NPR downgrades and disables its ombudsman

"NPR is far stronger than this short-sighted and half-assed decision suggests. It has nothing to fear from an empowered ombudsman."

14 Jul 2014 10:38 pm 18 Comments

UPDATED Five times, JULY 15 TO 31

I always read job descriptions for open positions in journalism. They tell you a lot about which way the field is headed. Last week I came across this opening for the NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor position. Two phrases jumped out at me:

The primary responsibility of NPR’s Ombudsman/Public Editor is to connect NPR’s audience to NPR and to provide a forum for audience views. The Ombudsman/Public Editor serves as an independent reporter on behalf of the public.

The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment.

Here it is again:

In addressing audience complaints about journalistic errors in NPR News coverage, the Ombudsman/Public Editor will gather facts and can interview key news managers. The Ombudsman/Public Editor will then explain any errors without passing judgment

What is going on with these phrases in bold, which appear to prohibit the ombudsman from criticizing the performance of NPR journalists?

Well, it’s a change in policy. In the past, the NPR ombudsman has routinely come to judgment in addressing complaints. A typical example from 2011, when Alicia Shepard held the position:

Lots of things drive NPR’s audience crazy. One I totally agree with is this: NPR often does a lousy job of identifying the background of think tanks or other groups when quoting their experts.

Here, Shepard is picking up on a complaint she’s heard from listeners and making a judgment: NPR is doing a lousy job! Until now, this was a normal part of the position.

As you may recall, NPR incorrectly reported that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died when she was shot at a public appearance in her district. The ombudsman gathered facts and explained what happened. She also came to several conclusions:

At the point the hospital confirmed Giffords was in surgery around 2:30 p.m, NPR should have done two things: sent out another e-mail alert correcting its mistake and when it next broadcast at 3 p.m., it should have said that NPR mistakenly reported Giffords’ death and given the new, correct information.

Neither of these things was done that day….

What NPR should have done it did not do. That isn’t fact-gathering or explanation or representing the listeners. That’s making a judgment. Again:

NPR had two sources, though neither was identified in any way, and should have been. And the newscast should have put the news in context, explaining that a tragedy had just occurred, the story was changing quickly, and this was what NPR knew at that moment.

Making a judgment doesn’t necessarily mean slamming NPR. Here’s the current ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, evaluating complaints about NPR reporter Mara Liasson appearing on Fox News.

My conclusion on Liasson’s work is simple:

Applaud her.

I find that her NPR stories were straightforward and based on solid reporting. Her Fox contributions were the same. She was smartly analytical, but did not take a position on issues or veer into opinion. Just as important, she did not tilt or load her characterizations of political figures such as President Barack Obama or Republican leaders.

Much of the complaints about Liasson, it seems to me, are really about Fox. The complaining listeners do not like Fox’s rightward stance, and especially the incendiary views of some of its prime time talk show hosts such as Bill O’Reilly. They tar Liasson by association.

I looked at her work. In my assessment she does not tilt one way or the other. I think complaints from listeners about her appearing on Fox are really about Fox, not her. That’s the ombudsman coming to a judgment, after investigation. Under the new rules, he couldn’t do that. He could explain how NPR views Liasson and gather facts about NPR’s guidelines but he could not comment on her performance or assess the validity of the listeners’ complaint, which was the whole point of his November 2013 column.

A further clue to the changes is in the new title. The ombudsman has become Ombudsman/Public Editor in NPR’s usage. Thus: “The primary responsibility of NPR’s Ombudsman/Public Editor is to connect NPR’s audience to NPR and to provide a forum for audience views.” I asked Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s first ombudsman, what he thought. Dvorkin, who is now a journalism academic, helped create the position back in 2000. He said he was concerned that “the Washington Post weakened model of ‘readers’ representative’ is working its way into or even infecting NPR.”

In March of 2013 the Post announced that it would no longer employ an ombudsman who was independent of the newsroom and empowered “to critique the newspaper’s journalism and field readers’ questions.” Instead it would have a reader representative, “a staff member who will answer questions and respond to complaints.”

The journalist who took the position later said, “My primary mission is to respond to readers… I’m not [charged with] holding the newsroom accountable.” Dvorkin said that his job as NPR’s first ombudsman “was to evaluate and adjudicate NPR’s reporting.” That’s gone now. “A media organization that values its reputation should not be in a defensive crouch,” he added. NPR “may be opting for a safer harbor in which the ombudsman/public editor plays less of the lightening rod role.”

