Mailbag: Interviews That Hit And Missed The Mark : NPR Ombudsman Listeners praise fact-checking in one interview, criticize lack of pushback in another.
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Mailbag: Interviews That Hit And Missed The Mark

In this week's Mailbag: praise for the way Morning Edition has been bundling fact-checking with its live interviews and questions about an All Things Considered interview with a CIA psychologist.

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A New Way To Fact Check

Back in February, I wrote a column looking at what I (and many listeners) thought was a serious problem: how the mechanics of NPR's live radio interviews with newsmakers were leading to the spread of misinformation. In sum: If a host conducting a live interview did not catch, in the moment, a misstatement (deliberate or otherwise) by a guest, then that misinformation was disseminated with no easy correction.

Several months after I flagged this as an issue, Morning Edition adopted a new model for some of its live interviews with politicians and newsmakers. Now, some interviews are followed by an additional live interview with an NPR beat reporter, who can, if necessary, fact-check the politicians (finding problems if there are any, and other times adding context). As listener Slaton Anthony, of Mount Vernon, Iowa, recently wrote to my office:

"I heard for the first time today, a news organization, in real time, fact check a political or elected official's statements in a way that was effective, simple, non-confrontational and added to the knowledge base of the listener. Morning Edition did not put the interviewer in the position of both fact checking the interviewee's statements and mentally phrasing the next question. A second factual reporter did that job and did it well."

Praising the format, he added: "I hope that this approach is not an anomaly."

Anthony was referring to this interview about Iran's nuclear program with Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, which was followed by a brief conversation with Peter Kenyon, an NPR correspondent who covered the deal.

The interviews may have been the first time the listener heard the format, but Morning Edition has, in fact, been using it for at least a couple of months, such as in this interview with Newt Gingrich or this one following an interview with Iowa's health insurance commissioner.

There's nothing that will replace a well-prepared host who pushes back against a misstatement when it happens or asks for a clarification. But hosts can't be expected to know everything. Of course, these fact-checking follow-ups should be used consistently across the political spectrum. And interviewees should not feel that they have not been given a chance to defend themselves with the later fact checks. With these caveats, I agree with Anthony; Morning Edition has found what can be an effective solution to a potential problem, since it keeps the facts and context in a bundle with the original interview.

The Why Behind Whistleblowers

Jesselyn Radack, director of the Whistleblower & Source Protection Program at Expose Facts, which calls itself a journalistic nonprofit that promotes whistleblowing, wrote my office with criticisms of Monday's All Things Considered interview with Ursula Wilder, a CIA psychologist, about the psychology of espionage and leaking.

The organization subsequently posted the letter online, so I won't recap the whole thing here. But I'd highlight this portion:

"The segment started off with a montage of disparaging quotes and government talking points promoting a dubious assumption that conflates public-interest whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Reality Winner with palace-intrigue political leakers and even traitors. It goes on to provide a platform for Ms. Wilder to diagnose whistleblowers — without evidence — of 'psychopathy, narcissism and immaturity'."

Radack questioned why Wilder was given a platform at all. I thought that was self-explanatory: The CIA recently posted an article she wrote on the topic.

But I did find it problematic that Mary Louise Kelly, who conducted the interview, did not challenge Wilder. I asked All Things Considered to respond, and here's what Kelly had to say:

"The point of the conversation was to feature a vantage point we usually don't hear in the conversation about leaks: a CIA psychologist who comes at the subject from a clinical background, and with the perspective of an intelligence insider.

In hindsight, I do wish I'd asked a question pointing out that not everyone who leaks has mental health issues. Some are well-intentioned whistleblowers. Others may be mad at their bosses. Or looking for money... but perfectly rational as they do so.

The Snowden question was intended to introduce one real-life example of an intelligence insider who chose to leak classified info. We didn't pass judgment one way or the other on his motives, or suggest that he slotted into one of Dr. Wilder's categories. But yes, I do get — and regret — that it could be interpreted that way. Grateful for people listening carefully, and holding us to account, and reminding us that the precise words we choose in asking questions matter."

I don't have anything to add to that thoughtful self-critique, except to agree. But I'd add one other minor point about NPR's presentation of the interview on its website. The online-only description leading into the article ("But how do you provide mental health services to patients who are professionally trained in the art of deception?") is not a reflection in any way of the actual interview. These kinds of errors in the introductions are an ongoing challenge for NPR and need attention.