Can You Hear Me Now? Some listeners say that NPR’s reporting on intelligence-gathering organizations has been biased. The spy agencies, they say, are just "harvesting" telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, running them through computer programs and checking to see whether any patterns emerge that might link to terrorists. In short, they are keeping us safe -- a fact, they claim, NPR doesn’t appreciate.
NPR logo Can You Hear Me Now?

Can You Hear Me Now?

Some listeners insist that NPR’s reporting on recent revelations that intelligence-gathering organizations aren’t really listening in on Americans, has been biased. The spy agencies, they tell me, are just "harvesting" telephone numbers and email addresses, running them through computer programs and checking to see whether any patterns emerge that might link to terrorists. In short, they are keeping us safe — a fact, they claim, NPR doesn’t appreciate.


Kirk Kelson in Vallejo, California is one such listener. He specifically objected to the term “eavesdropping” to describe these intelligence activities, and he has provided this helpful link:

During reports on NSA data collection that is well-established in its nature, the reporters repeatedly used the descriptor "eavesdropping" to refer to these activities. For your reference:

eaves•drop intr.v. eaves•dropped, eaves•drop•ping, eaves•drops; To listen secretly to the private conversation of others.

There is absolutely no evidence of any kind to suggest that "eavesdropping" is occurring.

Spying – By Any Other Name…

Mary Louis Kelly is NPR’s Intelligence Correspondent. She disagrees with Mr. Kelson, especially in light of the CIA confirmation hearings of Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the president’s nominee to head the agency. She explains there are different programs being given different descriptions — one by Stephen Hadley, the President’s National Security Advisor, and the other described in more recent statements by Gen. Hayden:

We’re calling it eavesdropping because that’s what it is. Gen. Hayden has used the term himself in the hearing today (5/18). The program revealed by the New York Times last December involves listening to — eavesdropping on — the conversations of Americans, without warrants. The President has acknowledged this on numerous occasions.
The Hadley quote the listener cites refers to the much more recent report by USA Today — which described a program that involves tracking — but apparently NOT listening to — the private phone calls of tens of millions of Americans.
There are essentially two programs here — (and) we’re learning some new details about how they may be related.

Gavel to Gavel

Listener Ruth Strauss also asks why NPR did not broadcast the Hayden hearings:

Although I appreciate your making these hearings available online, this is probably one of the most important, if not the most important set of hearings ever, especially in light of the constitutional crisis of eavesdropping on Americans or reviewing their records without a warrant…?

Managing Editor Barbara Rehm agrees with Ms. Strauss…

…on the importance of this story. So much so, that we did in fact broadcast this hearing — day-long, gavel to gavel coverage. This was hosted by Neal Conan with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. We also had Sibohan Gordman, the intelligence correspondent for the Baltimore Sun…we also provided (the NPR member) stations a daily (summary) of the hearings with excerpts from the testimony and questioning in the evening. This was hosted by Cory Flintoff.

NPR regularly provides special coverage of important congressional hearings, and each station decides whether to broadcast them. NPR member stations are autonomous and independent from NPR. Ms. Strauss did not hear the Hayden sessions because her NPR member station chose not to carry it.

Vox Pop? But it’s not a poll…

Is a poll accurate when it reports that most people don’t mind being eavesdropped on? That was the gist of a poll in the Washington Post which says that 63 percent of Americans are willing to be spied on, if it defeats terrorism. NPR’s Alix Spiegel was assigned to try to confirm this, by doing her own random interviews in Washington, D.C.

Listener Tom Cavender objected to aspects of the Spiegel story which aired on the program Day To Day on May 19.

He writes:

First is the presentation of the piece at your Web site. The headline reads: "Polls Suggest Americans Approve NSA Monitoring." The piece makes only mention of one poll, Spiegel’s poll of 15 people on the Mall in Washington, a poll that (host) Noah Adams correctly referred to as "unscientific." The headline is also a questionable proposition — both USA Today andNewsweek show that a narrow majority opposes the program, while a Washington Post poll shows that a majority favors the program.
Ms. Spiegel said she spoke to 15 people regarding NSA and domestic surveillance, and 13 people favored the program. Spiegel’s piece featured 4 or 5 people who favored the program, but no one who opposed the program went on the air. I have to wonder, if polls show the American public evenly divided on the program, why couldn’t one of the opponents be quoted or put on air as part of the piece?

Alix Speigel (who, it should be noted, is not responsible for the headlines on the Web site) agrees that the report had its weaknesses even though its aim was, she tells me,

… to figure out what was behind this poll... the emotional reasoning of people.
I tried to make clear that this was the focus of the piece in the way that I wrote the original introduction to the story.
"So why aren't Americans more troubled by the government program..." is how I phrased it.
The rest of the intro as I wrote it was:

"...and how important is privacy to the average person? Reporter Alix Spiegel headed to the mall in downtown Washington, D.C. to find out..."

Unfortunately it looks like (the editors) took that bit out. But that was the explicit focus of the story. I understand why without that little bit a listener might not know what to expect and might feel troubled that not all views were represented.
I agree with the listener that it probably shouldn't have been described as polls, but instead that it should have focused on the Washington Post poll which was the impetus for the story in the first place.

Day To Day's senior editor is Jeff Rogers. He told me he agrees with Spiegel’s criticisms.

My own opinion? Any time a reporter tries to do a “vox” (short for “vox populi”— voice of the people; here it means randomly interviewing people on the street) it’s bound to be wrong, 19 times out of 20. The only time it might just work is when a reporter interviews sport fans: “How ’bout those Nats?” And that’s hardly news. Otherwise it just sounds like unscientific pandering disguised as an opinion poll.

It also might be useful in a future column to look at how polling is reported on NPR. With another election season almost upon us, it might be useful to suggest ways in which we can all determine what consititues a good poll and what is just politicking disguised as polling.

A Helpful Hint of Music

Finally, one listener who prefers to remain anonymous has a suggestion for those NPR interview programs that are obligated to take a break in the midst of the discussion at specific fixed times (which enables stations carrying the program to smoothly insert local content into the mix):

NPR News and perhaps some NPR talk shows should consider using a subtle audio tone to cue their "on-air" interviewees. This tone could be used as an on-air notice to inform interviewees that they have 30 seconds to wrap it up. I think that significant time is wasted when program hosts spend 10-15 seconds interrupting interviewees to tell them that time is almost, almost ... all gone. It is a distracting disruption that almost defeats the "bridge" music that provides smooth transitions between interview segments. I would prefer to hear a soft one second or two second audio signal in the background than the anxious sometimes sharp interruptions of some hosts.

This is a good suggestion and one that NPR’s Talk of the Nation does already to good effect. Perhaps other call-in programs might give it a try. I appreciate this anonymous person’s well-phrased description of the issue. It leads me to suspect that this "listener” may in fact, be a public radio employee, well-versed in the mystic arts of radio production. If that’s the case, it shows that good ideas don’t just come from the listeners.