NPR Ombudsman: Rove Interview, 'Death of a President'

NPR's new ombudsman, Bill Marimow, takes listener calls about NPR coverage and underwriting issues. Marimow talks about a recent interview with Karl Rove. He also discusses NPR's decision to refuse sponsorship announcements for a controversial movie depicting the assassination of President Bush.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

NPR has a new ombudsman. Bill Marimow took over the job two weeks ago replacing Jeffrey Dvorkin who's moved on to another position. He'll be joining us here on TALK OF THE NATION from time to time, taking your calls about NPR coverage and issues that involve National Public Radio news - and that starts today. If you have a question or concern about something you've heard or haven't heard on NPR, give us a call: 800-989-2855. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@NPR.org.

Bill Marimow, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

BILL MARIMOW: Thank you, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And we want to start with two pieces of coverage that generated, I know, a lot of e-mail. Last week NPR featured interviews with Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and political strategist Karl Rove. Tell us what listeners had to say about those.

MARIMOW: It's been fascinating to listen to the perspective of listeners. We've got one group who believe that our hosts - in this case, Steve Inskeep and Robert Siegel - were far too tough, far too mean spirited. And then a whole other group who think that they were too forbearing, too polite, too civil, never really challenging.

And it's indicative of the volume and intensity of phone calls and e-mails we've received. Listeners are seeing things through their own lens. And either NPR is totally pro-Bush or reflexively Democratic.

CONAN: I wonder, you think it was that in terms of what listeners were saying. Cause a lot of the time, you do get complaints about the style of interviews.

MARIMOW: I think the style was definitely one of the focuses. And in the case of the Santorum interview, when you listen to it very carefully and you talk to the Santorum camp, you see that Steve is trying to focus the senator's attention on the issue of whether or not he is in total agreement with the Bush administration's policies in Iraq or whether there's some variations - and if there are variations, whether there's a political motivation to them.

CONAN: Another issue that's come up in the past several days is NPR's decision not to air underwriting announcements for a controversial movie depicting the assassination of President Bush, called The Death of a President. What was the reasoning behind that decision? Have you gotten inquiries about it?

MARIMOW: I've gotten inquiries, and the NPR justification was two-fold. First of all, the extreme nature of the film - the depiction of the assassination of President Bush - the executives felt that this was not appropriate for us to be accepting sponsorship. And then the other was a more journalistic issue; that because it would generate news stories, accepting a sponsorship might blur and confuse listeners.

CONAN: In general, have there been other examples of these kinds of decisions in the past? Has NPR refused sponsorship from controversial issues?

MARIMOW: I think there have been from time to time, Neal, and there have also been cases of films that have a political motivation - I think the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11 is a good example of a sponsorship that NPR accepted. It's a great issue for those who espouse freedom of speech and the First Amendment versus what NPR's listeners expect of the network.

CONAN: Okay. Let's go to one more question, and that's about your new job as ombudsman. You spent most of your life in print journalism, won two Pulitzer Prizes for your work at the Philadelphia Inquirer. How is this new job different? What are you looking forward to? How do you think you're going to take it on?

MARIMOW: Well, I spent 37 years basically reporting and writing stories, and trying to work with reporters to formulate and edit stories. Now as I see this, there'll be three or four aspects to the ombudsman's job. First is to receive criticisms, complaints and, hopefully compliments, and analyze those complaints.

CONAN: Can listeners who write to you expect a response?

MARIMOW: They will all be read. They won't all get a customized and personal response, but they will get a response. I have an assistant, Chantal de la Rionda, and either she or I, or both of us, will read every one of them.

CONAN: And if it warrants it, will you then inquire as to whoever may have either sinned or succeeded into the decision they made and why?

MARIMOW: The first step will be sending those comments on to people like you, and saying Neal, what happened here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARIMOW: And I've had great response so far in these first two weeks.

CONAN: I should say I think your first column as ombudsman is up on the NPR Web site?

MARIMOW: This is true.

