NPR regular freelancer Nathan Lee had signed off on his edited movie review of Outrage Thursday night, May 7. The next morning, he checked for the piece on NPR's movie page.
It wasn't there.
He figured the delay was due to a technical problem. But it still wasn't online at 5 p.m. He called his editor, Trey Graham, on NPR's digital arts desk.
"Trey let me know there was a great deal of internal debate at NPR on whether or not this review could be published," said Lee, a New Yorker who has written 20 movie reviews in the last year for NPR's website.
What ensued was a classic journalism debate between privacy and the public's right to know. NPR came down on the side of privacy; Lee squarely on the other side. Caught in the middle is society's ongoing — though no longer complete — unease with discussions of sexual orientation.
NPR commissioned Lee to review Outrage, an 86-minute documentary about closeted gay politicians who vote and campaign against such issues as same-sex marriage and gay adoption, and the mainstream media's complicity by not actively reporting on that. The movie's theme is that politicians who vote against such issues while secretly having gay sex deserve to be exposed.
The film gives politician's names — even though several targeted continually deny they are gay. Lee's original review included those names.
NPR pulled three politicians' names from the review because running them would have violated a long-held NPR policy, said Ron Elving, Washington editor who was involved in the final decision.
NPR's policy is not to publish or air rumors, allegations or reports about private lives of anyone unless there is a compelling news reason to do so. "We edit material out of what might have been said on NPR to adhere to the policy all the time," said Elving. "So this wasn't unusual."
Lee knew nothing about this policy, and said he wouldn't have accepted the assignment if he had known there were going to be restrictions on his review. Lee is also a film critic for The New York Times and a contributing editor of Film Comment.
By Friday night, Lee had four choices: Run the review as edited, delete his name from NPR's version, kill the piece or rewrite it entirely. Whatever he choose, he would be paid in full, said Joe Matazzoni, a senior arts producer for NPR digital.
When the review was presented sans names, Lee insisted his byline be deleted. So the review ran unsigned and with a brief explanatory note at the end.
Lee was upset that he couldn't discuss what he believed to be an important part of the film's content. "If we ran it without a byline," he said, "I thought that would alert NPR viewers that NPR's position reinforces part of the critique of what this movie was about: which is the squeamishness of mainstream media to cover or investigate closeted politicians or those rumored to be gay."
For the record, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Variety and the Miami Herald did use names, but The Washington Post did not. Interestingly, some of Outrage's promotional material did not include the names NPR struck from Lee's review nor does the online trailer.
New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott said he gave careful consideration to how to handle the movie's allegations but decided it would be wrong to omit the names.
"None of my editors objected to this, since everything I wrote was strictly and narrowly factual," said Scott. "In my opinion it would have been unduly coy, in the manner of 'blind item' gossip, not to mention the names, though I understand the argument that to mention them is to further the rumors. But it is important for a critic to be able to discuss what a movie is about, and for that reason I'm inclined to be sympathetic to Nathan's view."
As it turned out, NPR did handle its online review in the manner of a blind gossip item. Rather than name a particular prominent politician, the edited version gave enough information for the cognoscenti to easily figure out who the review was talking about.
This is how the final edit handled one politician:
"For now, the various (and suspiciously convenient) girlfriends of one major-swing state governor are but one element of a persuasive case made about a man with aspirations to be the 2012 Republican presidential candidate. Evidence of that governor's homosexuality, Outrage claims, is widespread and well-sourced."
The claims about this governor may be widespread, but they are still not confirmed.
Elving said he was so focused on the decision to omit names that he didn't see the final review. "I don't think we should have written that," he said of the above quote. "Our policy is clear but we shouldn't get cute about playing guessing games."
NPR also was coy in posting a photograph of former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig (R) alongside the review without explaining any connection to it. Craig was arrested in 2007 on a charge of soliciting sex from an undercover male officer. He at first pleaded guilty, but later changed his plea to not guilty. Craig has consistently said he is not gay. If NPR is not going to name names, then his photo should not have accompanied the review.
There's one other "free speech" issue that arose in this flap. After the review was published, Lee posted a comment at 11:46 p.m. explaining why he didn't want his name attached. The comment included the deleted names. I believe he should have had that right to explain — but not the right to circumvent the editing process.
Matazzoni took Lee's post down around midnight. "When an author and an editor go through a process, that's the end of it," said Matazzoni. "I reminded Lee we had an agreement and it made no sense to try to get the names back in by posting them on the web."
Matazzoni again offered Lee the option of killing the review, but Lee declined.
Lee then went public with his complaints about NPR's handling of his review. One of the first online posts at IndieWire on May 11 made it seem that NPR had stripped Lee's review of names and posted it without telling him. Not surprisingly, the blogosphere lit up with charges of censorship, particularly on gay blogs.
A day later, Lee corrected the misconception by posting a comment on IndieWire, but few bloggers or reporters checked out the accuracy of IndieWire's first post.
"It was interesting to see that the initial reporting was simply passed and pasted on the blogosphere without anyone checking with us," said Matazzoni.
This fiasco highlights how information ricochets around the Internet without people verifying the veracity.
It's also points out that NPR's policy isn't consistently applied. NPR acknowledged this in a letter which Dick Meyer, NPR's executive editor, sent to those who complained.
"Though we have a policy, we do not have a perfect history of enforcing it or meeting all our aspirations," wrote Meyer. "And there are judgment calls, subjective decisions. Some blogs for example, have cited a conversation that aired on the show 'News & Notes' in November 2008 about efforts to 'out' a prominent singer and actress. That conversation, while not malicious, nevertheless did not conform to our standards."
This issue is not going away. It is important for NPR to have standards but they also need to be reviewed from time to time. And freelancers need to know NPR's standards.
Count me as guilty of believing that someone's sex life should remain private until he or she wants it public or there's a compelling news reason to invade that privacy. A movie, even one that makes strong allegations, is not a compelling news reason.
That said, did NPR handle this well? No. But in the end, the real issue, one I would venture is the reason for much of the vitriol, lies not so much with NPR's policy but with the premise of the Outrage documentary: politicians living lies.
Please also see Andrea Seabrook's piece for All Things Considered on Congress' reaction to Outrage.