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'All Things Considered' Turns 30! Now What's Next?



By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


NPR has been commemorating the 30th anniversary of All Things Considered. There have been a series of programs and retrospectives, as well as a look at 30 year olds and their attitudes.

The celebrations climaxed in Washington, D.C., on May 3 with a gala evening event. Robert Siegel, Linda Wertheimer and Noah Adams were honored along with ATC's executive producer, Ellen Weiss. ABC's Ted Koppel hosted the evening to which the public was invited.

It was held in the auditorium of the new Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. More than 700 fans filled the hall to salute their favorite hosts of their favorite program.

It was a splendid affair: the jokes were wry, the observations trenchant and the mood effusive. It was truly a love-in that spoke well about ATC's role in the life of the nation. It was civilized and charming and entirely well deserved.

One of the highlights of the evening was a film that gave the listeners a taste of the thousands of stories and people who have found their way onto the airways thanks to this remarkable program and its brilliant staff of dedicated radio journalists.

Anything Missing? Investigative Reporting

But after the evening ended, one couldn't help wonder -- what was missing?

Overall, not much. But if there is one thing lacking at ATC specifically and at NPR in general -- it's a tradition of investigative reporting.

NPR News does break stories. It gets leaks and tips from outsiders. It follows up leads and pursues news stories on its own initiative, without waiting for events to take it there. It airs radio documentaries that explore previously unreported or closed areas of importance and concern.

But these news-gathering activities, ground-breakingly-laudable though they may be, are not strictly "investigative" journalism as the term is generally understood in the country. Indeed, NPR News does not undertake journalistic investigations as a matter of ongoing journalistic practice. No reporter on any of NPR's desks or shows is specifically and continuously assigned to dig out information that governments or government agencies, or private industry, would prefer remain unreported.

NPR is involved with Minnesota Public Radio in a documentary series called American Radio Works. It reports important stories, and a recent documentary on the massacre at Cuska in the Balkans has won a prestigious Dupont Gold award.

But American Radio Works is the exception rather than the rule. Its documentaries are aired only occasionally on All Things Considered.

Other journalistic organizations -- big and small -- are involved in regular investigative journalism. But it's not heard enough on NPR.

'The Execution Tapes'

Ironically, ATC's 30th anniversary came the same week that David Isay produced and aired an extraordinary documentary. It was a tape recording made by the Georgia Department of Corrections in 1984 of the execution of a prisoner by electrocution.

ATC and NPR did not run the tape. Discussions between David Isay and Ellen Weiss as to the best way to present this could not be resolved. So Isay turned to member station WNYC in New York. WNYC produced a one-hour documentary which was made available to any public radio station who wanted it.

And more than 60 did.

My own sense was that it was a lost opportunity for All Things Considered, especially on its 30th anniversary. The story and the issue of capital punishment are important enough to warrant major exposure.

What Listeners Don't Want To Hear

Even so, some listeners wrote objecting to the airing of the tape at all.

Anne Kowalski writes:

"Broadcasting such an intimate event, no matter who the victim is, is a travesty. I am neither a supporter nor an opponent of the death penalty. But I do believe that a person's death is a private event for the… (condemned)… and the loved ones left behind."

From John Firehammer:

"I have a degree in journalism, worked as a reporter and editor for daily papers for nearly a decade and see no compelling reason to broadcast an entire tape such as this and to promote it in such a sensational manner. NPR has entered Jerry Springer territory."

I disagree. I think WNYC should be praised for running the tapes. ATC had its reasons for not doing so, but, at the same time, it lost an opportunity to inform the audience … to "take you there," as NPR's own motto states.

So as it embarks on its next 30 years, I would urge All Things Considered to get more involved in investigative journalism -- a missing element in an otherwise splendid program. To do less might run the risk of All Things Considered becoming too comfortable -- even predictable.

Certain Risks

There are certain risks to investigative reporting -- not the least of which is a change in how a journalistic organization is perceived by its readers, viewers and listeners once it embarks on that path. If All Things Considered regularly engages in investigative journalism, will NPR management give it the necessary back up? Will the member stations still be quite as supportive when listeners start to complain? I hope so.

In the meantime, happy anniversary, ATC. You've had a great 30 years. But, go ahead: surprise us in the next 30 by taking us where we've never been before.

Listeners can contact me at ombudsman@npr.org

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 

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