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January 14, 2004

When NPR and the NPR Ombudsman Get It Wrong

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


On Friday Jan. 9, Morning Edition aired a report from Nablus, on the West Bank, from Peter Kenyon. Many listeners wrote to object to what they perceived as a one-sided story on NPR.

"Why Are They in Nablus?"

Kenyon's report was about the effect on Nablus of what the Israeli army called a search for terrorists. The report was detailed in describing the effects on the inhabitants, but failed, according to some listeners, to say why the Israel Defense Forces targeted Nablus.

Tim Diener writes:

I find it astonishing that in this morning's story by Peter Kenyon, that NO mention was made of the fact that suicide-bombing murderers come from Nablus and explode themselves on buses and cafes in Israel proper... Why is the story presented as if the IDF is just there for sport? Why no mention of the reason the IDF is there at all? Why no mention of all the terrorist murderers that have emanated from Nablus?

Dan Kaufman writes:

As a lawyer, I usually assume when I hear of a dispute, that there are two sides to the story, and I try to obtain and present both for a full understanding. I would assume journalistic standards are the same. But, as is typical with almost all stories by NPR relating to Israel, there is no attempt to address the issue of why Israel might be doing these things in Nablus. The only voices are your reporter and aggrieved Palestinians.

The listeners have a good point, and NPR was remiss in my opinion. The report failed to point out the significance of Nablus, according to Israel's perspective, even as the report was useful in examining the consequences of Israel's actions. But the report needed to state the motives for the actions before moving directly to the consequences. It would not have required a lot to make sure that both sides are heard from. Reports such as this only confirm in the minds of some listeners that NPR's concern for fairness is less than it should be when it comes to the Middle East.

Illegal or Undocumented?

President Bush's recent announcement on proposed changes to the status of foreigners who are illegaly in the United States provoked strong responses from some listeners. Many sensed that NPR's reporting was implicitly sympathetic to the plight of these people, especially in the choice of interviews and how NPR describes these people.

Bill March writes:

After listening to your story on Bush's proposed immigration policy it bothered me that you gave several views from others supporting easing of immigrant status. You interviewed only one... on the opposing side to this policy. I feel you do not have the pulse of the majority of Americans who (are) against any form of leniency for people who have broken and violate our immigrant laws and borders... American citizens need to realize what the effect [a great number] of poorly paid people is having on our property and other taxes. When people are paid poorly, they cannot afford to purchase homes that help generate property taxes for schools and such. We carry the weight through increased property taxes due to persons with dependants not being able to afford homes and health care.

T.P. McKenna is a longtime critic on NPR's reporting on immigration:

Does NPR still not understand the difference between immigrants and illegal aliens?

At 7:33 a.m. EST, I heard a female reporter or host (who's name I did not get) giving a roundup of NPR news. Referring to George Bush's plan to grant an amnesty to illegal aliens she said Bush proposed to "give immigrants a chance to work legally."

As you and your reporters should know, "immigrants" are foreigners who have been admitted to our country as permanent legal residents and who will be eligible to become citizens. Immigrants are able to work legally now. What Bush is proposing is an amnesty and work permits for illegal aliens, lawbreaking foreigners who have violated our immigration laws by sneaking into our country or remaining here after their visas expire.

"Want to Hear That Again?"

NPR interviewed the authors of a recently published book by Richard Perle and David Frum called The End of Evil. It is a conservative perspective on the war on terrorism. But a number of listeners wrote objecting to Mssrs. Perle and Frum appearing on many public radio programs, especially on the same day!

Perle and Frum should send their publicist a bottle of champagne for such effective placement. NPR needs to rethink its ability to co-ordinate the appearance of program guests.

This is not a new problem, according to John Bernier:

About two years ago Todd Mundt, of The Todd Mundt Show (now off the air) had a lengthy interview with a novelist. The next day that novelist appeared on Morning Edition and The Diane Rehm Show. Finally the novelist had 45 minutes on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. This also happened when Bob Edwards celebrated his 20 years at the mic on Morning Edition. Bob was on Fresh Air, Diane Rehm and Todd Mundt all in the same week.

Recently... we had a good 45 minutes on
Talk of the Nation about the "War on Poverty" followed today on Day to Day on the same subject and main guest. Is there an interview coordinator to ensure that NPR listeners are not hearing the same people discussing the same subjects in the same week?

I guess I would like to see better coordination... so we don't get listener fatigue within the week.

Or within the same day.

Programs like Fresh Air afford a longer and more in-depth treatment compared to relatively shorter takes on Morning Edition, Day To Day or All Things Considered.

In the ideal NPR world, where co-ordination is as valued as competition, one program could get the major interview while others might get excerpts from that program. Listeners could be directed to the NPR Web site for the complete interview. That would be a better service than what happens now where the "get" of the day can make NPR sound like "every program for itself."

Mea Culpa

Finally, an apology: In an e-mail to a listener, I dismissed those people who criticize NPR based on information they get from blogs. That e-mail to Professor Ann Little (to whom I apologized) was posted on one of those blogs, www.mediawhoresonline.com. The response from people who read this and other blogs was pretty impressive.

While the tone from some who wrote was rough, I get the point.

Blogs are, as I now appreciate, as legitimate a method of communicating information and opinion as traditional media. I was wrong to suggest that much of political blogging is "astroturfing" (see definition below). Indeed, a recent Pew poll points out that an increasing number of Americans are getting their information from non-traditional sources. That fact has now been made abundantly clear to me.

You were right. I was wrong.

In future, I will pay closer attention to those who feel inclined to contact me, regardless of where they get their information. Political life in the United States is changing and so, it seems, should be how and where political journalism chooses its information.

I also found out what "astroturfing" means:

astroturfing n. The use of paid shills to create the impression of a popular movement, through means like letters to newspapers from soi-disant 'concerned citizens', paid opinion pieces, and the formation of grass-roots lobbying groups that are actually funded by a PR group (astroturf is fake grass; hence the term). This term became common among hackers after it came to light in early 1998 that Microsoft had attempted to use such tactics to forestall the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust action against the company. (The Jargon Dictionary).

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 



   
   
   
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