I was able to reach former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who is now working for a news start-up in Afghanistan, to ask about the changes. “To not comment diminishes the role,” she said to me via email. “The new job description appears to defeat the purpose of having an ombudsman.” I agree with that.

I also asked Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, about the “no passing judgment” rule in the NPR job description. She said:

My experience at The Times tells me that readers do seem to want the public editor to weigh in with a verdict, at least most of the time. Sometimes, of course, it’s appropriate just to present findings, or an explanation, or editors’ opinions. But I certainly appreciate the option to express my point of view and it’s always been central to the way The Times and its public editors have interpreted the role.

Seeking comment from NPR, I contacted their spokesperson, Isabel Lara. Our brief Q & A:

What were the concerns that led NPR to emphasize in the new job description that the ombudsman/public editor does not comment or pass judgment?

There were no concerns. We’re looking for someone who can offer a rigorous, independent account of our work. The ombudsman is positioned to help the audience understand how we approached our coverage and whether our reporting meets NPR’s journalistic and ethical standards. The ombudsman may reach certain conclusions based on a careful examination of that work, but should not be perceived as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong.

Where in the organization did those concerns originate?

The changes were based on discussions with outside experts, senior news leadership and the President and CEO, to whom the ombudsman ultimately reports.

Who made the decision to include those phrases in bold and why?

The job description was approved by the President and CEO.

That the ombudsman should “not be perceived as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong” is behind language which says: just gather facts and explain them, DO NOT JUDGE. Okay, NPR. If that’s your story….

My conclusions: NPR has downgraded the ombudsman position. Two former ombudsman agree with this. To understand why, just think about the effect that “your job is not to pass judgment” has on the pool of potential applicants. It’s likely that similar moves by the Washington Post helped clear the way. It’s possible also that dissatisfaction with the performance of previous ombudsmen contributed to the decision, along with a feeling that criticism rains down from all sides nowadays, so why do we need an in-house critic?

In my view, NPR is far stronger than this short-sighted and half-assed decision suggests. It has nothing to fear from an empowered ombudsman. Its own internal standards are much improved since the position was created. Its ethics handbook — a public document — is a model of transparency and accountability. Whoever is responsible for the downgrade made a bad call.

UPDATE I, July 15. Many people are suggesting to me that the reason the ombudsman position was clipped was in reaction to this massive investigation by Edward Schumacher-Matos. It’s known that NPR executives were exasperated with the ombudsman over it. So maybe it was a factor:

That’s plausible. However, if NPR executives wanted to steer the next ombudsman away from investigations like that one they could have written into the job description: “The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor does not re-report NPR stories.” They went far beyond that.

UPDATE II, July 16: NPR changed its mind. It says the part about “not providing commentary or passing judgment” was a mistake to include. The job description will be changed. (Check: it is changed.) The new CEO, Jarl Mohn, issued this statement to Media Matters:

The Ombudsman is a critically important role at NPR and the expectations of the job have not changed. The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public. The language in the current job description about not providing commentary or passing judgment is a mistake and we are removing it. I take this position very seriously and am committed to recruiting an outstanding journalist for the job and ensuring he or she has the resources required.

Good move. Former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller comments:

UPDATE III, July 18. In a conference call with affiliates before the CEO’s decision and statement, top NPR executives lash out at me, call my reporting “lazy” and ask public radio colleagues to give them the benefit of the doubt. Link.

UPDATE IV, July 19. Jeffrey Dvorkin, the original NPR ombudsman (and a believer in the position, an active member of this organization) asked me for comment on the conference call with affiliates at his post: NPR Learns About (New) Media Accountability – the Hard Way. I re-print it here with some tiny changes.

It was my understanding that ‘fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment’ is an idea well known in the public radio community. There is not a lot of ambiguity about what it means. But just to make sure, I asked some people with NPR experience. So I like the chances for my interpretation over Kinsey Wilson’s ‘The job description was in no way meant to diminish the role, limit the independence or handcuff them.’

Here’s what I did in reporting my post. I will leave it to you to decide if I was being ‘lazy.’

