During this heated political season, Day to Day interviewed a relative of an NPR staffer for a controversial segment highlighting a Sen. Hillary Clinton supporter who won't back Sen. Barack Obama in November.
Listeners didn't know at the time of the interview that Atlanta attorney and author Barbara LeBey is the aunt of NPR correspondent Laura Sydell. But what they did know was that they didn't like what LeBey had to say about the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.
LeBey spoke with co-host Madeleine Brand for five minutes on June 10 about why, although a life-long Democrat, she expected to vote in November for likely Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.
"I haven't seen Barack Obama do anything, truthfully," said LeBey. "He has done nothing. I'm afraid of him. And the reason I'm afraid of him is because we're in a very dangerous world. We have enemies who hate us more than they love their own lives. And he wants to go and make nice, you know, with the leaders of these rogue nations. I think that's terribly naive but it comes from a lack of experience."
Twice in the five-minute interview LeBey referred to Obama as a blank slate, asking just what the Illinois senator had accomplished.
In interviewing LeBey, Day to Day was following its mandate to get people behind the news. According to a recent CBS News poll, one in four Clinton supporters said they would vote for McCain rather than Obama. Day to Day wanted an example.
Someone at the Los Angeles-based show suggested that guest booker Jolie Myers contact Sydell, who works in NPR's San Francisco bureau. Sydell recommended her aunt, who had been a Vietnam War protestor, marched for civil rights and championed the Equal Rights Amendment.
Following good journalistic practice, Myers researched LeBey's background to make sure she was, in fact, a life-long Democrat. (The maxim goes: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out.")
"Just a simple Google of LeBey comes up with her campaign contributions over the past few years, all of which were to Democratic candidates," said Myers. "I've never met Sydell and that brief email exchange is the only time I've ever had contact with her."
After Day to Day producers and Brand were told about LeBey's connection to NPR and that she did represent the trend shown in the CBS poll, they decided to go ahead with the interview. "She was vetted," said Brand in an email. "In other words, we did not (and do not) believe she was a Republican plant, despite what some of our letter writers assert."
For the most part, listeners were furious that LeBey got five minutes to pass judgment on Obama without any counter from his campaign. One listener called it an "unpaid ad for the McCain campaign."
LeBey "asked a few times what has Obama done," said Connie Allenbury from Cambridge, Md. in a phone call to me. "I'm not affiliated with Obama, but the guy just won the Democratic nomination against Clinton who was supposed to win. I thought certainly someone from Obama's team would come on after that and counter what she had said."
Tony Imbimbo, a freelance writer from Darien, Ct. wrote: "If you had intended to campaign for John McCain, you wouldn't have needed to conduct the interview any differently. At the very least, Day to Day could have interviewed four Hillary Clinton supporters — three who support Obama and one who doesn't, better reflecting the reality of the political spectrum."
Balance is something that NPR takes seriously, and is acutely aware of, said Deborah Clark, the new executive producer for Day to Day. She pointed to a five-minute piece on June 9, the day before LeBey's interview, with two Democrat comedians who back Obama.
"When making THIS assignment to talk to someone who wouldn't vote for him no matter what," wrote Clark in an email, "we were taking balance into account with the previous day's coverage in mind."
How to achieve balance is a question that NPR — and all news organizations — face on a daily basis. A listener or reader may get one side of a story on one day but miss an opposing side presented on another day. So, it's best, whenever possible, to present both sides at the same time. In this case the ideal would have been an interview with LeBey along with an interview of a Clinton supporter now backing Obama. At the very least, Day to Day should have announced that it had carried an opposing view the previous day.
In addition to the one-sided nature of the LeBey interview, some listeners didn't find her believable.
"Scores, scores, scores of our listeners wrote to question whether Ms. LeBey was actually even a Democrat," Brand said on-air the day after her interview, "and some of you wondered if she was, in fact, a Republican operative."
To prove that Day to Day knew LeBey's background, Brand added: "She is actually an aunt of one of our reporters."
Journalistically, Day to Day was correct in pursuing a story about disaffected Clinton supporters, but the show should have looked harder to find someone representing the CBS poll results. LeBey was a starting point. Myers should have asked her for help in finding others to interview. This would have avoided the cozy appearance of an NPR host interviewing an NPR reporter's aunt.
"Ideally, I think we would have preferred to find someone NOT connected with an employee of the company," wrote Clark. "Ideally, we don't want a closed circle and that's why we all cast wide nets when were looking for interview subjects. But in an instance where this person is NOT serving as an expert, rather as an anecdotal example of a broader trend we're trying to illustrate, I think we felt comfortable with that choice."
Had LeBey been the head of a group of "McCainocrats," then it might have been necessary to use her, and in that case, it would have been wise to disclose LeBey's connection to Sydell when the interview aired. But in this case, there are millions of other disaffected Clinton supporters out there — one in four, according to the CBS poll — that Day to Day could have used.
It was not a huge journalistic transgression, but I think the show set itself up for criticism by not taking the time to find someone other than an employee's relative.
"I think it proves particularly tricky when you're dealing with loaded topics such as politics," said Clark. "But yes, I agree, ideally we cast a much wider net. And such is the disconnect between ideal and practical on daily stories."