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 NPR.org.
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 NPR.org 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 NPR.org 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 NPR.org'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."