A Week of Insults on NPR

Note: The ombudsman is away for a week. His column returns March 1.

Lest any listener think that NPR is a bastion of political correctness, the last few days should have dispelled that notion.

The Super Bowl and Confucius

First, in a Feb. 7 Morning Edition report from the Super Bowl, NPR referred to a revered Chinese sage and religious leader this way:

If Confucius had been in Jacksonville, he might have written something like, "He who makes the most noise before, sits in silence later — when the Super Bowl is slipping away."

Listener Sirina Tsai found that reference to be offensive:

It did not add anything to the piece, just padded it, the sort of sentence that gets written when a writer's brain is temporarily dull. I did notice that at least Confucius did not "speak" with bad grammar, as so often he is made to do, but why is Confucius saddled with these fake pronouncements at all? We don't do it to Shakespeare or Socrates. If you have something to say about football fans, say it in your own words.

References in American popular culture to Confucius should have ended when Hollywood stopped making Charlie Chan films. NPR reporters and editors should know better.

A Sex Offender's Disabilities

Second, an NPR report on Feb. 8 described ex-priest Paul Shanley this way:

Wearing a suit coat too big for his frail frame and a hearing aid in each ear, the now-74-year-old ex-priest showed no emotion as the verdict was read or as he was escorted from the courtroom to be locked up.

This attempt at descriptive writing caused listener Judy Friedman to say:

I am a hearing aid wearer. I am constantly trying to dispel people's beliefs that hearing aid users are different, feeble, old, etc. And that people should not gawk at hearing aids, like people no longer point out and make fun of glasses (4 eyes)… I think you have unknowingly made a bias implication here. And for those young children and teenagers who wear hearing aids and are constantly picked on or mocked because of them, we all have a duty to dispel the "frail, old, feeble" myth, especially those in the media who are journalists. Hopefully soon, hearing aids will be looked at just like glasses.

More disturbing, NPR implied that Shanley's moral failure and his hearing loss were somehow connected, at least in a metaphoric way. I know the reporter did not intend this, but some listeners felt that NPR should be aware of such inferences.

A Spanish Vulgarism

A commentary on Morning Edition on Friday, Feb. 11 used a Spanish vulgarism that many listeners found deeply shocking.

The commentary was by a former undersecretary of state in the Clinton administration. Ev Ehrlich expressed the view that the Democrats need to find a way to address the issue of privatizing social security with Hispanic voters:

"Well, if I were a Republican, I would be talking about privatization in Spanish. Sure it's hard to come out and say, "Don't be a pendejo and pay for the Anglos benefits..."

As listener Angela de S. Otero wrote:

Mr. Ehrlich should check a Spanish dictionary for the true meaning of the word "pendejo" before he uses it again.

Good advice for NPR editors as well.

I asked Ellen McDonnell, executive producer of Morning Edition, for her reaction to the volume of e-mailed complaints. Her response:

I suppose you can say I'm mortified. I'm looking into ways to ensure something like this never happens again.

Some listeners, such as Alan Ritchie, also objected to the content of the commentary, describing it as "divisive" and "insulting to both Hispanics and Anglos." But most of the complaints were from bilingual listeners who know an insult when they hear it in Spanish or English.

Lynne Cheney on 'Fresh Air with Terry Gross'

One bright spot in an otherwise fraught week was on NPR's Fresh Air.

On Thursday, Feb. 10, Terry Gross interviewed Lynne Cheney, author, conservative and wife of the vice president.

Mrs. Cheney was there in part to talk about a history book she has authored. She spoke about how Americans should have a better sense of their own history, the story of America is one of progress and freedom, and she spoke about how Americans should take pride in the accomplishments of the country. The interview also covered her critique of how history is taught, the influence of the women's movement on her own life and career, and what it was like to grow up in a small Wyoming town.

Some listeners did complain, though. When Terry Gross moved the interview to conservative positions on gay rights, listener Doug Jorrey wrote:

It was very clear to me that Ms. Gross had an agenda for the interview that was much different than what was promised. Her comment to Mrs. Cheney that "I know you don't like to talk specifically about your daughter's sexuality BUT..."' was typical ambush journalism. I found this and other attempts to pull Mrs. Cheney (out) of the closet on gays and faith to be childish and far beyond the scope of the promised discussion. Does Ms. Gross always do this with folks she doesn't agree with? It's poor journalism, and probably the reason why I don't often listen to Fresh Air.

Tough, But Respectful

A few listeners, such as Dulce McLeod, disagreed and thought it was a tough but respectful interview with a very articulate spokesperson for the conservative side:

Terry Gross is the type of interviewer that asks the right questions. It is sometimes uncomfortable to hear them but appreciate her spunk.

Danny Miller is the executive producer of Fresh Air:

It was frankly not surprising that Ms. Cheney was less enthusiastic discussing other topics in the news (in particular: the call for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, how that issue impacted on the election, and the Buster controversy). While we respect Ms. Cheney's desire for privacy specifically in regard to her daughter Mary (no questions were asked about her), that doesn't mean that the entire topic of gay rights and gay marriage was off the table. Many Americans are interested in what a public figure with Ms. Cheney's influence would have to say on these topics, especially given the fact that one of her children is gay. And for the record, our producer Amy Salit made it clear over the course of several phone calls with Lynne Cheney's office that we would talk about her children's book, but that other issues would be covered as well.

I also thought there were moments when Terry Gross was too persistent in her questioning of Mrs. Cheney. But overall, I thought it was a model of how good public radio interviews can be when people in the public spotlight need to be held to account.

Unlike Bill O'Reilly in a Fresh Air interview some months ago, Mrs. Cheney did not run away. She stood her ground, and so did Terry Gross. It was tough and nobody blinked.

That accounts for the tension many listeners felt during the 38-minute interview.

I felt it, too, but I couldn't stop listening.

Good job.

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