When Balanced Reporting Is Biased : NPR Public Editor Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman, responds to recent comments from listeners regarding NPR's coverage of the presidential candidates, on-air promos for Bush-Kerry debate coverage, and an on-air misquote of Sen. John Kerry's stance on gaining international cooperation for military actions such as the war in Iraq.

When Balanced Reporting Is Biased

All political campaigns have their rituals, and the media's part in that tradition is to follow the leaders wherever they go and report what they say.

But what if one candidate cuts back on daily appearances, leaving the media terrain to his opponent? The media clearly has a duty not to favor one candidate. But is the media obliged to seek out a spokesperson in lieu of the absent candidate? If that happens, is the media inadvertently helping the absent candidate to campaign?

That is the dilemma that faces NPR on those days when President Bush continues his hectic campaign pace with as many as five appearances a day. Senator Kerry’s campaign, on the other hand, has "gone dark" a number of times over the past weeks as he left the campaign to get some rest and prep for the debates.

That gives some listeners the impression that NPR is "overreporting" the Bush campaign to the detriment of the Kerry campaign.

Beth Donovan is NPR's elections editor. She thinks that NPR's obligation is to report the news -- as it happens -- and not to assist either candidate.

"Obviously if one candidate made a charge that requires a response from the other side, we'll get it," she said. "But on a daily basis, our job is to report the news from the campaign trail."

Senator Kerry has taken more days away from the campaign than has President Bush.

This happened during the 2000 campaign, when Al Gore absented himself for a few days at a time, leaving then-Governor Bush to flood the airwaves and the front pages.

Listeners are particularly sensitive to those absences and wish that NPR would at least note Kerry's absence in some way.

'Promos' for the Debates or for the Candidates?

Listeners also objected to the NPR "promos" that were heard before the candidates' debates.

These 30-second promos included audio from either Bush or Kerry. Their purpose was to let the listeners know that NPR would be broadcasting the debates. But they seemed to make some listeners nervous. There may have been an equal number of "Bush promos" and "Kerry promos." But if listeners didn't hear promos for both candidates -- that is, if they missed a few -- they could have been left thinking that the promos sounded more like campaign promotions than program promotions. Since most listeners rarely heard both Kerry and Bush, I tend to agree that in this case the promos didn't work.

Letting the Listeners Know

NPR has reported extensively from the campaign trails. It has done, in my opinion, a good job in comparing the candidates and their platforms. The NPR Web site has assembled these features (see links below), which complement the daily developments from the campaign trail. Listeners will be even better served if, in the last weeks of the campaign, the website gives these stories more prominence.

NPR has also given airtime to the candidates by airing "stump speeches" so that listeners can hear unmediated statements from the presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

The stump speech by Vice President Cheney that aired on All Things Considered elicited this message from a listener to member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.:

This report seemed very one-sided. If mention were made of when equal time would be given to the other side, I wouldn't have minded the report and wouldn't have had to make this phone call. It would be helpful to tell listeners when the other side is scheduled to be heard.

Robert Siegel of All Things Considered did say that other stump speeches would be aired. But giving a specific date and candidate would have calmed the concerns of this and other listeners.

Only Makes It Worse...

Some listeners were upset by NPR's Juan Williams, who misquoted Senator Kerry on Morning Edition on Oct. 10:

WILLIAMS: I think he's going to go back to some of the things that Senator Kerry had to say during his debate session where he talked about getting global consent for America to take preemptive action.

A few days later, the program tried to correct the record.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: Now for that story that prompted us to do today's follow-up interview. Earlier this week when Juan Williams and I talked about the vice-presidential debate, he paraphrased Senator Kerry from the first debate, when John Kerry talked about the role of the international community during a time of war. Juan said that Kerry, quote, "talked about getting global consent for America to take preemptive action." Many of you pointed out that the word 'consent' was Juan's, not Kerry's. Mary Krens writes, "I strongly object to Mr. Williams repeating the Bush campaign's spin and talking as if this was what Kerry said." Here is what Senator Kerry said during last week's debate:


Senator JOHN KERRY (Democratic Presidential Nominee): No president through all of American history has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it, Jim, you've got to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

Immediately after this correction, Morning Edition compounded its initial error -- or so many thought -- by airing an interview with Robert Kagan. Some listeners consider Kagan, a senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a "hawk" on Iraq.

Even though Mr. Kagan's specific remarks to Renee Montagne were, in my opinion, non-controversial, the very fact that he was asked to comment on Kerry's position was seen as a neutering of the correction of Juan Williams' statement.

Alex Pritchard from Fairbanks, Alaska, writes:

I was amazed to hear your story "clarifying" Juan Williams’s earlier error regarding John Kerry's use of a global test. Your follow-up story went on to describe what the two candidates might do if we knew a foreign government posed a serious threat to the U.S. -- this is not what is in question. The pertinent question is did Iraq pose a serious threat that justified a preemptive attack?

Finally, a series of consistent emails keeps asking, "When will NPR look at the so-called Third Party candidates?" A good question, for which there must be an answer -- it's hoped before Nov. 2.

What I 'Mean' to Say

A correction about last week's column:

Many listeners pointed out that in my discussion of the "innumerates" among us, I said that many journalists "didn't know the difference between average and mean." I should have included myself, since a number (more than two) of statisticians wrote to tell me that those concepts are the same. I should have cited the difference between average and median.