CONAN: And how do people get in touch with you if they want to?

MARIMOW: They write to ombudsman@npr.org or 202-513-3246. The lines are open.

CONAN: All right. Right now, it's 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org, and let's go to Trilani(ph), Trilani with us from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

TRILANI (Caller): Yes I am. Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TRILANI: I was just wondering, NPR does better than some news organizations, but I still notice a trend that your guests and your hosts tend to speak of Christian opinions about issues such as same-sex marriage and stem-cell research, but really what they're talking about is Christian right opinions and generalizing about, you know, communities of faith - which are really quite diverse and have been ever since the formation of Christianity, 2000 years ago.

And I was just wondering if NPR is making an effort to represent the diversity among Christian groups regarding issues such as same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research, and abortion?

MARIMOW: I think that one of the absolute goals of NPR is to examine issues like that from both poles of the possible truth; to look for balance; to give our listeners all possible information about an issue of controversy so that they can come to their own conclusion.

I think that when we examine a controversy from only one side, we're doing all of you an injustice, and it's an exception.

TRILANI: Yeah, well, I appreciate that. That's exactly what I'm talking about. I think it does an injustice to all of the Christian groups in the country that are working so hard to be heard, to get the word out that to be Christian doesn't necessarily to mean to be anti-same-sex marriage, anti-abortion, or anti-stem-cell research. And if those voices don't get heard, then there's just a very warped view of Christianity that is allowed to propagate more and more and more. And so I appreciate NPR because you have taken more voices from that side than any other group, but I still sense an imbalance. And so I guess, you know, given your commitment to try to work on that, I really appreciate that.

CONAN: Trilani, thanks for the call.

Let's go now to - this'll be Ben(ph). Ben's with us from Knoxville, North Carolina.

BEN (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. It's actually Mocksville.

CONAN: Aha, excuse me. I just assumed that somebody had written it wrong, so go ahead.

BEN: I just want to say I appreciate NPR for the wonderful reporting you do.

CONAN: Thank you.

BEN: I'm an avid environmentalist, and I'm just curious as to what NPR - how NPR might increase its reporting on alternative fuels, or you know, like alternatives to wood-cutting, or you know, tree paper. What venues have you sought to bring out these new technologies to just the general population? And I'll take my answer offline.

CONAN: OK, Ben, thanks very much. And Bill Marimow is a former managing editor and news director here. This is something you know something about.

MARIMOW: Ben, when I arrived at NPR in the spring of 2004, one of the things we did right away was to create new beats in subject areas that we thought required single-minded, focused attention of a beat reporter. And in the fall that year, NPR appointed an environmental reporter - Elizabeth Shogren, whom we hired from the Los Angeles Times - and that is her beat.

In addition, there are some stellar reporters on the science desk - people like Richard Harris, Jon Hamilton and others - who make environment part of their business. So I think that we don't cover the entire waterfront, but we cover a big chunk of it. And Elizabeth's appointment was a demonstration of that commitment.

CONAN: Bill Marimow, NPR's new ombudsman, will be with us from time to time to answer your questions about coverage and issues involving National Public Radio.

800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an e-mail question from Zeke(ph) in Los Angeles. Will someone at NPR figure out a consistent way to pronounce the way of the secretary-general of the United Nations? I remember the first news conference at the U.N. where Annan was introduced to the press. His spokesman said Annan as in cannon. I guess this has been bugging me, the way the networks, including NPR, have no consistency on how to pronounce the man's name. Is it too difficult to call the U.N. and see how he pronounces it?

MARIMOW: That's a good question. Our librarian, Kee Malesky is our paragon and an expert on pronunciation. And when I leave the show this afternoon, I'll talk to Kee about that.

CONAN: And she reminds us, oh so gently from time to time, about the proper way to pronounce things. And consistency is a goal. It's not always achieved and I'm as bad a sinner as anybody else.

Let's go to Joan(ph), and Joan's calling us from Overland Park in Kansas.

