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December 24, 2003

Holiday Gripes and Greetings

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


Listeners continue to pay their usual close attention to NPR programs. And as usual, when they detect errors of omission and commission -- in their opinion -- they dash to the e-mail.

First, some lumps of coal for the NPR stockings:

"Snucked?"

Pamela Flasch writes:

This morning's broadcast (December 16) included two grammatical mistakes -- enough to get me out of bed before I wanted to! One was the use of the word "snuck" in a story about a Palestinian gentleman. The past tense of sneak is sneaked.

The other was contained in the story about how Broward County, Florida, teachers are working overtime free of charge. Your reporter used a common mistake -- the phrase "for free." We don't put "for" in front of other adverbs; why do so many people do this with "free?"

Ms. Flasch is technically correct. But I discovered that in the Random House Webster's Dictionary of American English (1997), "snuck" is considered acceptable. I am "shucked."

"Thank you!" "No, Thank YOU!"

Al Cedolite writes:

My crotchety German grandparents taught me that the only proper response to "Thank you" is "You are welcome." But NPR's reporters and most of their interviewees respond to "Thank you" with yet another "Thank you." Doesn't anyone say "You are welcome" anymore?

"Going" is not a future tense. I once heard one of the many inarticulate announcers at the local NPR station say in a weather report: "A cold front is going to be coming." That sounds quite silly.

The "thank you" quadrille is something that irks a number of listeners. My sense is that it signifies a certain equality or equivalence between host and reporter. Often people who are appearing on the programs as experts or guests will respond with "You're welcome," indicating an acknowledgement of duty performed. There must be a scholarly monograph here somewhere...

Spare No Expense…

From Scott Chamberlin:

I was instantly struck by the use of the phrase "Americans' preference for imported goods." I do not believe most Americans have a preference for imported goods. Many have a preference for low-priced goods without consideration for their countries of origin.

Not "Failed." Refused!

From George Collins:

I was stunned to hear the hourly news reporter "report" that Canada's new prime minister, Paul Martin, hoped to achieve better relations with the United States, [because] relations [had] been strained during the administration of [former Prime Minister Jean] Chretien, due to Canada's failure to support the U.S. war in Iraq!!! What could she have meant? Did Canada try to support, not succeed and so "fail?" I don't think so.

Language Standards

An interview with actor Ned Beatty on Morning Edition was preceded by an excerpt from his recent performance as Big Daddy from Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was, for many listeners like Megan Cox Gurdon, not exactly breakfast fare:

This morning, as most, NPR was broadcasting to our breakfast table. Suddenly, we heard some film excerpt, I think it was, and a man yelling, "Goddamn!" Just as all ears recognized that, the man yelled, "Goddamned lies and hypocrisy!" It was 7:51 a.m., and we had four young children at the table. My eldest looked up in amazement and said, "Mummy, did he just say--?" Please, must we get this stuff from NPR? Can you not restrain yourselves? It may be editorially defensible -- "Well, the film clip was relevant to the story!" -- but please remember that you are beaming into people's homes and cars, and often your listeners are not always hard-bitten, cynical, worldly types.

Neva Grant produced the interview for Morning Edition:

For (the) recent interview with Ned Beatty, one of the stars of the current Broadway revival, NPR was sent audio clips of the production, furnished by a publicity company. (These were the only clips NPR was authorized to use.) The two scenes that most clearly demonstrated Beatty's acting ability were laced with "goddamns."

I was aware that this might be offensive to some of our listeners, but was also aware that bleeping, or "whiting out" the three words might cause equal offense, as they would blunt the dramatic impact of the scene, and diminish our listeners' sense of Beatty's grasp on the role. Since so much of the ensuing interview was about voice, and the importance of Williams' language, I elected to leave in all the words. One could also argue that unlike a rap song or TV comedy routine -- Williams' work is so widely known and respected -- it rises above the aesthetic of "bleeping."

Tennessee Williams' works are American classics, and not in the Disney sense. His use of language can, on occasion, be inappropriate, even in a brief excerpt on Morning Edition. Audience research tells us that there are more children who are near the radio in the morning compared to the afternoon.

Bob Edwards' interview with Ned Beatty was wonderful in my opinion. Nonetheless, it could have been just as interesting without the inclusion of these particular examples from the play. The problem with the "goddamns" was not that they were aired on the radio. There are times when tough language is an accurate journalistic reflection of how Americans speak.

But in this case, it meant that some listeners were so upset by what they heard that they stopped listening. They would be unable to keep listening to Ned Beatty's wise observations about his craft and the power of Williams' language. That is the real loss in this instance.

Fan Mail Too

But at this season, not all the e-mails and letters are correctives. Some NPR reporters get fan mail, and I'm happy to deliver these packages:

From Nancy Sullivan:

I CANNOT WAIT to hear Peter Overby's stories! I stop whatever I'm doing, crank up the volume, and listen intently to his reports, because I know they will always be well researched, informative and honest. Peter Overby is my new hero! His reports on the smarmy dealings of the Bush administration are THE BEST!

From Patrick Deaton:

I listened to NPR's Morning Edition this morning. Julie Rovner's report on proposed legislation for a prescription benefit for seniors was terrific. She untangled all the complicated arguments made by members of congress who were for or against the legislation. Until I heard her report, I found the debate hard to understand. Thanks for the good reporting.

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or by e-mail at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 



   
   
   
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