National Public Radio’s ombudsman, after an inquiry lasting months, found a network news investigation so flawed that it should not have been broadcast as written. NPR officials in reply called Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos “re-reporting” itself “deeply flawed.”
Kinsey Wilson, executive vice president and chief content officer, and Margaret Low Smith, senior vice president for news, stood by the bulk of reporting in the three-part series. They declared that the newsroom’s examination of Schumacher-Matos inquiry, posted online August 9th, showed there was “little to be gained from a point-by-point response.”
Then they conceded, in passing, several of his major objections.
The series in question dealt with adoptions of Indian children from reservations in South Dakota. It aired in October, 2011.
What does an in-house controversy about an investigation of relations between Native Americans and a state government have to do with NPR’s coverage of Arab-Israeli affairs? Plenty, it would appear, from the “fatal flaws” listed by the ombudsman and the news executives’ affronted tone in dismissing most of the criticism.
The ombudsman’s report includes a link to NPR’s rebuttal and was posted this August 9. Schumacher-Matos concluded that the series—by correspondent Laura Sullivan and producer Amy Walter—insinuated but did not prove a financial interest by the South Dakota state government in placing children from Indian reservations with foster parents, often whites. Among other flaws, it implied but did not show a government bias against Indian culture just short of racism.
Schumacher-Matos charged the series with five violations of NPR’s self-declared standards. These were “no proof, unfair tone, factual errors, incomplete reporting, no state [South Dakota] response.”
Legal as well as professional violation
It should be kept in mind that whether reporting Indian adoptions in the United States, Arab-Israeli news or other potentially hot-button issues, NPR—unlike privately owned, First Amendment protected media—is required by law to be truthful. Like its television counterpart, the Public Broadcasting Service, the radio network receives taxpayer funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Recipients of CPB’s largesse are obligated, under the federal Telecommunications Act, to provide “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”
So if the ombudsman’s conclusions were correct, NPR’s series on Indian adoptions did not just violate journalistic standards, it also broke the law. It would have that in common with many network segments about Israel. However, Congress—which ultimately has oversight of CPB and its recipients—never has chosen to pursue such a violation.
Schumacher-Matos became NPR ombudsman in April, 2011. Previously he reported for The New York Times, edited The Wall Street Journal’s Spanish and Portuguese editions and wrote a column for The Washington Post.
He felt compelled to “re-report” the series, even though NPR staff originally spent a year on it. In an observation echoing many CAMERA critiques of the network’s Arab-Israeli coverage, “the two sides, the state and reporters, stuck to hugely separate versions of not just interpretation, but also of what would seem to be easily measurable facts.” Eventually, the ombudsman reached “starkly different conclusions from that of the reporters and editors.”
But like public officials under unwanted press scrutiny, the “reporters declined to respond on the record to most of the points in this report,” the ombudsman noted.
What went wrong
According to NPR executives Wilson and Smith, the ombudsman’s inquiry was “unorthodox, the sources selective, the fact-gathering uneven and … many of the conclusions subjective or without foundation.” Nevertheless, they agreed that the series “should have taken extra care to reflect the state’s position through other sources.” That’s because after South Dakota officials seemed to decide NPR was biased against them, they clammed up.
In addition, the money at stake apparently was closer to the $40 million the ombudsman determined than the $100 million NPR reported, a 250 percent exaggeration. And the series “didn’t always clearly distinguish b
etween conditions affecting all foster children and those specifically affecting native children; nor did we adequately distinguish between legal proceedings that were the province of the state and those overseen by tribal authorities.” That tribal officials also placed some Indian children in non-Indian foster homes seemed to undercut NPR’s insinuation of bias.
In other words, although the imperial newsroom would like to dismiss the ombudsman’s findings altogether, NPR executives were not quite ready to claim infallibility.
Schumacher-Matos concluded that “what is evident from the word choices in the series is that reporters and producers tried to push the story beyond the proof that they had.” The coverage became “a case study in how not to do radio ‘story-telling.’”
The ombudsman notes the difficulty of doing “narrative story-telling”—more akin to a long-term film documentary—on radio, even though that approach was virtually pioneered by NPR and sometimes is more art than news.
“Story-telling” currently is a fashionable buzzword among practicing journalists and at journalism schools. It sometimes dove-tails with “giving voice to the voiceless” or speaking for the “under-represented.” Perhaps not surprisingly, NPR’s series won journalism awards.
Regardless, not neglecting any party to events in the news is basic. But “story-telling” rather than news reporting virtually invites one-sided, superficial coverage, whether of South Dakota Indians versus the state government or Palestinian Arabs versus Israelis.
Story-telling leans toward creative techniques of fiction, often seductively empathizing with perceived underdogs at the expense of rigorous digging and straight-forward reporting. The esoteric attractions of such an approach—especially when reporting for the ear on radio or eyes and ears on television, rather than the eyes alone in print—do not change the fact that journalism rests on detailed coverage of who, what, when, where, why and how rather than adornment of only some of those fundamental questions.
The more “story-telling,” the more news becomes “content,” the more “standards and practices” editors have to displace old-fashioned copy editors and the more often media—not only NPR—find themselves defensively invoking the latest update of internal codes of ethics.
Finley Peter Dunne, one of America’s first syndicated columnists, famously described the purpose of a newspaper as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. From the sound of Schumacher-Matos’ critique and NPR’s rebuttal, that’s just what the ombudsman was doing.