NPR blames us for its problems: Insane

Oy. I should be writing a book right now and not responding to the zillionth linkless attack on the ills of the blogosphere, this time from NPR’s outgoing ombuds, Alicia Shepard, who blames the “dark side” and “lousy job” of the blogosphere for NPR’s own admittedly unclear (not to mention wrong-headed, in my view) memo forbidding staff from so much as stepping near the Jon Stewart Restoring Sanity rally. She does so without linking to a single blog … except mine. Sorry, blogosphere, I guess I’ve single-handedly lowered your standards.

Shepard acknowledges that management’s memo failed to say that NPR would cover the rally and then she gets all high and haughty that people wondered whether it would. That fails a pretty basic test of journalism: does the story answer the obvious questions? And if it doesn’t, who’s to blame for confusion, pray tell?

She includes in her litany of blog dastardliness my argument that NPR is forbidding journalistic curiosity. She doesn’t attribute or link to that opinion, nor to any of the other probably equally out-of-context smears she alleges. In our low standards of the blogosphere, we think that’s a sin for it robs the reader of the chance to judge for herself.

Shepard doesn’t really address the many other quite legitimate questions NPR’s Papal bull also raises in the fetid mind of the blogosphere. The fact that NPR felt obliged to put Stewart’s rally off limits to its staff but didn’t feel it necessary to issue such an order for Glenn Beck’s rally does obviously raise the presumption that NPR staffers would be interested in the former and not the later — ergo, NPR staffers are liberally inclined. (I have no problem with that, only that it is masked under NPR’s Shroud of Turin Objectivity.) Shepard merely repeats and accepts the company line without real discussion of it. She doesn’t deal with the journalistic questions I raised, only repeats the cant of freshman journalism seminars about objectivity:

But at the end of the day, they have to be professional – and that means avoiding actions that create the perception that they are taking sides in political controversies, including elections.

If you really mean that, then you should follow Washington Post ex-editor Leonard Downie’s vow of voting chastity and order that staff may not cast ballots. For that is taking sides. Except it’s done in private. So it doesn’t create perceptions. That, then, is what this entire episode is really about: perceptions, the PR in NPR.

“She sees her job as explaining NPR to listeners, and listeners to NPR,” says Shepard’s network bio. I’d say she does the former and not the latter. Shepard’s term is about to end (note my restraint, please, in making further comment on that event). NPR: I’ll repeat: Love ya. But please, please this time give the public a representative who sees it as her job to represent the public, not management and the Priesthood of The Way It Has Always Been Done, Amen.

: UPDATE: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller’s response to the kerfuffle is more intelligent and nuanced than Shepard’s. But it still comes down to the same bottom line: appearances.

We live in an age of “gotcha” journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. We need to err on the side of protecting our journalism, our journalists, and our reputation. While the credibility and trust that attaches to the NPR brand depends principally on the quality of our news reporting, it can be easily undermined if our public conduct is at odds with the standards we seek to uphold as a news organization.

  • P. Lee

    NPR lost me when they went against micro radio stations.

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  • http://www.workingwithwords.blogspot.com John Ettorre

    The priesthood of the way it’s best done and most responsibly done will always trump your facile approach, because that cohort is both smarter and more serious about journalism than you’ll ever be.

  • http://twitter.com/jmproffitt John Proffitt

    What? Alicia Sheppard got all “high and haughty” on this topic? She blames the blogosphere? Say it ain’t so.

    Sadly, that’s been the Sheppard M.O. all along and it’s why she was a poor replacement for Dvorkin, and it’s good she’s leaving NPR at this point. I’ve seen her in action at a conference and the “haughty” approach is her only approach.

    Say what you will about the memo on attending the rallies (I tend to agree with you Jeff, though maybe not so violently), but NPR’s current CEO is much more progressive and open-minded than the memo suggests. One wonders if Sheppard was the real muscle behind the memo.

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  • http://davidmacdonaldmusic.com Dave

    Don’t worry, Jeff. I should be writing my dissertation right now, but I’m reading your blog instead.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate you being the whipping boy for the dark side. I also love that I, a Presbyterian-Rotariana, has been characterized as a “crazy uncle type” geek and a member of the “dark-side,” all in one month.

    It’s with some irony that the “MSM” I feel has the most impressive team of on-air “talent” and producers who truly “get” the “conversation” aspect of the revolution that’s taking place would be led by executives who are so tone deaf to what’s happening.

  • Eric Gauvin

    You’ve written off the MSM a long time ago for much worse than this, so why get all upset about the nuances of their internal policy communications?

    You’ve got bigger fish to fry — and a book to write…

  • http://sdrostra.com Bradley J. Fikes

    Corporate brass are not known for their candid truth-telling, so it’s no surprise that NPR’s executives are more concerned about perception than reality. Easier to make a meaningless gesture and call critics trolls than to address the substance of their complaints.

    BTW, the NPR memo didn’t confuse me – I assumed the Stewart event would be covered.

