The NPR Ombudsman's Year in Review : NPR Public Editor December is a traditional time of year for clear-eyed assessments, quiet reflections and thoughtful stock taking. It's also a time to look hopefully toward the year to come. So looking back on NPR's 2004 and searching for a single adjective to describe it: from where I sit as NPR's Ombudsman, tumultuous is the first word that comes to mind.

The NPR Ombudsman's Year in Review

December is a traditional time of year for clear-eyed assessments, quiet reflections and thoughtful stock-taking. It's also a time to look hopefully toward the year to come.

So looking back on NPR's 2004 and searching for a single adjective to describe it: from where I sit as NPR's ombudsman, tumultuous is the first word that comes to mind.

What a Year!

NPR News faced huge journalistic challenges. Perhaps its largest ever: trying to cover war abroad and political divisions at home. NPR's task: assessing the strengths and limits of American power and policy in a world where diplomacy took a back seat to the single-minded views of policy makers.

Domestically, NPR reported on a fractious America in an election in search of a unifying theme: Red or Blue? Urban or rural? High or mass culture? The strains within the democracy seemed close to tearing us apart.

In response, many who wrote to me (and there were a lot of them) looked to NPR and their public radio stations as the place in American media where ideas could be discussed and where a reasonable debate could ensue.

Increasingly, listeners came to NPR looking for answers. They were increasingly frustrated by NPR's attempts at balance while other media were proffering "solutions."

80,000 E-mails... and Climbing!

In 2003, I received more than 50,000 e-mails of comment, complaint and concern about what people heard -- or didn't hear -- on NPR and on their local station. In 2004, as they say in politics, "If present trends continue..." it only increased. By the end of December, my assistant and I handled more than 80,000! And that excludes spam, porn and invitations to send money to deposed African dictators.

While people who write to news ombudsmen and -women tend to be more motivated to complain than to praise, I still have the strong impression that most listeners actually appreciate the sense of service that public radio provides. They may write more in sorrow than in anger (although there's no shortage of those latter folks either…).

Through 2004, their expectations of public radio remained high and if anything, will be higher in 2005.

That's as it should be.

Public radio is predicated on the basic assumption of public service. NPR considers public radio listeners to be citizens first and listeners second.

But does this mean that everything on NPR is greeted with "hosannas" of praise because of its self-adorned mantle of public service? Hardly.

Getting It Right... Keeping us Honest... on the Radio

NPR took its justly deserved share of lumps in 2004: listeners still miss Bob Edwards even as Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep put on a new version of Morning Edition that is as good, and in some ways much better, in my opinion. But some listeners still miss Bob and don't hesitate to let me know.

The departure of Tavis Smiley is also an enormous loss for NPR and for public radio. Listeners want NPR to keep putting voices like his on air.

NPR also stumbled, in my opinion, in its coverage of the pre-war period in Iraq by giving equal time to claims and counter-claims of weapons of mass destruction. There was little way to sort out what was true and what seemed like wishful thinking by the administration.

NPR has begun to change that with the creation of an investigative unit. A recent series (Nov. 17 and 18) on All Things Considered by correspondent Danny Zwerdling on the conditions under which deportees are held in the United States was a good first effort. Danny specifically referred to the use of guard dogs in a prison in Hudson County and Passaic County, N.J.

On Nov. 30, the Department of Homeland Security ordered that guard dogs used to terrorize the deportees will no longer be allowed inside prisons.

That is what public service journalism should be. More, please.

'Independence and Skepticism:' The Patriotic Duty of The Press

Listeners appear to want public radio to be more aggressive in its treatment of political figures. They react strongly when NPR hosts and journalists seem to accept whatever politicians say. The listeners are right to want a more skeptical approach. They know that politeness and skepticism are not mutually exclusive. They also sense when journalism starts to sound like stenography.

NPR listeners also have remarkable hearing.

They let me know when they hear a disagreement between subject and predicate. They dislike unclear -- or "unradiophonic" pronunciations on the radio. And they really hate it when they are driving and they hear car horns as part of a story.

More and more listeners tune in on their car radios. (Question: does this imply that public radio opposes public transportation?) Increasingly, listeners are stuck in traffic and are often in a rage when they get to the office. They race to their e-mails to let me know what they objected to hearing on Morning Edition.

I get only slightly fewer e-mails from those driving home, listening to All Things Considered. I therefore assume that the consumption of a cocktail once they are in the door tends to reduce the urge to fire off an e-mail. But not by much.

Perhaps that accounts for the greater rhetorical flourishes in my afternoon e-mails...

In these weekly columns that I write on the NPR Web site, the ideas, opinion and voices of the listeners are what make this job the most interesting job of journalism I have ever had. It is a privilege to be witness to so much of American life and letters. I am constantly inspired and sometimes abashed, by the thoughtfulness and the passion of public radio listeners.

Holding NPR to its Own Values

Since listeners deserve to get the last word, here is an e-mail from listener Jess Row from the Bronx. It was one of the best, toughest, most thoughtful letters I've ever received.

Jess Row told me NPR needs to keep going but it needs to avoid the killer of successful media everywhere: complacency.

NPR has some serious catching up to do. It needs to find not another Tavis Smiley, who was essentially a commercial broadcaster with a commercial sensibility, but someone like Kelefa Sanneh, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Touré or Hua Hsu -- a young, non-white, sophisticated critic of contemporary culture who's capable of talking about Jay-Z and Kafka, "Tank Girl" and Dorothy Parker, bell hooks and Lao-tzu. Those people are out there -- though they may not work in radio yet -- and you need to go out and find them.

We all know perfectly well that the conservative attack machine that just re-elected George Bush is trying to eviscerate our public media in the name of "balance" -- which means, to them, bringing in hosts who shut down and humiliate the other side, who act as if "us against them" is a valid political platform, who cry "discrimination" at any attempt to make them accountable for the hateful and divisive things they say.

NPR's parochialism makes it extremely vulnerable to such criticism. But if NPR can point to a truly diverse roster of shows and perspectives it will have a much more solid claim to a different and far superior kind of balance. It will also have a much larger constituency to rise up and defend it when the time comes.

Thank you Jess Row and to the many listeners whose trust in public radio is simply inspiring.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!