Shortly after NPR impulsively fired Juan Williams, causing endless negative publicity, an NPR employee made this joke on air:
“As loyal employees we are so proud to tell you that today NPR is celebrating 11 whole days without a self-inflicted wound.”
I sent him an email applauding his nerve, saying, “You gotta love a guy who makes fun of his bosses on their air.”
Sagal shot back: “You gotta love a network that lets you do it.”
I agree. As I finish my tenure as Ombudsman, I want to applaud NPR for even having a position that is dedicated to transparency and accountability. Fewer and fewer American news organizations do.
In a tight economy, news organizations rationalize, it just makes more sense to use the money for another editor, or put the money toward the bottom line.
Besides, the question still arises: Why would any self-respecting, smart news organization have an Ombudsman? Who needs that? I get paid to write a column and speak on air publicly and (hopefully) constructively criticizing NPR.
It made sense for me to write a piece when NPR mistakenly said last January that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was dead, and investigate why the mistake was made. But management was not happy when I wrote a second piece about the mistake’s emotional impact on Giffords’ family.
Vivian Schiller, then NPR’s CEO, sent me an email saying she thought I was piling on. They’d publicly apologized; it was time to move on. But that was all she said.
And I wrote quite a bit about the tone deaf firing of Williams on Oct. 20 – which in my opinion is what has led to all the other unprecedented events, turmoil and unwanted attention NPR has experienced in the last six months. (It is worth keeping in mind that it was NPR management that was in the limelight, not NPR’s journalism.)
My point is that I had the freedom to write whatever I thought was warranted.
They say this is the loneliest job in the newsroom – the public thinks you are a shill for NPR and NPR employees think you are an internal affairs investigative unit. Sometimes I would call an NPR staffer and the conversation would go like this:
Me: “How are you?”
Staffer: (Long pause) “I don’t know. It depends on why you are calling.”
Often I’ve felt a bit like a security guard at a private party. Just my presence – and fear of being named in a column – may help to keep folks working hard to live up to the ethics and journalism standards that NPR has established.
That said, NPR is a vibrant, growing news organization that speaks with a strong voice, authenticity and authority. Could it be better? Absolutely. But, overall, the journalism is still very good.
Here’s a laundry list of areas I perceive NPR could improve on, in no particular order:
- Make reporters’ email addresses accessible to the public. It strikes me as so arrogant to expect people to be reachable for news stories, but not vice versa.
- Work harder to get more voices of women and people of color (including academics and other experts) on the air. They ARE out there; you have to work harder to find them. Margaret Low Smith, now the acting vice president for news, said last September in Current, that “public radio needs to sound more like a party where everyone is included.” I agree.
But the invitation list is still pretty much limited to highly educated white folks with money. Why would Hispanics or African Americans (each only about 8 percent of the audience) listen to NPR if they don’t hear themselves represented on the air? It frustrates me to hear endless white males quoted in stories and not more women in positions of authority.
- Hire someone to handle corrections. Between May 19 and May 27, apparently there were no mistakes made on NPR. I simply do not believe that. What I do believe is that the folks in charge of corrections have other more pressing duties and simply don’t have the time to investigate requests for corrections. Kudos to All Things Considered for reading listener mail every night and quickly admitting when mistakes were made. Morning Edition, why don’t you do that too? Admitting mistakes and making corrections goes a long way toward proving you are interested in accuracy – which in turn speaks toward credibility.
- Do a better job identifying think tanks and special interest groups with vague names that may not be familiar to many listeners. I know that it takes up valuable air time to describe a group like the Center for Fiscal Responsibility, but if the goal is to inform, you aren’t succeeding when you don’t identify.
- And lastly, here’s my Pet Peeve. All Things Considered should provide a wider variety of commentators on its Friday feature, This Week in Politics. I don’t have a problem with E.J. Dionne and David Brooks. But I do with them being on every week. They each write a column in a prominent newspaper, the Washington Post and The New York Times, respectively. Get some diversity of ideas, political backgrounds and ethnicity.
And now, I hand over the reins to Edward Schumacher-Matos and hope he enjoys the job –and public radio – as much as I have.
This column was originally published on NPR.org on June 1, 2011.