Putting the Election and Arafat to Rest : NPR Public Editor For some listeners, disputes over NPR's election coverage and its Middle East reporting did not end with the re-election of President Bush or with the death of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
NPR logo Putting the Election and Arafat to Rest

Putting the Election and Arafat to Rest

For some listeners, disputes over NPR's election coverage and its Middle East reporting did not end with the reelection of President Bush or with the death of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

About the election results, many listeners object to NPR's use of the term "mandate" to describe the Republican and presidential election outcomes.

Election Mandate or Bare Majority?

Listener George Moxley says there are good reasons for NPR not to dub the election result as a mandate:

Consider these four facts:

Bush's popular vote win was the smallest since 1976.

Bush won more votes than any presidential candidate in U.S. history, but his opponent also had more votes than [any] candidate in history prior to 2004. More voters voted against Bush than against any other presidential candidate.

Bush had the narrowest win for a sitting president since 1916.

Bush had the narrowest win (by percentage) for any wartime incumbent president in U.S. history.

So, for pity's sakes, quit repeating that tripe about Bush having a mandate. He would like to and that is why he spins it that way, but he does not. You only encourage the untruth when you repeat it.

Other listeners, encouraged by Internet "blog" rumors and by an MSNBC report, urged NPR to investigate allegations of election fraud that, they claimed, illegally gave the election to the Republicans.

Election Fraud or Blog-Inspired Anxieties?

From Gary Swanson-Davies:

I'm not sure if these stories are true or false but I am concerned that no one in the mainstream media seems to be discussing these issues, either to say they need to be looked at or to say that after investigating the claims there's no basis for them.

NPR's Pam Fessler did look into the allegations of fraud and discussed them with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel on Nov. 10. Fessler's conclusion? The Scottish verdict: Not proven. Yes, there were problems, Fessler says, but overall there's just not enough evidence to indicate fraud.

Siegel asked why the rumors of fraud remained so persistent.

FESSLER: Well, I think it shows that there's still a lot of political division and distrust after the 2000 elections. And to some extent, it's understandable; we did have some problems in this year's election: long lines, problems with registration lists. And there are a lot of people who still have concerns about electronic voting equipment.

That report also evoked another outpouring of e-mail. Many listeners were angry that NPR had refused to confirm their worst fears. In my opinion, Fessler and NPR handled the story appropriately and with a measured analysis. But few of the listeners who wrote were in the mood for caution.

One of the more even-handed responses to Fessler's report came from Dan Murphy:

Thank you for acknowledging the interest among the left on the issue of possible fraud in the election. The story debunked some of the myths that have floated around on the Internet, and they deserved to be debunked. In the interest of fairness, the story could have mentioned more of the acknowledged problems that have truthfully occurred, such as the documented extra votes in Ohio, the missing votes in North Carolina, and the mess in Nebraska to name but a few. Does any of this constitute fraud? Of course not. Fraud has not been proven, and therefore that term should not be tossed around…Whether or not our elections are fraudulent, I don't think anyone would be hurt by the media being a little less trusting. If the elections are squeaky clean, then everyone will be reassured. I don't think I can overstate the importance of what the media would be accomplishing if they discovered dirty elections.

Assessing Arafat

Arafat's death was also an occasion for pointing out what some say is NPR's incomplete reporting on Arafat's legacy.

The main obituary, aired on Morning Edition on Nov. 11, was by Jennifer Ludden, once NPR's correspondent in the Middle East and now an NPR reporter and host based in Washington, D.C.

Some listeners accused NPR (yet again) of harboring pro-Palestinian sentiments in its reporting and pointed to the Arafat obit as proof of NPR's bias.

The Judgment of History or Daily Journalism?

These critics insist that the obit avoided the harsher judgments of history. I thought the report was comprehensive but unclear about a few things: When did Arafat begin organizing his guerilla movement (was it before the 1967 war or after?); was he born in Jerusalem or Cairo and did Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confine Arafat to his bunker in Ramallah or did Arafat confine himself to demonstrate the plight of the Palestinians?

Arafat was a master of political symbolism throughout his life. Trying to write a neutral obit -- one based on the perceptions and myths of his supporters (Arafat as hero-victim) and of his detractors (Arafat as duplicitous terrorist) -- made Ludden's job very difficult. Often journalism is about creating categories and pigeonholes in which we can comfortably fit our subjects. Arafat -- a chimerical character to the end –- frequently slipped from the grasp of journalists, from NPR and everywhere else.

A Blogger Is 'Shocked... Shocked...'

Again, a claim that NPR liberals are at it again. This time a San Francisco blogger, Michael Petrelis (see Web Resources below) says six (out of about 700) NPR employees donated money to the Kerry campaign in violation of NPR's own ethics guide.

That ethics guide states only NPR News employees are subject to restrictions on their political activities. Of the six named by the blog, two are in News. One employee gave the money before the ethics guide came into effect earlier this year. The other was warned not to do it again.

But it hardly matters that it was "only" two news employees. The ethics guide states that NPR journalists have an obligation to refrain from making political statements (giving money is, of course, a statement, just as much as writing op-ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times, or opining on FOX News) if it looks like they are doing so with the blessing of the company that employs them.

NPR management also has an obligation to enforce its own ethics guide, or why bother having one at all?

Web Resources