NPR Grills Red Cross Official Over Hurricane Harvey Donations : NPR Ombudsman Tough questions were warranted but listeners deserved more background.
NPR logo NPR Grills Red Cross Official Over Hurricane Harvey Donations

NPR Grills Red Cross Official Over Hurricane Harvey Donations

Volunteers get a briefing on Thursday at the George Brown Convention Center that has been turned into a shelter run by the American Red Cross to house victims of the high water from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Erich Schlegel/Getty Images hide caption

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Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Volunteers get a briefing on Thursday at the George Brown Convention Center that has been turned into a shelter run by the American Red Cross to house victims of the high water from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.

Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

A Thursday Morning Edition interview with a Red Cross official and its companion online story (posted late Wednesday night) have prompted an outpouring of complaints to my office and NPR and on social media.

The interview that left the audience crying foul was with Brad Kieserman, who is coordinating Hurricane Harvey relief efforts for the American Red Cross. It was his third extended interview this week with NPR, after talking to All Things Considered on Sunday and Morning Edition on Monday. (This piece on disaster relief also included a quote from him.)

The Thursday interview had a far different tone than the earlier ones, as host Ailsa Chang grilled Kieserman on the organization's internal accounting, at one point asking, "How much of every dollar donated goes to relief?" Kieserman, whose title is vice president of disaster operations and logistics, said he didn't know, because that was not his job. (His response: "I don't think I know the answer to that any better than the chief fundraiser knows how many emergency response vehicles I have on the road today.")

Online, that translated into this headline: "Red Cross Exec Doesn't Know What Portion Of Donations Go To Harvey Relief."

An Austin, Texas, listener who gave only her first name, Abigail, summed up the confusion of many:

"Chang was interviewing the VP of disaster operations and logistics. He clearly stated that the Chief Fundraising Officer would be the person with those figures. Perhaps the Red Cross should have made the fundraising officer available for an interview, or perhaps NPR should have made that request, but it's entirely reasonable to not expect the logistics VP to know those numbers. Calling it out in this post/recap/story falsely implies that Kieserman SHOULD know what portion of donations go to Harvey relief. Instead of making that post, NPR should call the Chief Fundraising Officer and ask THEM that question. If that person doesn't know the answer, THEN it's a story."

Some background is needed here. NPR's investigations unit, working with ProPublica, has done solid, award-winning reporting in recent years on the American Red Cross and how it spends donor dollars. The reporting prompted an investigation led by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's office, which concluded, "there are substantial and fundamental concerns about [the Red Cross] as an organization." (The Red Cross strongly disagreed with the Senate findings, and it also disagreed with the NPR/ProPublica reporting.)

Some listeners were unhappy at the tone of Thursday's interview at a time when disaster relief efforts are ongoing. I'd argue that such questions are entirely appropriate and even crucial at this time, when many are trying to decide where best to channel their donations to those in need of help.

Moreover, the Red Cross is the country's largest disaster recovery charity and perhaps the best known (former president Barack Obama on Sunday suggested donating there), and it's reasonable to expect the organization to be prepared to answer such queries, especially in light of the tough questions that have been raised in recent years. (The Red Cross has posted this explanation of how Hurricane Harvey donations are being spent, which doesn't answer the question NPR posed.)

Still, the confusion of listeners and readers was understandable, since NPR left out the background of how the interview came about, including why it was asking Kieserman, not another official, about the accounting.

Here's what was left out: Newsroom officials told me that NPR this week requested an interview with Red Cross President and Chief Executive Gail J. McGovern. Similar requests have been made several times in recent years and were always turned down. This week, NPR said, "The organization said McGovern was unavailable, but did make Kieserman available."

All that should have been communicated to listeners and readers. It has been now, in an editor's note that was appended to the piece Friday morning:

Editor's note on Sept. 1: Some listeners and readers have asked why NPR pressed Red Cross operations and logistics executive Brad Kieserman about how much of the money his organization receives will actually be spent on helping those affected by Hurricane Harvey. NPR's questions were follow-ups to several years of reporting by NPR and ProPublica about shortcomings in the organization's disaster relief operations and misleading claims about its finances. NPR has asked several times in recent years to speak with Red Cross President and CEO Gail J. McGovern. Those requests have been turned down. Prior to this latest interview, NPR asked again. The organization said McGovern was unavailable, but did make Kieserman available.

Christopher Turpin, NPR's vice president of news programming and operations, told me, "NPR will continue to seek an interview with Ms. McGovern at her convenience."