
Your "eye popping" reaction to the public's "onslaught" to this story might be more credible if you confined your mediation to the journalistic principles and ethics as stated in the widely respected reference, "The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and The Public Should Expect", by Bill Kovach,Tom Rosenstiel. (Then again, perhaps these authors are also labeled by NPR as "left of center"?)

Sent by David Beebe | 12:46 PM | 3-25-2008

Journalists asked several questions (as you can see from the transcript) that were clear, timely and significant. The first highlighted question concerned a report on the decision the day before that US soldiers may be prosecutable under Iraqi law. Mukasey side-stepped the question by pretending to not understand it first, and then by saying that he heard the report.
The second question that Shapiro highlighted, on a critical agreement between Iraq and the US, was presented even less faithfully as he pretended that this question was also not understood or answered, when both Mukasey and Ambassador Crocker gave answers meaningful and informative answers to it.
The real issue is not that Shapiro made jokes at the expense of those with less of a voice than himself; it's distasteful, but not a major issue. The issue here is that there are critical issues that the US press like Shapiro were either unwilling or unable to address themselves. And when foreign journalists like the Iraqis pressed for answers on these issues, outlets like NPR squelched them, giving issues like whether Iraqi courts will begin trying US soldiers not a minute of airtime. Shapiro's "tone" after that was just salt in the wound.

Sent by Kelly Logan | 1:20 PM | 3-25-2008

What relevance is it that FAIR has a "left of center" orientation? Is that meant as an ad hominem? Since when is insisting that media keep a distance from Big Business "left of center?" Seems to be it's just good ole' journalism. As a subscriber to both FAIR and NPR, I can assure readers of this post that FAIR is equally critical of Democrats. But until a former FOX correspondent accepts a post as a Democrat's White House Press Secretary, we can understand if FAIR's coverage is slanted against the Republicans. Bottom line: the Shapiro piece was weak, and no back peddling can make up for it.

Sent by Jarret Lovell | 9:27 PM | 3-26-2008

If Ms. Shepard created additional offense, as opposed to mediating the concern, how is that being an effective ombudsman?
The criticisms of her piece and the original report are on target.
When Shepard found it necessary to describe FAIR, as she sees it, as left of center, isn't it incumbent upon her to describe her relationship, and Shapiro's, to her supposition of "center." Isn't she equally liable for her position on the political spectrum?
Where is her center? Isn't center relative? I see myself as center on the political spectrum. While Fair does pursue the partisans, she mentions, how does that, move them to left of center? The concerns FAIR addresses, are where they are. Since they arise with business and Republicans, is Fair obligated to find equal fault, elsewhere, simply to keep them from being defined. Certainly, Fair's position, in relation to center, was irrelevant to this case FAIR made, pointing to the short comings of this reporting.
If being in the center requires giving equal weight and equal criticism to both sides of every issue, does that mean the truth is only in the center? If center is a matter of perspective, this defense was doomed by bringing that up.

Sent by Ken Stokem | 1:02 PM | 4-14-2008