White House Reporting: Not Even a Hint of Skepticism? : NPR Public Editor Bernard Kerik's rapid rise and fall, as recounted by NPR, was for some listeners a case of rewriting White House press releases.
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White House Reporting: Not Even a Hint of Skepticism?

Bernard Kerik's rapid rise and fall as recounted by NPR was for some listeners, like Carmen Ferguson, a case of rewriting White House press releases. Said Ferguson:

I listened to the Kerik report and couldn't believe my ears -- the fawning and lack of critical investigating for Bush's pick [for Homeland Security chief]. I had already read many things about Kerik's history and problems -- financial, management, personal -- that led me to conclude that he was not a good candidate. I believe that the information I read was available to your reporters as well. ... Perhaps it would be useful if your reporters spent more time on the Internet than on repeating press releases from the government.

Laudatory, Not Reportorial

Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner, was nominated to replace Tom Ridge as secretary of Homeland Security. NPR (and most other media) seemed to give him a hero's welcome.

On All Things Considered:

· Kerik is a very strong supporter of President Bush. In fact, he gave a prime-time speech at the Republican convention this past summer. He is also a close friend and work associate of [former] New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He's credited with reducing violence in New York jails...

· Kerik is also a loyal supporter of the president. At the administration's request, he spent several months last year helping Iraq rebuild its police force. This year, he went out on the campaign trail, arguing that President Bush's counterterrorism policies would be far more effective than those of John Kerry.

On Morning Edition:

· [Kerik] had taken over after a series of high-profile racial shootings had really soured relations between the police and the community, but he has a real street-cop sensibility. He used to go out and make his own arrests. And as corrections commissioner, he was a little more controversial.

Nowhere in any of the 12 initial NPR reports on Bernard Kerik was there ever any suggestion of what those controversies might be.

Now That He's Gone...

Finally, after Kerik had withdrawn his nomination, NPR's Don Gonyea had this to say on Weekend Edition Saturday:

… there were already investigations into [Kerik's] private life after he left the New York City Police Department. He's on the board of a company that sells Tasers, stun guns, and recently made more than $6 million when he exercised stock options. That's a company that has a contract with the Homeland Security Department. There are also questions about his tenure in Iraq. He worked for the Coalition Authority for 3 1/2 months after the war helping to train Iraqi police officers, an Iraqi police force, and he left early. He left after only 3 1/2 months, and there are plenty of reports that he ruffled feathers, that he wasn't as effective there as he could have been.

That came too late. In the rush to proclaim Kerik the next secretary of Homeland Security, NPR sounded as though it were reporting on behalf of the White House, not about the White House.

On-Air Corrections?

On Saturday, Dec. 11, Daniel Schorr and Scott Simon engaged in their weekly assessment of the news. On the question of whether the military was sufficiently prepared for combat, Schorr said: "…we're talking here about the war in Iraq which was being prepared and I think since January 2001 that -- two years in which they really knew there was going to be an invasion of Iraq and they had a lot of time to decide whether they had enough armor for that, I think."

Scott Simon quickly corrected him, saying:

"January 2001 -- well, we're not sure you meant that. That would have meant just -- that would have meant a much earlier than I think has been established."

That moved listener David Yen to write:

In the Week in Review segment with Scott Simon and Dan Schorr, Scott attempted to "correct" Dan when he said that the war had been planned since January 2001.

Dan was not wrong -- the book based on Paul O'Neill's notes stated that Iraq was on the administration's agenda from the beginning -- i.e., January 2001.

Scott's response:

While several people have said that the Bush administration was preparing military action against Iraq from the moment they took office, any statement that says planning began in January 2001 has not so far been factually established. I believe that former terrorism adviser Richard Clarke says he heard administration figures ask him about Iraq in the days following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I thought that Dan's central point -- that a military operation that had been planned for months should have prepared for the possibility that an armed insurgency would use roadside bombs, and armor U.S. vehicles accordingly -- stood up well without trying to prove that George W. Bush took his oath of office in January 2001 and immediately began preparing to invade Iraq. It's certainly hard to see that reflected in any administration statements up through September 2001.

Dan is introduced as NPR's senior news analyst, and not a commentator. He is rightly proud of the fact that while he may occasionally express or imply an opinion, it is grounded in his analysis of fact. Sometimes, that's a mutual process. Sometimes, one of us will misspeak. When that happens, we feel free to correct each other in front of the audience, so that we do not inadvertently convey something that is insupportable or false.

I appreciate Scott's explanation and spirit of camaraderie with his colleague Daniel Schorr.

In this case, I think Schorr was right. There is much anecdotal evidence that the White House planned an invasion of Iraq as early as January 2001, even if the definitive history has yet to be written.

A Too-Cozy Familiarity?

Finally, listener Silla Taylor is annoyed by some male reporters' habit of calling President Bush's national security adviser (and secretary of state nominee) Condoleezza Rice "Condi":

While I might not agree with her ideologically, I do believe Dr. Rice deserves respect equal to that of her male colleagues. I have noticed a pattern in NPR's reporting, as well as other news organizations', to refer to Dr. Rice as "Condi," while her male counterparts are referred to respectfully as Mr. Gonzalez, etc. Please address and correct this bias in your reporting.

In order for NPR to be appropriately consistent, I eagerly await hearing the secretary of defense described as "Donnie" Rumsfeld.