Oleksiy Maksymenko/Getty Images/All Canada Photos
Oleksiy Maksymenko/Getty Images/All Canada Photos
Listeners who tuned in to All Things Considered Wednesday may have heard a strangely vague on-air story retraction that raised as many questions as it answered — especially for those who didn't hear the original story on April 3.
Here's what was said:
"Now, we need to tell you about some mistakes made by NPR in a story that aired last week.
We reported about a man who says he spent $100,000 to have things that were written about him removed from Google search results.
NPR has retracted that story because it did not meet our standards. In the report, we referred to one individual as the 'author' of a website that another person said had posted defamatory information about him.
We also described the author's motivation as vindictive. But NPR did not contact the alleged author and, upon review, NPR cannot say for certain who the author or authors were, or what their motivation was.
In fact, in court proceedings, the people cited as the authors were only identified by initials, and we have not been able to establish their identities. In addition, our account made it sound as if the website targeted a single individual.
That website, though, included information and commentary about at least 12 other people.
The reporting mistakes we made substantially undercut the story and have led us to remove it from NPR's digital platforms."
The retraction included no names and very few identifying details from the original piece. (I'm not going to either, as parts of the backstory described in the original report have not been substantiated one way or the other.)
The on-air statement, which is repeated in the online editor's note with only a bit more elaboration, is both transparent and ambiguous. Likewise, I have gotten answers to some questions and not others.
These were not just "mistakes," as NPR said on air; they were embarrassing mistakes. The initial error was by the reporter, Aarti Shahani, who did not seek comment from the individual identified in the story as the website's author. Three editors saw the piece and did not raise questions either.
Christopher Turpin, who is NPR's acting senior vice president for news and editorial director, is the newsroom executive who was authorized to discuss the situation.
"Obviously, it's one of the most basic things in our profession, that we gather responses from the people who are the subject of criticism," he told me.
Why did the editors not catch such a fundamental mistake? Turpin said: "It just wasn't caught. It should have been caught. It's as simple as that." He added, "I think the editors who looked at this are nonplussed as to how they missed it."
Shahani told me by email: "I strive to do accountability journalism in Silicon Valley. This particular story was focused on the power of Google. I feel terrible that in the process of reporting, we missed a key step."
NPR learned of the mistake via an email from someone who said he was representing the person NPR had identified as the "author."
NPR's standard procedure in cases of errors is to make a correction, not remove a story entirely, as was done in this case. Even plagiarized material is left online with a prominent note. So yes, there's an obvious irony here, given that the initial story was about someone who had battled to get material about himself taken offline.
Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, would not comment on the retraction. But he told me he could not recall another retraction since he joined NPR in 2009. (We did turn up a 2002 story that was eventually taken out of distribution, following a previous Ombudsman's column.)
Turpin said, "In order to fix the problems, we would have essentially had to construct a different story," a process that he said would have been "intellectually dishonest. There comes a point that you can't fix a story appropriately." He said the decision was not made lightly; "we believe strongly we don't want to disappear material for any reason if we can possibly keep from taking it down."
He would not comment on whether there has been or will be disciplinary action taken: "It's a personnel matter." (Shahani, an NPR tech reporter based in Silicon Valley, would normally have covered Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's congressional testimony this week. Turpin said the editors decided that it was more important to "focus on getting to the bottom of the issues with this particular story.")
I asked Turpin if there would be procedural changes as a result of this error. It's the second befuddling gaffe in the last two weeks, following NPR's similarly inexplicable mistake on Good Friday mischaracterizing Christian beliefs about Easter.
I argued that the Easter episode was more evidence that NPR needs more editors in the newsroom. Turpin said this case is not the same, in that it does not point to a need for new safeguards or more personnel (although he agreed NPR needs more newsroom editors).
"This has happened very rarely," Turpin said. "On the whole we have good editing. What I think is frustrating about the mistakes here is that it was not for a shortage of editing. This is a painful reminder that we need to double down, ask the most basic questions."
This is also the second story I've written about in recent months where more basic due diligence should have been exercised much earlier in the process. The first ran in 2012.
The editor's note that now replaces the April 3 story says: "We will continue to report about the issue of privacy in the digital age. As we do, we will work hard to make sure the reports live up to our promise to produce content that meets 'the highest standards of public service in journalism.'"
NPR did the right thing in retracting a story that clearly did not meet its journalistic standards. But these kinds of unforced errors damage credibility at a time when newsrooms are battling mightily to prove their trustworthiness. NPR can't afford to make these kinds of mistakes.