* To make sure my impression (that NPR ombudsmen routinely comment and make judgments) was correct, I reviewed dozens of past columns and found some typical examples.

* I contacted several former NPR ombudsmen for comment and quoted two who would go on the record. From one I got an earlier job description for the position.

*I contacted several ombudsmen or former ombudsmen at other national news organizations and quoted one who went on the record.

*I know more than a few people who work at NPR and they know me. I knew they wouldn’t comment on the record but I talked with them to check my assessment against theirs and make sure I wasn’t crazy.

* I contacted NPR’s spokesperson around 10:30 am July 14, and said I wanted to post the piece that evening, so could she please get back to me by 5 pm. I also told her that two former ombudsmen interpreted the language the way I did, so there was zero chance that NPR would be surprised by my take. I later spoke to the NPR spokesperson by phone to clarify what I was asking about.

* I received the NPR statement around 5:30 pm July 14 and published it in full later that night.

UPDATE V, JULY 31. NPR CEO CEO Jarl Mohn is interviewed about his decision on NPR. He leaves no doubt. “I thought it was a mistake. I don’t think it was the right decision. [Holders of the position] need to reach conclusions. And that’s what we’re paying them to do. I think that role, public editor, is hugely important to the credibility and integrity of this organization. Anything that we do that diminishes that is wrong. We reversed that decision.” (Go to 10:22 on the clip to hear his answer.)


Barry Rosen says:

Is there a sense that if ombudsman stated after reviewing facts that NPR had handled the matter properly, it would not run afoul of new prohibition against judgment/commentary?

I came across this interesting observation suggesting that passing judgment is crucial for one and all let alone an ombudsman whose role should be that of empowerment:

“We must face our unwillingness to judge. This fear of judgment is all too recognizable—the political thinker Hannah Arendt was writing about it in the middle of the last century. In her essays and books, Arendt gave voice to what she called the “fear of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame—especially, alas, upon people in power and high position.” Reflecting upon the anger caused by her own judgment of the Judenräte—the Jewish community leaders who cooperated with the Nazis in the hopes of saving themselves, their families, and others—Arendt was struck by the fear and anger that judging others provoked. She worried about the fear of judgment underlying the uproar against Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which accused Pope Pius XII of silence in the face of the Holocaust….”

Honestly…is this really a surprise coming from National Palestinian Radio? Perish the thought someone internally calls them out for their gross bias.

Dan Mitchell says:

Oh, stop that.

Re: Stop that!! Just what NPR wants to happen. “Stop ever criticizing what a left-oriented non-profit does.”

Perhaps if contributions to them weren’t tax-deductible, it wouldn’t seem so unseemly.

You nailed it, Jay. The withering of the corps of ombudsmen at American news outlets, for economic reasons, is tragic; the emasculation of some of the remaining ombudsmen is foolhardy. The point of having an ombudsman is to earn public trust; without that a news outlet has nothing. Why undermine trust by returning to traditional defensiveness.

As a former voting member of the Minnesota News Council and later its executive director for 14 years, I saw the value news outlets gained from making themselves open and transparent — the very qualities they demand from the organizations they cover.

Abe Rosenthal, the NY Times exec editor who condemned the existence of the National News Council and whose opposition led to its demise, said that a news council represented “the camel’s nose under the tent and the first step toward government control of the press.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. A news organization’s willingness — no, eagerness — to be held accountable is the key to building its credibility.

Gary Gilson, Minneapolis

Gary, I’m in complete agreement. Jay, I appreciate the scrutiny you placed on this issue, and am hopeful the public changes will lead to a re-strenghening of these roles.

John Hopkins says:

NPR might as well remove “ombudsman” from the job title. The new person will not be an ombudsman in any accepted sense of the term. It’s sad to see this retreat from accountability.

As my friend Gary Gilson said: You nailed it, Jay. This is a sad and deeply disturbing diminution of the vital role of ombudsmen. A constructive alternative — independent news councils — is also virtually extinct in this country as we close the doors of the Washington News Council in Seattle after 15 years as an “outside ombudsman” for the news media in this state. To their discredit and counterproductively, media organizations here mostly declined to cooperate and participate in our public hearings to review citizen complaints against them. One that did was KUOW, the NPR station in Seattle, which came to the hearing and tried to defend its deeply flawed story. Unsuccessfully: The complaint was upheld by a vote of our council, after a fascinating 2-hour discussion of media ethics and standards. Why are journalists so afraid of this process, including thoughtful critiques by ombudsmen? Is it because journalists can dish it out, but they can’t take it? Is it because they are arrogant, insecure, thin-skinned and clueless all at the same time? Don’t they understand that Transparency, Accountability and Openness are the keys to greater public trust? (See Apparently not. And this move by NPR underscores that.