JOAN (Caller): Yes, first of all, I also love public broadcasting, almost all of it. And I was actually just about to write the ombudsman. There is so much talk about which races determine who will control the Senate, and I think the political reporters get a little bit ahead of - perhaps the majority of the public - by not covering why control of the Senate is important, or why control of the House - in terms of the extraordinary power that the committee chairs have, and the speaker, and the head of the Senate, the majority leader of the Senate.

And I would like to see more coverage of how the rules of the Senate, how the rules of the House work. And how that affects all of us.

MARIMOW: Joan, this is a timeless issue for journalists. I think it's inevitable, as the Election Day draws closer, that the attention is focused more on the horse race rather than the issues and the implications of the election. And I, too, would like to see more coverage of what it all means and what the key issues are, as opposed to predictions of the outcome.

CONAN: So less horse race and more explaining.

MARIMOW: Yes.

JOAN: Yes.

CONAN: Okay, Joan, thanks very much.

JOAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Greg(ph). Greg's with us from Sonoma in California.

GREG (Caller) Oh hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GREG: Interesting. The format of this program - I've been a long-time listener to TALK OF THE NATION, long into Ray Suarez' career. And I so much preferred that format, where one subject - the ombudsman came on and talked for the whole show. And people called all hour long after hearing he or she talk about issues that face the position. Why was the format of this program changed to a 60-Minute-type format? To me, it seems that it's been dumbed down, and I'm really bothered by that.

CONAN: With respect, Greg, we didn't have an ombudsman when Ray Suarez was the host of this program.

GREG: Okay, okay, well...

CONAN: But I get your point. It was one subject for a full hour, and...

GREG: And I'll take any comment off the air. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: I'm not sure whether this comment should come from me or from you.

MARIMOW: Neal, I'm going to defer to your expertise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you very - a whole lot for that, Bill. Really, there were more subjects that we wanted to talk about. There were more subjects than we could get to in eight hours a week, and that's primarily the reason. It really was a product of what happened after 9/11, and we wanted to talk to you about more things and move the program along a little bit more quickly. And if you feel it's been dumbed down, I apologize for that.

Anyway, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Patty(ph). Patty's in Casper, Wyoming.

PATTY (Caller): Hi, I'm sorry. I think we have a bad connection, but I'll do my best to speak up.

CONAN: You sound fine so far.

PATTY: Oh good, I'm glad. Thanks for taking the call. I'm real curious about the difference between the concept of balance and the concept of fairness. Particularly, I'm interested in you addressing the topic of the Johns Hopkins study that was recently published by the Lancet.

I know that on this show, you had one of the authors on - who spoke very eloquently about the science behind it. But in other areas of the news, at different venues throughout the day, contrary opinions from people who disagree with the study are often reported without comment; without challenge. And they often are very contrary and also sometimes arbitrary.

For instance, President Bush's comment that it was an outrageous claim was sort of allowed to stand - and that really bothers me a lot.

CONAN: Well, Patty, we did play that comment for the author of the study and asked him to respond to it on this show, but Phil Marimow?

MARIMOW: Patty, I think that balance and fairness are inextricably intertwined. And on any issue of controversy, especially something as incendiary as the Lancet study coming during an election campaign, there are going to be sharply differing points of view. And it's our obligation to analyze the points of view and to give you, the listener, the kind of information you need to make an informed judgment about where the truth lies. I think the very best, you know, work we do is going to be the kind that gives you all possible versions or accounts of the possible truth.

PATTY: Well, I hate to disagree. I apologize, but not all - this is a scientific-natured study, and not all opinions are equally appropriate or equally well-founded in either evidence or logic.

CONAN: And Patty, on this question, you're going to get the last word because we're out of time. Thank you very much for the call.

And Bill Marimow, thank you for being with us.

MARIMOW: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bill Marimow, NPR's new ombudsman, will be with us on TALK OF THE NATION from time to time here in Studio 3A. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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