NPR: Still Bending Over Backward

NPR needs to look at whether its decision-making processes are driven more by public relations concerns or journalistic ones, writes Eric Alterman.

Part of a Series
The National Public Radio headquarters, located in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/<a href=Collapse the Light)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
The National Public Radio headquarters, located in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Collapse the Light)

National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” did a report last week on therapy to turn gay people straight, inspired by the work of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-MN) husband. The story rested on interviews with two gay men who had been through the therapy; one who felt it caused “emotional and psychological damage" and the other—a conservative Christian—who was able to convert to heterosexuality (though NPR did not report the latter fellow also founded an organization that attempts to help others change their sexual orientation from homosexuality to heterosexuality as well).

The story was a perfect mixture of journalistic “balance,” where unfortunately none existed in real life. As was reported in a June 2011 New York Times magazine article, in 2009, an American Psychological Association taskforce warned against attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation because of the harm it causes, the ineffectiveness of its results, and the fact that sexual orientation is not something that requires a “cure” in the first place.

NPR reporter Alix Spiegel and her editor Anne Gudenkauf explained themselves to NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos by insisting that “As journalists, it is our job to feature the experiences of people all across the spectrum—political, religious, and, yes, sexual—and to allow their experiences and views to be fully enough shared so that they can be understood.”

They neglected, they said, to distinguish between the majority and minority experiences in this case because they believed NPR listeners “are well informed about (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues and thus would not need to have this spelled out at the start of the story.” They admitted this was a mistake. They also tried to walk back their imputation of a “raging" debate among psychologists, explaining, "We did not mean by this to suggest that the two sides are even in numbers. We did mean to suggest that the proponents on both sides feel strongly about the disagreement."

Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s acting senior vice president for news, did not think their explanation went far enough and added, “We should have put the whole idea of conversion therapy into perspective. Not doing so meant the listener had no data to understand how common this practice is and how many people seek it out. The absence of context undercut the value of our reporting."

What is really going on here? Why would NPR, home to so many liberals and, one presumes, quite a few gay people, bend over so far backward to offer credibility to something associated with conservative efforts to discriminate against and persecute gay people? Alas, it’s a familiar syndrome. Journalists have been so cowed by conservative attempts to “work the refs” that they end up writing reports that raise the question of whether President Obama might be a Muslim or whether global warming is a conspiracy of a power-hungry mad scientist.

A particularly egregious example of this tendency occurred last year on NPR when it saw fit to quote the discredited right-wing zealot David Horowitz in an obituary for leftist historian Howard Zinn. "There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect," he explained.

How odd, therefore, that this temple of ideological diversity—one that takes its commitment to giving conservatives a voice so seriously that it occasionally allows it to undermine its journalistic judgment—should be the subject of hundreds of pages of complaint from its former employee Juan Williams in a book called Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate.

Williams was fired by NPR news boss Ellen Weiss because, in giving voice to his fears of Muslims on Fox News, she said he had violated an NPR prohibition against staffers offering personal opinions. This was unfair to Williams, undoubtedly since lots of NPR staffers did this, as James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times pointed out. Interestingly, however, it mirrors The Washington Post’s firing of Dave Weigel, when its reporters do much the same thing. Weiss was herself forced to resign largely for her actions, even though the dumping of Williams over his comments on Fox was clearly just the last of many straws.

According to Williams, who had been repeatedly warned, he was fired because NPR “is very elitist and in this case white institution” and “it struggles with the idea that there are capable thinkers and journalist and people who don’t fit into some box.” He had to go because, he said he was told, he “did not fit their view of how a black person thinks.” What’s more, he writes of Ellen Weiss, “She was able to use that distortion, along with a general view of Fox News as bad guys, to engage in a vigilante-style attack on me. NPR’s standards for its journalistic ethics, which I supposedly broke, seemed to apply only to me.”

A question Williams never asks is what he was doing at NPR in the first place. He is, after all, perfectly happy at Fox, a place that routinely broadcasts lies about liberals, helps organize Tea Party rallies, and frequently books guests whose primary selling points are racism, lies, and Tea Party cheerleading and fundraising. His record at The Washington Post was checkered by accusations of sexual harassment and his reporting at NPR colored by major mistakes. As the ex-NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard writes:

The truth, as I discovered through looking into many complaints about Williams, is that he had long been on thin ice for making opinionated comments on Fox, where he was a contributor, that he would not have been allowed to make on air for NPR. And NPR editors had been unhappy with the quality and preparation of his on-air work. It didn’t help that in 2007 the Pentagon wanted to pull NPR’s credentials in Iraq after Williams said incorrectly on Fox that Gen. David Petraeus had asked the White House for permission to go into Iran.

Funnily enough, it was the head of this conspiracy against honest journalism—Roger Ailes, the one who happily hired Williams with a new $2 million contract—who referred to NPR as “Nazis.” After its unquestionably inept handling of Williams’s firing, a great deal changed at NPR. As Shepard explains:

The network paid a New York law firm more than $100,000 to investigate how the Williams firing was handled. Management hired a media ethics consultant to review the ethics code, and he held meetings with staff and listeners to plumb why this happened. They revamped the ethics code, changed the protocols for making and implementing personnel decisions, and intend to hire a standards and practices editor. They have hired more African American male reporters. And they brought in a crisis-management firm and developed a crisis communication strategy that might have averted the scandal.

Is this really Ailes’s idea of how “Nazis” behave? And isn’t all this faux sensitivity a bit much coming from two fellas at the center of a global empire currently involved in massive amounts of criminal behavior—including potentially Ailes’s own behavior?

But more to our point above. No matter what Fox or Juan Williams chooses to do in the future, NPR itself needs to take a good hard look at whether its decision-making processes, whether on news content or on personal matters, are driven more by public relations concerns or by journalistic ones. Had it been the latter, virtually all of the embarrassments described above might never have taken place at all.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series