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NPR's Dick Cheney Interview: 'Not Tough Enough,' Say Some

January 28, 2004

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


When NPR's Juan Williams interviewed Vice President Cheney on Morning Edition last week, many listeners hoped to hear a "knock-out" punch. When they didn't hear it, they ran to their computers to protest.

The Cheney interview was broadcast on Thursday, Jan. 22. It was the most in-depth interview the vice president has given any broadcast news organization for some time. It ran for eight minutes -- a long interview even by NPR news standards. The vice president's staff allowed NPR only 10 minutes to conduct this interview.

Williams asked a number of questions about when elections would be held in Iraq, about why the administration is now in favor of U.N. involvement in Iraq, about the administration's belief that weapons of mass destruction will still be found, about whether the vice president considers the war a failure of U.S. intelligence and about why the administration still believes there was a Saddam-al Qaeda connection.

It was an astonishing interview, as much for what the vice president said as for what he did not say. Cheney remains convinced of the rightness of the war in Iraq even as President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell are distancing themselves from the early justifications. The complete audio can be found on the NPR Web site.

"You Let Him Get Away!"

The day the interview aired, e-mails of protest began to arrive. Some examples:

I'm thoroughly disappointed in Mr. Williams for letting this propaganda pass him right by without the slightest of challenge, and I'm disappointed in NPR for airing the piece without providing listeners with the balance of truth. -- Russell Lachelt

It seems to me that it would have been appropriate to have challenged Vice President Cheney's dubious claims about Iraq. I want to encourage
Morning Edition to evaluate the accuracy of Mr. Cheney's statement in an upcoming broadcast... the sooner the better. -- Pamela Campoy

Not everyone thought the interview missed the mark:

I heard the interview, and I thought Juan Williams did a good job of letting Cheney speak for himself -- simply getting him on record making clearly outrageous statements was sufficient to leave me flabbergasted as I listened that morning. -- Therese Foote

Bruce Drake is the vice president of news at NPR. He says that Williams did challenge Cheney in the interview:

There were eight questions that aired in the Juan Williams interview with Vice President Cheney. In six of them, Juan pressed Cheney on whether his past views and assertions about Iraq had stood the test of what we know now, or about the solidity of the administration's case against Iraq.

E-mails of complaint were encouraged by an organization called FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). Not all the e-mails on this subject can be assumed to be FAIR-generated, but many were.

While the interview may not have achieved the argumentative tone that some listeners would have liked, it was for the most part, a solid interview. Journalism, like politics, can also be described as a marathon, not a sprint. NPR coverage can be judged by single interviews; it can and should also be judged by what else it does in other reports. NPR has reported on the role of Halliburton in the reconstruction of Iraq and of Vice President Cheney's past and continuing associations with the company.

Nonetheless, there was at least one place in the interview where many listeners wanted to hear more on how Cheney can still believe that weapons will be found:

WILLIAMS: You were also among the most confident of any in the administration that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. Has the administration officially given up on finding any weapons of mass destruction?

Vice Pres. CHENEY: No, we haven't, Juan. I believe they had programs designed to produce weapons of mass destruction. We still don't know the whole extent of what they did have. It's gonna take some additional, considerable period of time in order to look in all of the cubby holes and the ammo dumps and all the places in Iraq where you might expect to find something like that.

The NPR vs. BBC Interview Style?

NPR interviews have been accused in the past for being too soft. I have made that criticism myself. In the Cheney interview, I thought that the tone was right overall and that Williams was asking tough questions of a high administration official who rarely gives interviews and who is known for being less than candid with the press.

But the hundreds of responses to the interview indicate that some listeners want NPR to be much more aggressive, especially when it comes to the Bush administration's policies.

Many asked why NPR is not more like the BBC. However the "in-your-face" interview style as practiced by the BBC ("Oh come on Prime Minister. Do you really expect anyone to believe that?") is not done on NPR and American political interviews -- for a number of journalistic, cultural and stylistic reasons that are probably good subjects for a future column.

That doesn't mean that NPR should let a guest get away with stating something clearly outrageous or untrue. Juan Williams' assignment was to get the story of whether the administration had retreated from its original policies.

In my opinion, Williams got that story.

But tough follow-up questions are always useful -- even essential when it comes to holding elected officials to account.

FAIR's suggestion that Morning Edition devote some time to further investigation of Cheney's statements from that interview would clearly be a service to the listeners and a good follow-up to this interview.

Can Interviews Be Both Civil and Tough?

Over the past months I have noticed a tougher, more skeptical tone on the part of NPR interviewers. Liane Hansen's interview on Weekend Edition Sunday with former weapons inspector David Kay is a good example. Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation and Steve Inskeep on Weekend All Things Considered also come to mind. This is a trend that should be encouraged. Good interviews can and must be both civil and tough.

But critics of the Cheney interview clearly wanted more of the latter.

The Iowa Yell

Some listeners have also been critical of NPR for the number of times it aired the concession speech, and the now-notorious yell, by Howard Dean after his third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses.

Aaron Gillies writes:

In light of this, I ask you to review the coverage that NPR made of Howard Dean's post-Iowa rally speech this last week, coverage that contained, in part, repeated an out-of-context airplay of audio from a television news feed that provided an inaccurate account of both the rally and the speech. A complete version of the speech, in which not only Howard Dean but also the audience is on microphone is available here:

http://www.idiomstudio.com/

Louise Legun writes:

I am asking that NPR use fair journalism in its coverage of the Democratic presidential campaign by refusing to deride Dr. Dean as many of the network television channels and newspapers have been doing over the past month. Please allow the American public to make up its own mind as to who will be the best candidate to run against George Bush. By vilifying Howard Dean, the news media is not doing its job -- that is to report the news.

By my count, the "yell" was heard and discussed at least nine times in two days on different NPR news programs and newscasts, less than cable television, but a lot nonetheless. Dean and the others are still engaged in the critical discussion over important political ideas. For NPR to continue to air the yell is beginning to feel like a disservice to its listeners. In my opinion, it smacks of journalistic schadenfreude.

Enough already.

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 



   
   
   
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