Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and NPR : NPR Public Editor In this period around Halloween and election, the ghost of Dr. Heisenberg must be floating around NPR since there were a number of small journalistic events that some listeners worried might significantly alter the future.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and NPR

NPR's Ari Shapiro recently began a report about the expected flood of lawyers in post-election Florida by stating:

In quantum physics, there's a theory called Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. It more or less says that you can't observe something without changing it.

The noted German physicist also stated, "In chaos theory... the future of large and complex systems is unpredictable because it can be altered by small events. "

In this period around Halloween and election, the ghost of Dr. Heisenberg must be floating around NPR, since there were a number of small journalistic events that some listeners worried might significantly alter the future.

Coincidence or…?

On Oct. 29, Morning Edition aired another in a series of conversations between NPR's Cokie Roberts and living presidents on the subject of constitutional powers.

Previous interviews have been with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The last conversation before the election was with former President George H.W. Bush. Airing it four days before the election provoked a number of angry e-mails such as this one from listener Chris Cauble:

Was there any other reason to air the interview with George H. W. Bush four days before the presidential election except to boost the chances of his son being reelected? You conducted the presidential interviews in 2003, and yet you deliberately chose to end the series on the eve of the 2004 election with the father of one of the candidates, instead of the more neutral choice of Ford or Carter. Either you are biased for Bush, or you have incredibly poor judgment. Either way, I am very disappointed in NPR.

Ellen McDonnell is Morning Edition's executive producer. She says the timing had nothing to do with the election. "It's a series produced by WHYY in Philadelphia, the Annenberg Center and NPR and it is airing on PBS in October. We had to run the interviews before the election." McDonnell insists that Morning Edition aired the interviews as soon as they came available. Ex-President Bush's conversation with Cokie Roberts was the last one to be made ready.

'No Political Connection'

McDonnell also insists that sometimes stories have no political connection and she is adamant that the intention was simply to inform NPR listeners.

I agree with these listeners. Timing, especially in a close election, does count in politics. Even if there was no intention to present an apparently kindler, gentler side of the Bush family, many listeners saw that as its purpose. An interview with former President Carter would be just as objectionable -- if Amy Carter were running for president.

Any Conservatives on Day To Day?

Another unintended consequence for NPR was when the on-line magazine Slate announced that, of its 49 employees, 45 planned to vote for Kerry.

Newspaper editorial endorsements for candidates are nothing new.

But NPR's Day To Day has an editorial association with Slate. Slate journalists go on NPR in order to be openly partisan in an edgy, hip sort of way as befits the younger, edgier people who work for Slate and who, presumably, might also listen to Day To Day.

But that announcement caught many listeners by surprise, including Todd Heinrich:

NPR's partnership with Slate should be troubling to us all; Journalists, even the excellent ones at NPR and Slate cannot pretend their personal beliefs do not color their reporting.

Considering that roughly 50 percent of voters will vote for Bush, the reporters at Slate do not reflect, nor can they relate to the American electorate.

Day To Day's host Alex Chadwick interviewed Slate editor Jacob Weisberg to explain his magazine's unexpected burst of editorial candor:

CHADWICK: But aren't journalists supposed to keep that kind of information private so we can be seen as objective?

WEISBERG: That is the way it works at most objective news organizations; NPR being a very good example. Now we're much more like the editorial page of a newspaper. There's opinion in Slate, as you often point out when our contributors appear on your show. I think in opinion journalism -- there's a very big difference between bias and opinion. We are opinionated, but we try very hard not to be biased or unfair. And it seems to me by letting people know where we stand, we allow them to judge that better for themselves.

That may be fine for Slate, but more problematic for NPR. Other news organizations find it difficult to resist the temptation to blend opinion and fact-based reporting. NPR has, in my opinion, an affirmative obligation to make it clear to the listeners what is reporting and what is opinion. Many listeners expect NPR to know the difference and to keep a clear separation between the two. Will Day To Day and other NPR programs now feel obliged to consort with conservatives in order to maintain its balance? I am not sure how this best serves the listeners.

Chaos Theory for Consumers?

Finally, an example of chaos theory in practice: on Morning Edition on Thursday Oct. 21, a story on obesity in America interviewed Rick Berman, who was described as the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Morning Edition quoted Berman this way:

He says it's a waste of time to try to modify people's behavior by using what he calls silly rules and regulations. He takes issue with so-called snack and soda taxes, pharmaceutical companies' marketing their obesity drugs and civil lawsuits.

An alert listener in Atlanta, Hope Winsborough, notes that:

... nowhere in the story was it mentioned that this "grassroots" organization is a front group for the restaurant, tobacco and alcoholic beverage industries.

Their Web site clearly states: "The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit coalition of restaurants, food companies, and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices." Unfortunately, the "consumers" group interested in preserving "choice" is not that interested in public health. Any reporter could easily have learned more about this group.

Professor Heisenberg would have felt quite at home last week at NPR.

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