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March 14, 2003

Are Some Ideas Too Uncomfortable for NPR?

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


Are there points of view that should not be aired on NPR? Many listeners have written to say that NPR is playing it far too safe by putting on an "acceptable" range of ideas on when discussing the potential hostilities with Iraq.

The issue around pro and anti-war opinion is the case in point. As listener Larry Krengel writes:

I have no problem with criticism. It is healthy when it is (as it generally is on NPR) well-informed. I encourage your exploration of opinions from all political alleys. Yet, when you repeat multiple times per hour the same anti-administration bite -- disguised as a program promo -- it seems that you are advocating, not advertising.

I am not set in the Bush camp, but I am strongly American. Please hire and fire as necessary to provide a healthy, objective observation and interpretation of world events.

Please do not abandon your skeptical approach to the events of the day. (I'm sure you won't.) But please give the establishment point of view its due also.


Mr. Krengel raises an interesting issue for all media -- not just NPR. It is about which ideas and which voices are considered "acceptable" -- both by NPR and its listeners.

'Not All Anti-war Voices Are on the Left'

In the case of the possible war with Iraq, the story does not seem to break down into left vs. right. But there seems to be an emerging trend of pro-war and anti-war. People from the right tend to be more pro-war -- but not exclusively. The opposite holds for the anti-war side. There are conservatives who oppose going to war for a variety of reasons.

NPR has interviewed many voices on whether a war against Iraq is in the best interests of the Middle East and of America.

On the anti-war side, we have heard from anti-war civilians and even one anti-war American diplomat.

Since the beginning of February 2003, on Morning Edition, we have heard anti-war opinions from Russell Martin, Fawaz Gerges, Trudy Rubin, Kevin Phillips and James Reston. Pro-war commentaries have come from Austin Bay and Matt Miller.

All Things Considered has had anti-war commentaries from Peter Gershwin, Fenton Johnson and Alexs Pate. Pro-war voices have included Ken Adelman and Ken Harbaugh.

There seems to be an imbalance of anti-war voices on NPR, thus proving Mr. Krengel's point.*

'Subtle if Anxious...'

Even the tone of pro-war voices on NPR seems to be filled with self-doubt and subtle if anxious reasoning.

Recently, All Things Considered aired an essay by commentator Kelli Kirwan. The program described her as "the wife of a Marine and the mother of five children." Ms. Kirwan spoke of her doubts about the war, her anxieties about domestic terrorism and her concerns for her husband's safety.

But in the end, Ms. Kirwan felt she had no choice but to accept events as they come:

What little action I can take I will. Once I have done all that I can to prepare and protect my family, I can then face the future, leaving the rest up to God.

It was a powerful commentary and spoke eloquently of the nuanced choices that face many Americans.

But what seems to be missing from other NPR's commentaries/interviews is the unabashed and unconditional support (and there is lot of it) for the administration.

Enough Pro-war Voices on NPR?

Whenever that opinion is heard on NPR as it did when NPR interviewed Secretary of State Colin Powell, NPR receives e-mails by the score, all asking: "NPR! How could you?"

Part of the problem for NPR and for many listeners who look to us to reinforce their opinions is the range of "acceptable" opinion. Radio is a unique and intensely personal medium. People listen, in my opinion, in order to recognize an aural landscape that they know and feel is theirs. When they hear ideas or voices with which they disagree, they can feel a sense of betrayal.

That puts NPR in an awkward position. As an audio companion, NPR needs to remain recognizable to its listeners; but as a news service, it needs to present a range of opinions that reflects reality -- no matter how uncomfortable that reality may be.

What May be 'Considered' and What May Not?

Journalists at NPR also need to understand that the range of ideas is not there to comfort them either. They need to choose a broader range of opinion and ideas with which they may personally disagree, but which serves and informs the listeners.

There are some ideas that clearly go beyond the bounds of what is acceptable on NPR or on any medium: racism, violence, sexism. None of these could be acceptable points of view for commentary in a civilized society.

We all may have personal opinions about the events of the day. So we should. That is our responsibility as citizens. But as journalists we have another obligation. And it is to try to make sure that opinions -- even those we may find personally unacceptable -- are given a fair hearing. NPR journalists must be prepared to question their own assumptions about why some voices get on the radio while others do not. Only then can we be sure that we are providing a sufficient range of opinions to insure an informed electorate.

Even at the risk of receiving more "NPR! How could you?" e-mails.

Listeners may contact me at 202-513-3246 or at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 

*Please note: This sentence originally said "pro-war" and has been corrected to say "There seems to be an imbalance of anti-war voices on NPR, thus proving Mr. Krengel's point.")


   
   
   
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