Greg Lee says:

I stopped caring that NPR even had an ombudsman after Ms. Shepard disgraced herself and NPR by validating its use of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of calling torture “torture.” Ombudsman who call balls and strikes on journalistic stupidity are a waste of time.

I may have you beat.

I stopped caring in early Sept 2010 when a local affiliate did a long-form interview with the then-ombud of NPR, who said “NPR is trying to appeal to everyone (i.e. the diplomatic way of saying ‘not piss off right-wingers’) without debasing our journalistic output.”

That local affiliate’s own shows are far less foolish than the NPR Mothership.

Did you pullout quote your own commentary on a shitty blog? Shameless.

I think this all boils down to the matter of independence. Is the ombudsman free to analyze and pass judgment on an internal issue? If not, the position should not be called “ombudsman.” Corporations, whether they be non-profits or not, are inherently protective of the institutions they represent. That is a given. If appointing an “ombudsman” is simply a marketing ploy to give the appearance of transparency, the whole thing becomes a sick joke. On the other hand, why would an institution open itself to self-anointed criticism that can be used a political weapon against it? Perhaps there is room for compromise: Appoint an internal monitor/investigator whose report is first circulated internally, with opportunities given to the participants to comment. Then release the full report, with the rebuttals/explanations in tact. Let the readers judge from there.

Halloran says:

The modern American concept of ‘Ombudsman’ is inherently weak and mostly public-relations fluff, at NPR and all major news outlets that toy with it.

Independent public review of their news-organization output & process is the last thing senior management wants — especially from somebody they have to pay for.

What they do want (tolerate) is merely a glorified ‘Customer-Relations-Representative’ to superficially pacify any audience/public complaints, while having no power to actually change things within the organization. Of course, high-profile ombudsman (NYTimes, WashPost, etc) must publicly ‘appear’ to be authoritative envoys to senior management; but in practice their output is only bland rhetoric, with any real criticisms carefully circumspect and mildly stated (in due regard to continued paycheck receipt).

Any genuine management interest in Quality-Control is handled quietly and internally… and without the fluffy ombudsman.
And of course, the Iron-Law-of-Oligarchy thoroughly rules an established bureaucracy like NPR.

Isabel Lara: “The ombudsman is positioned to help the audience understand how we approached our coverage and whether our reporting meets NPR’s journalistic and ethical standards.” (Emphasis added)

Seems to me an enterprising holder of the job could use that phrase to pass some meaningful judgments … for a while.

halfkidding says:

The ombudsman is going the way of the dodo bird because the relentless advance of what I will call institutional culture and corporations themselves call corporate culture. That is the expectation and even demand by institutions be they corporations, government agencies, NGO’s, political party or any official hierarchical group you can think of for total loyalty to the institution or group.

Nobody anymore gains entre’ into management of these institutional hierarchies without the belief that no obligation or duty trumps those of the group. No individualism is allowed in anything pertaining to work or workings of the group. No ‘talking out of school’ to anyone even perhaps the spouse and heaven forbid to the press. This is why the whistle blower has become the most reviled creature in existence among our elites as by definition our elites are now all members of institutional hierarchies.That includes NPR.

The ombudsman is non nonsensical in terms of this new all powerful ethic of institutional solidarity. An ombudsman by definition is not a team player and is thus anathema within organizations.

Show me an individual, one who thinks for themselves and speaks for themselves openly in any setting and I will show you someone who will never rise within an institutional hierarchy. Often they don’t even think of joining them as being a Party man or a company man is distasteful to them but if someone by chance stumbles into a career path that involves working with an institution they will see themselves blocked from advancement.

halfkidding says:

Well at least Gaza is deemed news. Unlike the conventional war with mobile infantry and heavy weapons being fought in Europe now.

Taking innocence to a whole other level.

James Van Hise says:

Didn’t Fox News used to have an ombudsman whose show ran Sunday mornings until it was cancelled and his position eliminated?