  • http://twitter.com/jmproffitt John Proffitt

    I would caution everyone to NOT lump Schiller and Sheppard into the same camp. Sheppard (the outgoing ombudsman) is the old press hack that distrusts everyone that wasn’t educated in the finest journalism schools, preferably in the northeast.

    Schiller, by contrast, is much more in tune with new media, having done new media at the NY Times. She gets it far more than almost anyone else in a corner office throughout all of public broadcasting. I would rather see NPR under Schiller’s modernizing leadership than Sheppard’s mid-20th-century academic notions of objectivity.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      I agree, John.

      • Kathleen Pavelko

        Schiller’s a real asset to NPR and Shepard’s departure won’t be a loss.

        Schiller’s point is important: NPR can’t and shouldn’t be indifferent to the perception of listeners/donors because our brand (fact-based journalism on multiple platforms, with a locally valued outlet in every community) depends on listener trust. NPR is falsely charged with being the tool of liberals (this is different from having liberals on the staff) all the time and therefore must defend itself both proactively and retrospectively.

  • http://blogdredd.blogspot.com/ Dredd

    You had it right, NPR had it wrong.

    NPR was taken over by you know who some time ago.

  • Roger Davies

    It sounds a bit like defensiveness caused by trying to defend a poor decision.

  • Harold Smith

    Jeff Jarvis: “If you really mean that, then you should follow Washington Post ex-editor Leonard Downie’s vow of voting chastity and order that staff may not cast ballots.”

    Leonard Downie Jr.: “Good question. Each story we publish is reviewed by several editors who check for accuracy and fairness, in addition to journalistic quality. We try to hire reporters and editors who do not bring biases with them and we require them to adhere to a strict code of ethics, which, among other things, prohibits all political activity except voting.”

    Jeff, I’m confused. Am I misreading or not understanding what one or both of you wrote?

    As to your main point, yep, it is all about perception. Attending the rally is attending the rally, period. It’s not like the NPR reporters are going to be writing zingers for Stewart or Colbert to be flinging at Beck or Palin or Pelosi or Olbermann.

    In the end, it’s CEO CYA.

  • Kevin Selle

    (Sigh…) We’re so close. C’mon, Jeff, take us over the goal line.

    You wrote,
    Shepard merely repeats and accepts the company line without real discussion of it.

    Yes! We need the discussion, the conversation. When you post on your blog, then she responds with a press release, then you post again…you both are shouting into the wind from different cities.

    Get on the phone, or Skype, call her…pin her down and have a conversation with some give and take.

    The politicians in Washington have mastered the art of manipulating the media by standing alone and making snide comments about each other.

    C’mon folks…man up. Get her on the phone make her defend herself with you there so you can respond. Then defend yourself and make her respond.

    The Tea Party and associated activities are because we are frustrated and there is a deadlock between the two parties.

    Please, Jeff. Get her on the phone, don’t take no for an answer THEN move on to the next thing.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Kevin,
      she’s lame duck. I’d rather engage her successor.
      And I was on email with someone there about this this weekend.
      Engagement wlll come.

      • Stan Hogan

        As someone who thinks NPR did the right thing I would hope there will be further engagement, which might enlighten people like you, if not you.

        Your dismissive reference to her as a “lame duck,” as though that makes her argument irrelevant, comes across as juvenile.

        Actually, you should be thanking her for referring to you as a “media expert,” the most factually challenged part of her column.

  • Kevin Selle

    Fantastic! Looking forward to it, thanks. Then every member of Congress, please.

  • http://www.programdoctor.com Jim Russell

    What seems to have been lost in this hubbub is plain old common sense.

    A good news organization should not (and in some cases CANNOT legally) deny its staff the right to exercise the privileges of being an American citizen — to have and to state their PERSONAL opinions.

    BUT. To the extent that the ORGANIZATION’S credibility and good name is being used or is leveraging those opinions … and thereby being tainted by them … the ORGANIZATION must have the right to resist such behavior by its staff.

    Therefore, there is and should be a happy medium. Staff should be able to appear at events anonymously, state personal opinions without reference to his/her employment.

    If that deprives you of your “cred,” it is a sure sign that you are trading on your organization’s reputation — and you should not do so.

  • Abe

    Jeff, I’m not sure why you’re so opposed to reporters not taking sides. It’s not just a rule in freshman journalism seminars.

    Though even in freshman seminars, we learn that it’s fairness that’s at issue. Objectivity is unattainable, buf fairness is a worthy goal. You always twist the argument by deriding any claim of objectivity. Fight the argument where the argument is, Jeff, at fairness.

    You want the person who gives you an account of the oil spill not to be a BP shareholder, or an environmental advocate either. You want someone who hasn’t already chosen a side.

    At least, that’s what I want.

    Do you genuinely think is what we need is more opinion-pushing and less fact-fathering?

