Ultra-Wrong? Readers and Reporters On Political Labels : NPR Ombudsman Foreign correspondent Sylvia Poggioli and National correspondent Margot Adler dispute my column on left/right labeling. Readers weigh in too in a search for media guidelines.
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Ultra-Wrong? Readers and Reporters On Political Labels

Debates go on unceasingly inside newsrooms over the implications of word choices. I hope in this space to unite the newsroom and audience debates as a regular feature. Below are some thoughtful responses to my column Monday on political labeling, particularly variations of right-left.

Sylvia Poggioli, the foreign correspondent whose story was the subject of the original column, makes a strong defense of the term "ultra right" in describing a Norwegian party. She is separately joined by NPR national correspondent Margot Adler, who poses the need for descriptions that are realistic and not insipid.

Meanwhile some listeners and academics who have toiled with these issues in effect note that political labels are open to wide interpretation. But one listener rightly questions how much guidelines can ever be applicable to all cases.

There is no single answer or truth here, but your thoughts might help NPR and the news media better approximate accuracy and fairness. I am interested in reading them.

Sylvia Poggioli's Response:

You write that the term "ultra-right" "raises images of the Nazis" and "conjures up images of extermination camps." Odious as they are, I really don't think that a Le Pen in France or a Geert Wilders in The Netherlands have yet proposed death camps for immigrants. And yet, they are broadly referred to as ultra-right, far-right or extreme right.

You write that a preliminary review of how other media in the US and abroad described the Norwegian Progress Party did not turn up any use of the expression "ultra right-wing." I enclose below just a few links that use the equivalent expression "far-right" in describing the party – including a recent item from the Associated Press.

(I personally use the "ultra" form because I believe it has a clearer sound on the radio.)

In your column, you raise a question that you do not answer: "Should a U.S. scale be used to describe European parties for American listeners?"

This is a key point. NPR is an American network, but since it has gone digital and is widely present on the Web, I believe that it is also a global network with a growing international audience – and the evidence can be easily found in the comments section.

I think we would be failing in our task as journalists if we were to limit ourselves to the prism of American politics in covering international events.

As I think you'll see from the articles below, the ultra-right, far-right or extreme right is very much alive and well and its influence is growing in mainstream European politics.

I suggest you read an article that appeared yesterday in the NYT, in which the expressions far-right and extreme right are repeatedly used to describe a growing phenomenon in Germany and the rest of Europe.

Finally, you suggest we should eliminate the right/left label completely.

If I were to apply that rule in my coverage of Europe it would be impossible to analyze contemporary politics as well as the continent's tormented legacy of the last 150 years.

After all, isn't Europe the cradle of Anarchism, Communism, Fascism and Nazism?

Contrary to the U.S., a society that constantly projects itself into the future, Europe is a continent that is still looking back over its shoulder, haunted by its dark past.

(In covering the decade-long disintegration of Yugoslavia, I was able to see how the wars were in many ways inspired by events of the past.)

In your column you write about "tendentious labeling." The title of your column starts with the words "Ultra-Wrong." Isn't that somewhat tendentious?

Norway Far-right Sets New Course BBC, October 16, 2001

Norway's Dark Secret The Guardian, November 1, 2002

Far-Right Progress Party Stronger in Norway Angus Reid Global Monitor, March 6, 2009

Norway: Special Police Unit To Probe Massacre Case Associated Press, August 3, 2011

Europe's Far Right The Guardian, 2011

Norway attacks: We Can No Longer Ignore the Far-Right Threat The Guardian, July 24, 2011

Norway Attacks: Anders Behring Breivik Was Active Member of Far-Right Party The Telegraph, July 23, 2011

Gunman Alienated by Party's Softened Rhetoric The Irish Times, July 25, 2011

Norway Attacks: How a Once Moderate Region Became a Haven for the Far Right Time Magazine, July 25, 2011

What others had to say on the column:

Margot Adler (morvoren) [NPR correspondent] wrote:

I feel I have to weigh in here, even though I do not cover Europe. Does this mean we can't call Dominique Strauss-Kahn a socialist, which he is? Does this mean that certain parties in Germany that have ties to oldfascist ideas can't be described as just exactly that? There are some Norwegian conservatives who won't negotiate with the Progress Party. Don't we need a term to distinguish the Progress Party as farther right than conservative or right? In the same way as certain Hasidic groups are distinguished from orthodox by the term ultra-orthodox. The term populist is meaningless - it can mean everyone from the tea party to Chavez in Venezuela. When I covered the anti-mosque demonstrations last year on 911, they had Geert Wilders as a speaker. Conservative or right or populist doesn't quite get at who he is. Anti-immigrant gets part of it but not all. I am afraid if we get rid of all left and right labels, we will no longer describe reality, which cannot be the ombudsman's goal.

Mark I (imback) wrote:

I think guidelines are good but shouldn't override facts and judgment. Poggioli tried to use facts and judgment to describe the Norwegian Progress Party. I do not know enough about them to know if she was correct, but I think a journalist should be allowed to use facts they discovered along with their own judgment in their reporting.

Postmodernism values form over facts, which it considers only relative. So let me clarify that the guidelines are not themselves postmodernist, but having the guidelines supersede accuracy is postmodernist.

What I do consider over the top is stretching this ultra-right connotation to "all the conservative groups in Europe" (never said in the report), or "a way that that conjures up images of extermination camps" (good grief, not even close to being mentioned in the report), or "the center-right prime ministers" (again, never said in the report). Putting up these lame strawmen of what the report never said is to me just a way of losing both the argument and all credibility.

KUER-FM group owner (KUER_FM) wrote:

This is an interesting and very important line of journalism to explore, i.e. categorizing politicians/parties. I believe Sylvia and other reporters want to use language that most listeners will think is accurate and understands the journalist's intention. As this article reveals, this can be problematic. I trust Sylvia's use of language to describe European politicians and parties but maybe even she can go overboard in her choice of words. As we all know, I think, asking a random sample of Americans to describe "Tea Party," goals and aspirations, is nothing short of a Rorschach test to whomever the question is posed. This is important because inappropriate labels are alienating and can shut off further discussion. The word inappropriate is the operative word. Good article. John Greene SLC