How NPR Covered the Death of a Symbol

Reports of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi put NPR News into "news special" mode in the early hours of June 8.

A "news special" happens when an event is deemed important enough to throw out all of the pieces already prepared for broadcast, in order to concentrate all resources to cover the many aspect of the one big story.

Al-Zarqawi's death and the subsequent military and political roiling in Baghdad and Washington D.C., was considered such a huge story that it was worth junking everything else.

Not a lot of time …

News of the U.S. airstrike that killed the head of al-Qaida in Iraq came in around 2 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday, June 8, only a few hours before NPR's Morning Edition first goes to air. That's not a lot of time to rebuild a program from the ground up, but that's what happened, and I thought the final product was impressive.

When my clock-radio came on around 6 a.m., the program was already interviewing authoritative experts about this event: Professor Paul Wilkinson from St. Andrew's University in Scotland, Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Rhami Khouri, editor-at-large at the English language Beirut Star were a few of the thoughtful voices heard on Morning Edition and on other NPR news programs over the next few days.

On Air and Online

The on-air reporting and analysis was good and the NPR online team made it even better, in my opinion. On this story, the NPR Web site aggregated every possible angle, from reporters, hosts and analysts. There was also an impressive linking to reactions from political leaders, both foreign and domestic. This was excellent public-service journalism. Well done both to NPR News and to the online team. My only quibble was that the interviews on the newsmagazines were so incisive that I wished excerpts would have been utilized on NPR newscasts, which are actually heard by the largest public radio audience.

Politically motivated?

But some listeners, like John Crawford thought otherwise:

Your coverage on June 8th of the death of Zarqawi was WAY OVER THE TOP. Though important, the story did not justify wall to wall coverage on NPR. One must wonder how many administration lackeys we have to hear before the thing takes on the air of unreality.

Michael Caplow was one of a number of listeners who believe NPR gave a lot of airtime to this story just to get on the right side of the administration:

I am disappointed with the extensive coverage of the death of Zarqawi. Rather than covering the mess in Iraq, NPR chose to cover this insignificant new development … the Right are cutting funding and will not respond to attempts to obtain their favor by extensive coverage of this fake story.

Fortunes of War and Politics

There are two issues here. One is whether the story (Zarqawi's death) was — on its own merits — worth the amount of space given to it. I think it was. Even if Zarqawi was "only" a symbol, symbols have a way of powerfully influencing other events.

As NPR reported, there is a consensus of military and political opinion that the death of Zarqawi will not change anything in the short term. How Zarqawi's symbolic or real legacy will have an impact on the war in Iraq and the political fortunes of the administration is something that NPR needs to monitor closely.

Issue two is that many NPR listeners have a strong antipathy to any news story that might frame the Bush administration in a positive way. Giving such prominence to its coverage of this incident tends to heighten the anxieties of those listeners … something that NPR journalists need to be mindful of in these nervous times.

"Truth With Edge"

On a related note, if my e-mail box is any indication, more and more listeners are finding NPR's traditional approach to reporting both sides of an issue to be increasingly unsatisfactory and frustrating.

I sense a rising anxiety and impatience among large numbers of NPR listeners who urge that the network take a more activist — or at least a more openly skeptical — role in the media landscape of the United States.

Here's one example from listener Andrew Pearson:

When you're sitting around next with NPR managers, remind them of this: give your listeners some truth with edge ... if you can't do that, if your managers are always reminding reporters that they have to be balanced, NPR ends up giving us junk food for the ears. On the one hand this and on the other hand that — that is the evasion of journalistic responsibility.

Whenever I mention this idea of "truth with edge" around NPR, many of my colleagues dismiss it as more blather from the blogosphere.

This is too simplistic a response, dear colleagues.

An example of this happened over the past few days. An article in Rolling Stone magazine by Robert F. Kennedy claimed (again) that there is new evidence that the 2004 election was stolen by the Republicans. The story was ignored by most of the media. NPR editors dismissed it as "nothing new."

NPR reported on the accusations of the stolen election in 2004 and 2005 when the allegation first emerged. At the time, many listeners insisted then that NPR's reporting was wrong, and many still think so today.

A high level of suspicion lingers among some that the Bush administration is illegitimate. There is not much that any journalistic organization can do in the face of such powerful sentiments. However, it may also be unwise to ignore this public pressure. The question for journalists is how to respond to this still-strong current of public opinion. And respond NPR must. To ignore it would be journalistic folly, in my opinion.

The idea of "truth with edge" is an important one, especially these days. The news media, including NPR, needs to make sure that it continues to serve the audience but to do so in a way that doesn't pander. So how can NPR's journalism maintain a balance between giving the listeners what they want and what they need?

Less Balance = Better Journalism?

Some questions need to be asked: Does less balance always mean better journalism? I’m not sure, but I think Mr. Pearson is right, in a way. There is something enormously satisfying to hear one's own opinions confirmed in a news story, and listeners say they are often dissatisfied when they hear an opinion that they don't share.

If NPR's reporting becomes "truth with edge" (if we can ever agree on what that means), we will begin to practice a different kind of journalism that has both benefits and pitfalls. It may be better journalism or not. But it will surely be different than the more disinterested journalism that NPR now practices.

Skepticism — Not Cynicism

Some issues should be borne in mind: Journalism is, first and foremost, about credibility. Listeners, viewers and readers have to believe that the information they are hearing, reading and seeing is completely reliable and transparent. It should be tested by an appropriate level of skepticism (not cynicism). Also the information must be presented in such a way that the person listening is able to decide for himself or herself whether it can be believed.

If that information is deemed to be reliable by the listeners, it must also be seen as having been subjected to the proper amount of journalistic scrutiny. Why should listeners believe NPR? Because years of fact-based reporting have created a culture of credibility that NPR might risk losing if it only practiced journalism with edge — aka opinion.

Of course, other points of view must be considered. NPR's journalism is tested every day because other facts, ideas, commentaries and opinions are brought in to give the listeners differing perspectives to provide as complete a picture as possible (within the limits of airtime) about the issues of the day. Yet to do so without subjecting those other perspectives to the same level of scrutiny, risks what listener Andrew Pearson calls "junk food for the ears."

Are NPR journalists so convinced that their approach to "balancing" news is the right one that this appeal from their listeners can be dismissed in such a cavalier fashion? I hope not. It is something that needs to be discussed inside the editorial heights — and soon.

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