A Conflict Of Interest At NPR Music? : NPR Public Editor Due to unusual formatting, a contributor appears to be pushing his own book.
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A Conflict Of Interest At NPR Music?

University of Chicago Press

Reader Richard Sloatberg of San Diego, Calif. wrote to ask why Ann Powers, a NPR Music correspondent, was "allowed to plug her husband's book," without a note explaining their relationship, on NPR's music news blog, The Record. Sloatberg was referring to this Feb. 7 bylined post by a non-staff music critic Eric Weisbard, who is married to Powers, and wrote about his book, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, which was published in November.

In his complaint, Sloatberg identified Powers as the head of NPR Music, which she is not. But I can understand why he may have been confused, since Powers' name is prominent at the top of the blog page, with a link to her columns.

Jacob Ganz was the editor of Weisbard's piece; he is also Powers' editor. He said he thought about the issue "quite a bit" before deciding against including a disclosure of Weisbard's relationship to Powers.

For one, he said, Powers "wasn't involved in the process in any way. Eric pitched me the piece himself after his publicist sent me the book." Moreover, he said, NPR has published work by Weisbard in the past without disclosing the relationship.

There is precedent, of sorts, at NPR, he noted. All Things Considered host Melissa Block does not interview her husband Stefan Fatsis, a regular contributor who often appears on the show on Fridays to talk about sports, and there is no regular mention made of their relationship. (There was one notable exception to that arrangement, when no other host was in the studio to interview him and the task fell to Block.) But since Powers was not involved, the analogy is not a direct one.

Ganz concluded:

I would have taken this pitch from Eric even if he didn't have a relationship with Ann. That said, I can see how biographical notes on each of the contributors in this piece could have helped the reader understand the different perspectives better. In that case, as part of an editor's note, I might have mentioned Eric's relationship to Ann.

In looking into this issue, however, I was much more troubled by an issue Sloatberg didn't raise: the prominent link to the right of Weisbard's post, which takes readers to sites (Amazon, and independent booksellers, listed alphabetically) where they can purchase the book.

NPR's standard practice is to link to books that are the subject of interviews. A small portion of the purchase price also goes to NPR, which is disclosed on the link.

Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, noted that "we have long provided purchase links from our book reviews and interviews. It's thought to be a user service. The same thinking applies to the music desk. It's not much of a convenience — we know users can just surf over to another site. But why not make it a bit easier? Plus, these aren't 'news' reports. They're reviews and opinions and we think users understand that they are coming from critics."

(In an aside, he added that, to his knowledge, NPR's news stories about controversial or newsworthy books have not included purchase links because "it does not feel appropriate for a news organization to be doing anything quite as direct as a purchase link to facilitate the sales of a book that it is reporting on that way.")

But in this case, Weisbard is not just the subject of the coverage. He is listed as the author of the post, which is about his book, and he benefits from any purchase. Ganz said Weisbard was not paid by NPR as a contributor because the post was conceived as an author interview, "even though the execution was a little unconventional, a writer being interviewed by three contributors." (The post starts out with a section written by Weisbard, who is then interviewed by the other contributors.)

Whatever the intent was, in its execution The Record appears to be turning over its space to allow an author to push his own book.

Compounding the appearance of conflicts is another link embedded further down in the post. That one goes directly to an Amazon purchase page—not the standard NPR option that gives buyers the option of Amazon or independent book stores. It was for a forthcoming book by Michaelangelo Matos, one of the contributors who interviewed Weisbard.

Memmott said, "In retrospect, the Music desk agrees that it would have been better to either have no byline" on the piece, have the byline be that of an NPR staff member, or introduce the piece with an editor's note explaining all the relationships and noting that Weisbard would be leading the discussion.

While the appearance of a conflict of interest might have been somewhat mitigated by not giving Weisbard a byline on the piece, I'd argue the conflicts would remain, unless the format of the piece was reconceived altogether.