Good journalism is often the result of having good sources. But sometimes sources may be more than just professional acquaintances. They can be personal acquaintances. Not acknowledging such sources can be a serious problem for the credibility of journalists and their news organizations.
Do journalists have an obligation to disclose a personal, as well as a professional, connection to a source?
This issue has arisen because of a reference in an interview on NPR's On The Media.
'As Fred Kaplan Wrote...'
Brooke Gladstone is co-host and managing editor of the program.
On Oct. 7, Gladstone interviewed Russian journalist and former Kremlin spokesman Vladimir Posner. She began by citing another journalist, Fred Kaplan, who works for the online magazine Slate:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: ...This week, Slate columnist Fred Kaplan wrote that [Karen] Hughes could make better use of her time if she spent it searching for someone who could better represent America in the Arab world, someone comfortable with its language and traditions, someone who gets the religion and the jokes — in other words, the American equivalent of former Soviet spokesman Vladimir Posner...
Who Is Fred Kaplan?
Nothing wrong with that. Except unbeknownst to most listeners, Kaplan is Gladstone's husband. Some listeners, and some NPR staffers, did know that. One wrote me to ask why the relationship wasn't noted in Gladstone's introduction.
I posed that question to Gladstone. She responded:
Our staff discussed mentioning Fred, and decided to stick with our usual practice of crediting the reporter, columnist or whoever comes up with an original idea we cite. We believe it's important to always supply the name of our source to the listener, in case they want to follow up. If you read the transcript, you'll see a fleeting mention of Fred Kaplan for that reason. To stop at the point and say, by the way, "he's my husband" would have only distracted the listener from the set- up for the interview with a piece of trivia. There was no conflict of interest here. The point was Posner, not Fred.
I recall that when I joined the staff of [All Things Considered] as senior editor, [1989-1991] there were frequent mentions of Fred Wertheimer, who as head of Common Cause was in the thick of discussions over campaign finance reform. In that case as well, his connection to [NPR's] Linda [Wertheimer] was not mentioned, because it would have served as a useless distraction.
We have different rules on the show for disclosures in connection with actual interviews or any case where there might be reasonable suggestion of conflict of interest.
Anyone who listens to On the Media could be forgiven for thinking we make a fetish of transparency, and as a program of analysis and commentary, we have more freedom than most to express our own opinions. If I thought it would have advanced the listeners' understanding in any way to mention I'm married to Fred, I would have done so.
John O'Keefe is the program's executive producer. He thinks that acknowledging the relationship would be necessary if Fred Kaplan were to be interviewed directly on the program:
If Fred is used in a more substantive way on the show, we agree that a disclosure would be warranted.
Who Is Fred Wertheimer?
Linda Wertheimer says she did indeed, interview her husband Fred Wertheimer. But only once:
We did the interview and I noted that he was my husband. After it aired, we both felt uncomfortable about it and it never happened again, as far as I can recall.
NPR News has evolved its practices since back in the day when Gladstone was a senior editor on All Things Considered.
Says Bill Marimow, NPR's acting vice president of news:
I think that Brooke Gladstone is a journalist of outstanding integrity. And I admire the work she does in producing On the Media. That said, I think it's a mistake when journalists cite or interview members of their own family.
There are no secrets, it seems, especially when one is a public personality. Not mentioning the relationship between Brooke Gladstone and Fred Kaplan leaves me with the impression of an inside advantage that a spouse or partner might have in the world of journalism. At the least, it sounds like Gladstone gave an on-air credit to Fred Kaplan, something that never hurts a reputation.
In this case, more disclosure would have been better than less. By finding another person to quote, the program would have avoided giving an impression of familial favoritism.
'Get Your Tom DeLay T-Shirts Here!'
On Morning Edition on Oct. 21, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reported on Rep. Tom DeLay's (R-TX) appearance in an Austin, Texas court to face charges of election fraud.
The report included this testy exchange between DeLay's lawyer and Judge Bob Perkins:
Mr. DICK DEGUERIN (Tom DeLay's Attorney): But I noticed yesterday, MoveOn.org, to which you have contributed, was selling T-shirts with Mr. DeLay's mug shot on it to raise money.
Judge BOB PERKINS (Austin, Texas): Well, let me just say I haven't ever seen that T-shirt, number one. Number two, I haven't bought it. Number three, the last time that I — number three, the last time I contributed to MoveOn that I know of was prior to the November election last year when they were primarily helping Sen. Kerry.
MoveOn.org denied that it is selling T-shirts with a DeLay mugshot. And it objected to NPR reporting lawyer DeGuerin's statement as a fact.
Wade Goodwyn's original report mentioned that the lawyer's allegation was untrue and that MoveOn.org was not selling the T-shirts. This mention was near the end of his report. But the allocated time was shortened at the last minute by the program's producer, and a quick and surgical edit was needed. That particular element was removed and was left on the digital cutting room floor.
When the report was heard on Morning Edition, it ran without the denial from MoveOn.org -– leaving some listeners with the impression that MoveOn.org was willing to take advantage of DeLay's legal troubles.
Says NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin:
Wade and I talked about putting in the MoveOn correction about the T-shirts, and we did so. But our 3 [minute] 30 [second] piece was changed to 3:10 with no warning, and there was a lot we needed to cut to fit into the new... time restraints. The T-shirt with the mug shot was hardly the point of the piece.
This is a dilemma that editors face all the time. A program has a finite amount of airtime. It simply can't go beyond its limit because as one program ends, another automatically begins. There's no wiggle room in broadcasting.
The Daily Negotiating
Here's how it usually works: Early in the day, the program's producer — who is responsible for everything making sense and running on time — gives a reporter and editor a maximum estimated time. It's a guess based on how the program "feels" at that point in the day. The producer has to juggle a lot of other elements: How complicated are the stories? Will one need more or less time than another as deadlines approach? Is there audio that should be included to make the report more "radio-phonic?" Where will it fit in the program's final lineup? Are there other, more unpredictable stories (usually from overseas) that have to be given extra latitude? What if another story comes in "heavy" and other stories have to be trimmed to make everything fit?
The reporter and editor work with those elements in mind. And the producer's estimate and the reality of the final edit often clash. The reporter and editor might ask for more time in the belief that their report deserves it.
At the last minute, some interesting negotiations with the producer can take place. Depending on the story and the flamboyance of the editor, those negotiations can run through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
It's an everyday occurrence at NPR.
Despite the complications of the process, the allegations of Tom DeLay's lawyer should not have been left to stand. NPR needed to find a way to make it clear that the allegations were untrue — perhaps on the NPR.org Web site, where there are fewer restraints of space or time.