A REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK : NPR Ombudsman Words matter, but tone and how the words are said often matter even more.


Words matter, but tone and how the words are said often matter even more.

A good example of this is a recent feature that ran on Weekend Edition Saturday (WESAT) about a Baghdad press conference where American and Iraqi journalists got a chance to quiz U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Mukasey had flown there to observe Iraq's new legal system, and NPR Justice correspondent Ari Shapiro went along and later filed two news stories, including an interview with the new attorney general.

But as is the case with most reporters, there is always material left in your notebook that never makes it on air. For this reason, Scott Simon's WESAT often runs a feature known as "Reporter's Notebook." These segments tend to be a correspondent's personal observations and are more essay than news story. Most recently, NPR's Tom Goldman did a moving piece on golfer Arnold Palmer's legacy, and how it feels to have the inexorable aging process erode your talent.

Shapiro's "Reporter's Notebook" set out to describe how a typical press conference works — it doesn't matter where — identifying the types of questioners. There's the attacker (wants to make a point), the rambler (can't get to the point) or the left-fielder, "whose question has nothing to do with the topic at hand."

Shapiro's goal, he told me, was to share with listeners the brave new world for Iraqi journalists who, often for the first time, can openly question high-ranking government officials.

He even interviewed NPR's former Baghdad bureau chief Jamie Tarabay, who explained what a new experience it was for Iraqi journalists to be able not only to ask questions in public, but to ask them of senior American officials.

The piece ended with Shapiro expressing admiration for the Iraqi journalists. "And Jamie reminded me, many of these newly minted journalists are also operating under death threats, risking their lives daily to be part of an emerging free press."

I've been a journalist for almost 30 years covering my share of press briefings, and when I heard the "notebook" on a Saturday morning, I knew what Shapiro was talking about. It wasn't until the emails started pouring in attacking Shapiro for what many called his "dismissive" tone in describing the Iraqi journalists' questions, that I thought twice about a piece I'd enjoyed.

To date, the office of the Ombudsman has received 165 emails criticizing Shapiro since March 4. In a normal week, the Ombudsman's office receives about 350 emails, so 165 is eye-popping. Only there was a reason for the outpouring in this case.

The onslaught was inspired by FAIR, (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) which orchestrated a campaign instructing its constituency to write the Ombudsman:

"Ask the NPR Ombudsman why NPR responded so dismissively and condescendingly to the questions Iraqi journalists posed to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey." FAIR included contact information, a link to the story and a link to a transcript of the Feb. 13 press conference.

FAIR has a left-of-center orientation and generally goes after news organizations for being too cozy with big business or Republicans. In this case, it would appear that FAIR was intent on proving that NPR, in Shapiro's piece, was letting Mukasey off the hook.

FAIR's complaint concerned Shapiro's characterization of a question by one of the Iraqi journalists. Shapiro labeled one long, spoken-through-a-translator question to Mukasey, as "come again?" because it was difficult for the attorney general to follow.

A reporter, who works for U.S.-funded Radio Sawa, asked: "Yesterday the Iraqi government announced that the ability of prosecuting the Iraqi people, the ability of prosecuting the Iraqis —- the American soldiers by the Iraqi people. Do you think your presence has to do with it now, and do you think...?"

In his piece, Shapiro didn't let the tape continue. "I'll save you the whole thing," he said. "But suffice it to say Attorney General Mukasey had a difficult time understanding exactly what the question was driving at. Mukasey diplomatically attributed it to the translator rather than to the journalist."

Mukasey asked the reporter to try again. He did.

"Yesterday, the Iraqi government announced certain decisions," the translation of the reporter's question continued. "And one of them, a resolution, one of them states that it's possible to prosecute the American soldiers in the —- it's possible to prosecute the American soldiers by the Iraqi citizens. Is it one of the aims — of the procedures, the things that you have done while your visit here, or one of the outcomes of your visit here?"

Shapiro's comment about this question, in his piece, was: "On the second go-around, it became clear that a good translation would not help this question."

Listening again to the two-minute piece, I can see how listeners might perceive Shapiro's tone as flip. While Shapiro said that was not his intention, and I'm certain it wasn't, it's important when NPR editors and reporters are editing a piece to think about tone and how the listener might hear something differently than it was intended.

FAIR sent Shapiro an email asking him about his Feb. 23 "notebook" piece before the New York-based group began its campaign. Shapiro responded on March 2 explaining his admiration for the Iraqi press corp.

But that didn't make it into FAIR's March 4 action alert.

"I was disappointed in your decision not to quote my response to your email in FAIR's column about my story on Weekend Edition," Shapiro emailed FAIR. "I think it is important that listeners be able to express, and publish if they wish, their concerns about what they hear on NPR. I find that a good-faith dialogue is generally the most productive way to address those concerns. It was in that spirit of good faith that I responded to your initial email."

While FAIR might have a point that the piece could have been better produced to achieve the respect intended for Iraqi journalists, how fair is it to not include Shapiro's response?