Listeners are still writing to say that much of NPR's reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is excellent and compelling.
Julie Leavitt writes:
I have been moved to tears by the various heartbreaking stories and predictions. I am so angry at your revelations about our administration's bumbling I cannot speak of it in civilized tones. And your stories that show the extraordinary heroism in everyday people allow me to hope we will survive this crisis.
While mainstream media have been sensationalizing, over-simplifying, trivializing and sometimes obfuscating the hellish reality of a once-great city, NPR, in its quiet, calm and authoritative tones, has delivered the Truth.
Never, never, never let anyone say "NPR is for elitists." Without NPR... the rest of the country would be startlingly ignorant. God bless you all, and the vital work you do.
I thought the timeline reporting on All Things Considered on Friday, Sept. 9 was especially impressive. For more than 20 minutes, NPR's Danny Zwerdling and Laura Sullivan jointly reported on the sequence of terrible events. Zwerdling and Sullivan showed how heroism was overwhelmed by a combination of incompetence and bad luck to produce the disaster that is now covered by news outlets everywhere.
Fewer Kudos and More Complaints
Ombudsmen don't receive only kudos, of course. People are naturally more motivated to complain than to praise. So there has been no shortage of suggestions about how to improve NPR's coverage.
Many of the complaints are directed at NPR's reports on government responsiveness (or lack thereof) to the catastrophe. Some listeners insist that it is NPR's job to assign specific blame for what happened.
Giving a Pass to Local Authorities?
Listener Valerie Mock writes:
I'm listening to you do the Katrina timeline at 4 p.m. Friday, and its amazing how you shift all the blame to the federal government, and gave Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin, who didn't follow his own Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan for evacuation, a complete pass. Incredible! You are amazingly proficient at leaving out critical information so people hear the story how you want to be told and what supports your agenda.
The head of the Red Cross did a television interview stating they were ready to come in Monday before the flooding, but were denied permission by the State of LA Homeland Security Office. Where was this stated in the timeline?
Daniel Zwerdling responds:
I don't recall our shifting the blame to anybody... we told as much as we could learn and just put it out there for listeners to ponder, without judgment. As for the line about Mayor Nagin... this listener seems to have missed the part in the story about 100,000 people not evacuating, partly because the city's evacuation buses didn't show up...
Listener Perrin Lam sees it from another perspective:
How many other crony incompetents are damaging Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, CIA, FBI, and the Environmental Protection Agency, just for starters? There has been an outcry over the gutting of competency by Bush for five years now...
Democracy demands of its participants a passionate participation. So does journalism, even if NPR loses access to infuriated Republicans who can't bear the light of transparency. As we watch an administration more destructive than Sept. 11 and Katrina combined, what are we to do but to demand accountability and responsibility from our elected officials?
I think that NPR has been right to concentrate on the hurricane story. It is, as NPR reminds us, the worst natural disaster in American history and we will all live the social, economic and political consequences for years to come.
NPR listeners are, in my experience, insatiable for more news about everything. But the size of this story is unprecedented, and NPR has thrown its considerable journalistic resources into it. Reporters and producers have been moved from their usual locations and beats to cover this story in ways that have stretched the news department never before imagined. NPR.org has also provided enormous amounts of information about the story, its aftermath and how listeners can donate to the recovery.
The BBC on U.S. Public Radio
But even NPR, with its recently enhanced capacity to cover the news, has its limits. Consider the massive ability of the BBC in America, however.
Public radio stations rely primarily on NPR to be the backbone of their information offerings. But NPR isn't the only news service that listeners hear on their local stations. Many public radio stations choose to air news programs provided by the BBC World Service from London.
For the most part, BBC reporting has been, as is usually is, eminently clear, comprehensive and thorough. It adds a unique and useful voice to public radio in America. The BBC also has a journalistic overview of seeing the "big story" that fits in well alongside NPR's more detailed reportage from an American perspective.
For the most part, I am glad the BBC and other foreign media are reporting this story.
But occasionally, I have heard BBC reporting on my local public radio station that sounds odd — even at variance with the tone of NPR.
A Very British View of Katrina
Specifically, the BBC appears to be focusing on the oddities of American culture and politics. There have been numerous interviews with spokespersons that seem to represent a view of America straight out of movies like Deliverance or In The Heat of the Night. They don't sound like anything that would be heard on NPR.
The BBC also seems to portray aspects of Southern culture in a less than flattering light, especially in its interviews with local religious leaders who see Katrina as divine retribution for New Orleans' "sinfulness."
Knowing Glances and Smirks?
I am sure that the BBC is not inventing these interviews. But the effect is that it sounds less like reporting than like caricature. Public radio listeners likely understand what is going on — that BBC cultural assumptions about the United States remain mired in a reflex European opposition to American foreign policy. But what comes through the radio sounds mean-spirited and not particularly helpful; it probably evokes knowing glances and smirks among editors and producers back in London.
There is more right than wrong in the BBC's coverage. But when it comes to portraying certain American cultural expressions, the BBC seems to have a tin ear.
Listeners, I suspect, may be left wondering how to reconcile the differences between NPR and the BBC that they hear from their public radio stations.