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When NPR Crosses the Line: What Is Acceptable Good Taste?

February 25, 2004

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


NPR has a reputation for restraint, good taste and for doing the right -- even the politically correct -- thing. But not last week, according to a number of listeners. They objected to two things: One was a satire on All Things Considered. The other was an underwriting message from Wal-Mart.

First, the satire.

Satirizing "The Passion"

The satire that aired on Thursday, Feb. 19 Satire: Focus Group on Gibson's 'Passion' involved Mel Gibson's film The Passion of The Christ, a controversial and heavily promoted film that many say may exacerbate religious tensions.

The satire was supposed to illustrate how Hollywood, at its most crass, might have changed the film's story to make it more commercially acceptable.

It was designed to be a comment on the culture of Hollywood, not on Christianity, according to the producers.

Satire, is by its nature, supposed to be somewhat offensive. The Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as: A work or composition in prose or (orig.) verse which (usu. humorously) exposes prevailing vices or follies or ridicules an (esp. prominent) individual; a lampoon; a performance or broadcast of a similar nature.

If the goal of the satire was to offend, it may have succeeded better than its producers had hoped.

I found nothing humorous in Jesus needing a funny "sidekick" disciple to lighten things up a bit. Please... we are talking about the trial, ridicule, humiliation and slow methodical killing of God's Son in human form. What could you be thinking was humorous about this? I do not remember NPR having "funny" satires of focus groups offering suggestions on the movie Schindler's List or Amistad on the extermination of millions of Jews or enslaving hundreds of Africans.

Robert Layfield

And from John Zubialde, from Norman, Okla.:

As a long-time listener to NPR, I was truly disheartened when I heard your satire on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." What it brought to mind was a quote from Thomas Carlyle that reads: "If Jesus were to come today, people would not crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it."

Limits to Satire?

There are many so-called "third rails" in American life. Attempts to deal with issues such as race, sexuality and religion are often considered to be in this category. Poking fun at religion can indeed be shocking.

All Things Considered's attempt to spoof how Hollywood might deal with the death of Jesus may have been an example of a third rail. Whether it was a successful satire is a subjective judgment for each listener to make.

Unlike other countries, where religion is a source of endless amusement (Monty Python's Life of Brian comes to mind), the journalistic tweaking of organized religion in the United States is often beyond the pale of what is acceptable.

Can NPR Listeners Take It?

NPR listeners are considered one of the most mature and sophisticated of all audiences. They usually are able to take content that might not be acceptable in other media. This satire, whether effective or not, evoked some strong reactions. While the aim, I believe, was not to offend, it was designed to shock.

I hope ATC will not stop commissioning satires -- they are often a perfectly good way to portray complex issues. At the same time, listeners should know that the aim of satire is not to offend them personally. But NPR should not be surprised when some listeners find this type of satire to be hurtful.

Offended By Wal-Mart

A series of underwriting messages from Wal-Mart has also produced a negative reaction from some listeners.

They particularly objected to the phrasing of the underwriting message:

"Wal-Mart, committed to providing its associates a variety of career paths, training resources and advancement opportunities. Information at walmartstores.com."

That 10-second underwriting message provoked many strong responses such as this one from James Kelly:

I am shocked and dismayed that NPR would allow a message such as was presented by Wal-Mart as "corporate information," which was more propaganda and "spin" than an actual message. It may be acceptable from a legal and FTC standpoint, however it paints a very poor image of what NPR will allow as "public messages" and gives a false indication that NPR will accept anything for a corporate sponsorship.

NPR's Non-commercial Public Service Mission

NPR has responded with a message that reads, in part:

NPR is very conscious of our non-commercial, public service mission, and our responsibility as a journalistic enterprise. We have in place extensive processes to ensure that the charitable support that we receive from foundations, corporations or individuals in no way affects our reporting. You will hear the same careful, accurate reporting on the companies and individuals who support us as you would on any other topic.

But that was not the point, said some listeners.

They support public radio, in part, because of an image of public radio that eschews support from businesses such as Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has been embroiled in anti-union controversies, accusations about its low-paid workers, the hiring of undocumented workers and the homogenizing effect of Wal-Mart in smaller communities. To its credit, NPR has reported this on a number of occasions. Some listeners wonder if Wal-Mart was motivated to purchase underwriting on NPR in an attempt to counteract that reporting.

In many of the e-mails I received, there is a very clear understanding of the need for underwriting. Listeners accept that underwriting is an essential element in the continued service for all of public radio. But they also expect that NPR's commitment to balanced journalism also be reflected in the choice of underwriters and in the underwriting messages themselves. Wal-Mart symbolizes values that some listeners believe to be antithetical to the values of public radio.

As Roseanne Gallagher wrote:

What a disappointment! Maybe next it will be Halliburton.

There is no question that the Wal-Mart underwriting changes how NPR is perceived for many listeners. NPR's protestations that the underwriting changes nothing essential sound a little nervous to me.

One way that NPR could prove that underwriting has no effect on its integrity is for NPR to produce more hard-hitting interviews, more investigative reporting and yes, even more scandalizing satires.

But that's the subject for a future column.

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 



   
   
   
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