An astonishing year for national and international events has reinforced the old Chinese adage: "May you live in interesting times." For many listeners, the implications of that phrase may well resound for years to come.
The year 2005 will certainly be remembered for the intensity of events — whether meteorological, political, military or journalistic.
Hurricanes came and ripped through the South. Katrina, Rita and Wilma were just three of many storms that left shattered communities and disrupted lives in their wake.
The economy is growing in many areas, yet many Americans remain nervous about the future.
The war in Iraq continues. Pollsters say Americans are increasingly skeptical about the war — wondering whether it was necessary at all and asking if the reasons for war were credible in the first place.
Interesting times? Possibly.
Nervous times? Absolutely.
From my perspective as ombudsman, the hurricanes did something other than cause destruction. They also blew away the reticence of much of the U.S. media to start asking tough questions about the storm preparedness, and the aftermath, as well as about the economy and the war. Journalists now seem emboldened to ask tougher questions… a little late perhaps, but better late than never.
At the same time, it was hardly a banner year for mainstream journalism as several major news organizations such as The New York Times, CBS News and the BBC, among others, committed some highly publicized gaffes. Internet journalism, known as blogs, became more prominent, often breaking news stories while pointing out the mistakes of the mainstream media. The influence of the blogs continues to grow, but not always with the same commitment to fairness, accuracy and accountability that have been the hallmarks of more traditional news sources. Financial pressures on all news organizations continue to change the way in which news is reported. My fellow ombudsmen confirm there is much nervousness and uncertainty in newsrooms in America and around the world.
Trust and Credibility
As a result of these pressures, my e-mail in-tray has been full this year with questions and concerns about all of those issues and how NPR will cope in this rapidly changing environment. Some ask how NPR has (so far) managed to successfully navigate the shoals that have snared other news organizations.
In my role as the listeners' advocate at NPR, I point out the journalistic lapses that are brought to my attention. There have been many, but none have risen to the crisis level that other news organizations have experienced. I think that NPR has done a remarkable job overall in making sure that its journalism remained reliable over the past year. This is no small feat. However, this is not the time for NPR to let down its guard or to feel satisfied and smug. Whatever happened to other news organizations could also happen to NPR in an instant, if it loses its focus on the single most important task of producing reliable and excellent journalism — hour after hour, day after day. It is that challenge that should keep management awake in the middle of the night.
News organizations (and their ombudsmen) rarely receive praise or thanks for a job well done from the public they serve (and even less so, from the journalists who may find themselves the object of the ombudsman's attention). But I have been surprised (and relieved) to receive a number of kudos over the past few weeks from listeners who declare themselves reasonably pleased about NPR's role.
It was refreshing to read these e-mails, since they mark a pleasant change from most of the listener communications I receive. Many of the e-mails are from those who insist that NPR is either behaving like a White House poodle or conversely, like an agent of the Democratic National Committee.
But a majority of e-mails contain serious suggestions and constructive criticisms about what is heard on NPR, and in the next column we'll return to those questions and comments. A complete list of all e-mails received and the topics that concerned the senders can be found on the NPR Ombudsman's Web page.
A Period of Polarization in 2005
During the past year, many complaints and comments have come from listeners certain that NPR is on the wrong side. But as I have explained, it is not NPR's intention to take any one side, other than the side of the truth — as much as NPR can determine what the truth is. I think NPR's obligation is to try to explain with as much nuance as possible, the issues and the arguments so that its listeners can decide for themselves. But many listeners remain unconvinced that NPR does not have a political agenda.
The Ghost of Ed Murrow
It is interesting that in a year of questioned and questionable journalism, Hollywood came out with a somewhat hagiographic portrayal of Edward R. Murrow, one of the most influential broadcast journalists in American history.
The film was called Good Night and Good Luck. Co-written and directed by the actor George Clooney, it portrayed Murrow as the CBS News journalist who was a perfect fit for his times — in this case, the anxious and divided 1950s.
Murrow fought for high standards and fearless reporting even in the face of political and economic pressures that worked to tame and intimidate journalists and their news organizations. One implication of the film was that not much has changed — except that now, there appears to be no obvious successor to Murrow. Today, pressures on journalism are even more intense than ever — pressures to avoid asking the tough questions and pressures to pay closer attention to the financial constraints. NPR has, in my opinion, managed, for the most part, to resist those pressures. So far.
The Spirit of Fred Friendly
For me, the more interesting character in the film was Murrow's producer and mentor, Fred Friendly (played by Clooney).
Friendly eventually became the head of the CBS News division. In the 1960s he became a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York. That's where Robert Siegel — in his pre-NPR days — studied under him.
When Friendly died in 1998, Siegel did the obituary that aired on All Things Considered. It included parts of an interview conducted with Friendly some months before his death.
So in these anxious and divided times, something Friendly said to Siegel is worth noting as we move into 2006:
We have a saying — it’s on the wall of my office — It says: "Our job is not to make up anybody's mind but to make the agony of decision making so intense that you can escape only by thinking."
Happy New Year.