Letters: Gilbert Arenas, Tea Party Protests Listeners weigh in on NBA star Gilbert Arenas, who was suspended indefinitely without pay after bringing handguns into the Washington Wizards' locker room. And NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard discusses an animated political cartoon about the Tea Party movement that caused an online uproar on NPR.org.
NPR logo

Letters: Gilbert Arenas, Tea Party Protests

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122494626/122533284" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Letters: Gilbert Arenas, Tea Party Protests

Letters: Gilbert Arenas, Tea Party Protests

Letters: Gilbert Arenas, Tea Party Protests

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122494626/122533284" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Listeners weigh in on NBA star Gilbert Arenas, who was suspended indefinitely without pay after bringing handguns into the Washington Wizards' locker room. And NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard discusses an animated political cartoon about the Tea Party movement that caused an online uproar on NPR.org.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

We usually read from your letters on Tuesdays, but we ran out of time yesterday. So this week, it's Wednesday, and time to read from your emails and Web comments.

Our segment on Gilbert Arenas brought in some passionate opinions. Arenas is the Washington Wizards star who was suspended from the NBA indefinitely without pay, after he displayed several handguns in the Wizards' locker room.

We asked if the punishment fit the crime, and received this letter from Larry(ph) in Anchorage. Sure, punish the guys for breaking the law, but make it clear that the punishment is for breaking the law, not for being somehow morally bankrupt or unfit for the implied special condition of being a gun owner or enthusiast. Introducing firearms into arguments is not a good thing, but get a grip.

Jason in Houston said the punishment wasn't enough. If I brought, displayed and loaded a firearm at my office building, even with Texas' lax gun laws, I won't be suspended, I would be fired, no questions asked.

And Paula in Minnesota had this response. I was frustrated that the NBA didn't suspend him while the investigation is underway. That's what's done when teachers, law enforcement, et cetera, are under investigation. As a mom, I thought it was, still think it is, essential that the NBA send a message that playing with guns is not okay. NBA players don't want to be role models for youth but they are. My son chose to have zero, Gilbert's number, for his soccer jersey. And last year he modeled Gilbert's elaborate free throw routine when he was at the line.

And we received this correction from our listeners. In our conversation, we said that you had to get a permit to purchase firearms, talking about Arizona. We were mistaken. You can purchase a firearm without a permit in Arizona, along with many other states.

And now something from our Web site that got a lot of attention - an animated political cartoon offered a take on the Tea Party movement. Mark Fiore's 90-second animation is called "How To Speak Tea Bag." Here's a clip.

(Soundbite of animation clip)

Unidentified Woman: Learn to speak tea bag. Finally, learning a new language doesn't have to be hard. You can be fluent in conversational tea bag in just a few short minutes. Lesson one: Don't get distracted by the confusing words of other languages.

Unidentified Man: I think the public option and the competition it would foster would really - socialist, socialist.

Unidentified Woman: Good, very good.

ROBERTS: NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard has more on the cartoon and its fallout, and she joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Thank you.

ROBERTS: So where did the cartoon come from?

SHEPARD: Well, NPR has a contract with Mark Fiore. Mark does not work for NPR. He does his cartooning on his own. He's a syndicator. It appears on other Web sites. He's had a relationship with NPR for about three months. This cartoon had sat on the NPR Opinion Page for over two months, since November 12th. And suddenly it got noticed by someone and it got launched out into the blogosphere.

And there was just a flood of emails and phone calls and comments. As of today, there are 1,500 comments, which is a near-record for NPR, on the cartoon. I've gotten over 400 emails, scores of phone calls, and there are over 500 comments on the piece that I wrote.

ROBERTS: So let me read one of those emails. It says, was the animated video I saw in NPR's site titled "How To Speak Tea Bag" a real video produced and aired by NPR? If so, please explain how it, in any way, is not in support of one political party. Were tax dollars used to support it? In what way does that drivel have any redeeming or educational value or fit into NPR's mission. I'm so disappointed - shocked, saddened and angered, actually. Doesn't NPR support anyone's right to protest their government, at least in this country? Please reevaluate what you're doing.

SHEPARD: So this is like a multi-parter, so - NPR does get taxpayer money, very little of it, that for about $150 million budget, one to twp percent of it comes from competitive grants. The rest of it comes from corporate sponsorship, grants from investments, as well as programming fees from the station. So yes, I guess you could say that taxpayer money was used, but that isn't really the issue. The issue is whether or not it was appropriate, as the listener is saying. And in my opinion it didn't fit with NPR's values.

Public radio wants to promote civility, civil discourse, generosity. It was mean-spirited, and I tend to agree with a lot of the criticism, that it does not foster debate.

ROBERTS: There was also a vein of criticism that drew attention to some of the rhetoric used in this letter is typical. While I enjoy satire as much as the next person, I cannot fathom why NPR would perpetuate the use of the offensive term teabagger, a slang word for a sexual act, in its opinion section. My tax dollars at work? I'm paying for this offensive tripe to be on your Web site? Unbelievable.

SHEPARD: Well, what's surprising, Rebecca, is that the word teabagger is not in the cartoon. It is "Learn To Speak Tea Bag." It goes back to last April, when the Tea Party movement said send a tea bag to the White House in protest. These people very strongly believe that Obama is leading the nation in a way that they aren't comfortable with. So - but back to the sexual vulgarity, as it was called - NPR's opinion editor did not know that at the time. I think that's something we've all gotten an education on. And in the future, I was told that the word teabagging or teabagger will go through a quote-unquote, "dirty word filter," especially in the comments section and not be allowed.

So this has been an educational experience. I know some people think that's so naive, how could NPR not have known that, but that is where it stands. And I do want to emphasize that the cartoon did appear in the opinion section. What NPR did not do well was make that clear when it initially appeared. And what NPR needs to do even more is have a cartoonist that counters what this cartoon perpetuates, which is a left-leaning take.

What really hurts NPR in this is that there's a perception out there that NPR's very liberal, very left-leaning, and this reinforces that. And so I really think there needs to be a counter on this if NPR wants to maintain its reputation as a middle-of-the-road news organization.

ROBERTS: Alicia, thanks so much for joining us.

SHEPARD: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Alicia Shepard is NPR's ombudsman. You can read her blog at npr.org. She joined us here in Studio 3A.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: And you can, as always, send us your comments, questions or corrections. Email is best: talk@npr.org. Please let us know where you're writing from and give us some help on how to pronounce your name.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.