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Abe,
      I’m'not opposed to them not taking sides. As others point out here, there are many stories without sides (e.g., covering the murder).
      What I’m opposed to is reporters hiding the sides they’re already on when their perspective would be relevant to their audiences’ ability to judge and put in perspective what they are doing. Even having given that perspective, the reporter is held to the standards of fairness and intellectual honesty you and I aspire to. But today, they are holding secrets from their public and that is reducing trust and that’s the problem I have.

    • Eric Gauvin

      Okay, I should be writing my Oscar-winning screenplay, but…

      In terms of reporting news with fairness (assuming you think that’s attainable), the reporters who are assigned to the rally would need to disclose anything that that is “relevant to their audiences’ ability to judge and put in perspective what they are doing.” And as you said, “Oh, and they’re liberal. No guessing needed.”

      The policy you are complaining about is for the people who aren’t assigned to cover it.

      What do you think is the best way to report news fairly?

      • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

        I’m also saying that journalists who aren’t covering it should be curious about it to understand it. NPR reporters off-duty *should* have shown up at the Beck Rally to try to figure out the what and why of it. Stories would come out of that, not out of isolation, out of quarantining the journalists.

      • Andy Freeman

        > NPR reporters off-duty *should* have shown up at the Beck Rally to try to figure out the what and why of it.

        Aren’t you assuming that typical paid reporters are/should be folks who would be reporting even if they weren’t paid instead of folks who report only when they’re beig paid?

        While there are professions where the employed do much the same thing recreationally, they’re the exceptions. Most professions are like assembly line workers. Folks who work on car assembly lines are not more likely to work on their own cars than other people.

        Which category are reporters in?

    • Eric Gauvin

      I guess my real question is, do you think employees at a large mainstream news organization (trying to uphold hight standards) can also be “citizen journalists?”

      That seems to be what you are saying.

      • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

        I’m saying that journalists are also citizens and if so are members of the community with interests there and that’s good; better than thinking they are separate from — above — the community.

  • Fen

    I’m just laughing over NPR claiming it has credibility left to defend.

  • http://blog.stealthmode.com francine hardaway

    Congress is NPR’s terrorist threat. Eventually, NPR will be listener supported (if the Tea Party has its way), freeing it up to be one of us again. I think it will be difficult for NPR to attract and keep good talent in the future if it prohibits that talent from going out in the community to see what’s happening and what the mood is. BTW, if I were a politician of any party, I’d be there just to see what the mood of the future of our country might be.

  • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

    One of the best things that NPR and PBS could do would be to stop taking government funds. It isn’t that big of a fraction of their budget anymore. There would be a temporary pain, but I think in the long run more people and companies would be willing to donate, and they would never have to worry about offending their paymasters.

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  • http://www.conferencedepartment.com Roger Wilson

    If, as Mr. Jarvis believes, NPR is “holding secret” the generally leftish views of their staff, it has got to be one of the worst kept secrets on the planet. But I suspect this whole brouhaha relates more to fears about inside-the-beltway relationships among the press corps, the think-tank intelligentsia, lobbyists and political professionals than anything else, the “guess who I saw at the Stewart thing” factor.

  • merkel

    I agree with Roger post, the greatest the secret wont be achieved by holding leftish view but letting any person, be it professionals or the general staff.

  • Michael Pate

    So now NPR has fired Juan Williams, not for attending a Washington protest march, but for stating how he actually feels rather than utter some politically correct but untrue statement. I will be ecstatic when this organization that I don’t support, don’t listen to and get absolutely no benefit from no longer is supported by my tax dollars.

  • http://sustainablejournalism.org/weblog/post/2572/ Leonard Witt

    Hi Jeff:

    I attended the speech that Vivian Schiller, NPR CEO, gave at the Atlanta Press Club today and afterward got a nice video of her explaining why NPR terminated Juan Williams’ contract.

    I tried to get in a Jeff Jarvis argument, but she jumped right into an answer. See: http://sustainablejournalism.org/weblog/post/2745/

  • Tex Lovera

    And now, Schiller shoots off HER mouth about Juan and his “psychiatrist”. Then, when the shitstorm hits, she “apologizes”.

    Funny how she gets to “apologize” and keep her job, but Juan gets fired.

    Schiller should resign or be fired.

    Defund NPR.

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    Jeff Jarvis: “If you really mean that, then you should follow Washington Post ex-editor Leonard Downie’s vow of voting chastity and order that staff may not cast ballots.”

    Leonard Downie Jr.: “Good question. Each story we publish is reviewed by several editors who check for accuracy and fairness, in addition to journalistic quality. We try to hire reporters and editors who do not bring biases with them and we require them to adhere to a strict code of ethics, which, among other things, prohibits all political activity except voting.”

    Jeff, I’m confused. Am I misreading or not understanding what one or both of you wrote?

    As to your main point, yep, it is all about perception. Attending the rally is attending the rally, period. It’s not like the NPR reporters are going to be writing zingers for Stewart or Colbert to be flinging at Beck or Palin or Pelosi or Olbermann.

    In the end, it’s CEO CYA.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Only Downie held to a no-voting policy. I’m saying that one would extend that to others if one thinks any political activity is corrupting.

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