National Public Radio is backing away from a revised job description for its ombudsman that suggested the person in the position should avoid "passing judgment" on any errors in NPR News coverage, calling that listing "a mistake."
Earlier this week, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen highlighted a job listing for the NPR ombudsman/public editor position, which has historically reviewed and critiqued NPR's reporting. The listing asserted the role did not include "passing judgment" or providing "commentary."
In one section it stated, "The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment." Another section added, "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."
Citing the concerns of two former NPR ombudsmen, Rosen declared that the outlet had "downgraded the ombudsman position."
Following the criticism, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn issued a statement to Media Matters calling the language a "mistake":
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.
Several NPR member stations had expressed concerns to Media Matters about the apparent reduction in the power of the ombudsman.
The gaffe police were on vigilant patrol last week, keenly monitoring Hillary Clinton's book release media tour and pronouncing much of it to be a failure.
The former first lady, senator, and secretary of state sat for a series of lengthy interviews that covered an array of topics, from the Iraq War to transgender rights, and spoke for hours to some the country's leading journalists during long-form Q&A's. (So much for the claim that Clinton shields herself away from the news media.)
By setting aside the substance and parsing Clinton's words in search of stumbles, the press announced Clinton suffered a "rough week" because of two alleged miscues: She spoke accurately about the state of her personal finances in early 2001 when she and her husband Bill Clinton were "broke." And she pushed back against National Public Radio's Terry Gross when she repeatedly tried to pigeonhole Clinton on the sensitive and personal issue of gay marriage. (i.e. Hillary got "testy" according to the GOP operatives who circulated the audio and much of the media who reported on it).
Those were the "gaffes" that earned her a mostly thumbs down review from the theater critics who pass as Beltway political pundits and who declared her performance was "rusty"; that Clinton had become "rattled" and emotional, according to Maureen Dowd. (Texas Governor Rick Perry last week likening homosexuality to alcoholism? That wasn't really treated as a major political gaffe for a possible 2016 candidate.)
Bloomberg's Albert Hunt summed up the agreed-upon conventional wisdom nicely when he wrote that Clinton suffered a "rough rollout for her new book" because the week contained "gaffes" and "awkward answers."
Well, at least she didn't cackle.
Note that the "broke" "gaffe" consisted of Clinton repeating commonly known facts about her at-times precarious finances more than a decade ago; facts that have been reported many times in the press. The Clintons, the New York Times noted on September 19, 1999, "are the least prosperous couple to live in the White House in many years." The Times noted "the Clintons have slightly more than $1 million in assets, but are still saddled by a $5 million legal debt." (In 2001, The New Yorker pegged the Clinton's legal bills at "eleven or twelve million dollars.")
The press seemed especially judgmental following the NPR interview with Gross who created the false impression that Clinton had stonewalled and dodged over the issue of marriage equality, despite the fact Clinton repeatedly answered Gross' question. What's a politician supposed to do when an interviewer repeatedly tries to assign cynical motivations for a policy shift if the politician insists that motivation isn't accurate? Should the politician simply go along with the allegation or should she push back and clarify, even as the interviewer again and again clings to the same position?
Clinton response was to push back a bit on NPR: "I think you're reading it very wrong." And "That's just flat wrong."
But apparently she was supposed to roll over. Because by standing up for herself (while never raising her voice), Clinton was breathlessly tagged as combative and unnerved in the wake of a mildly contentious back-and-forth:
Instapundit called her "testy," as did MSNBC, and New York Magazine does, too, also writing that "Hillary won't say she evolved on gay marriage." The Wall Street Journal also picks up the "testy" line, while the New York Daily News prefers "lashes out" in a "tense" interview. Mediaite says she "snaps" at NPR's interviewer. Oh, and Politico prefers "testy."
The media message to Clinton was clear last week: You can't lose your cool when dealing with the press. You can't try to intimidate reporters. And you certainly can't try to bluster them off tough questions. Those are the guidelines established for Clinton if she plans to run to become the country's first woman president.
Who is allowed to do all those things? Chris Christie, for one.
From the June 15 edition of Fox News' MediaBuzz:
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By repeatedly asking the same question, NPR correspondent Terry Gross created the false impression that Hillary Clinton was stonewalling and dodging over the issue of marriage equality, despite the fact that Clinton consistently and repeatedly answered Gross' question.
As a senator and during her 2008 presidential run, Clinton supported civil unions for same-sex couples and opposed marriage equality. In a March 2013 statement, she announced that "I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples. I support it personally and as a matter of policy and law." She explained that her travels as secretary of state and her daughter's wedding had been key to her changing her opinion on the issue.
Gross' central question was whether Clinton changed her publicly stated position and supported gay marriage out of political expedience, a question she asked seven separate times during an NPR interview. Clinton consistently rejected Gross' characterization throughout the interview, instead saying that her views on the issue changed over time.
As Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) woos young voters ahead of an expected 2016 presidential bid, it's become conventional wisdom among many Beltway pundits that Paul could broaden the GOP's appeal with his ostensibly tolerant views on social issues - never mind that that this narrative is completely divorced from Paul's traditional conservative positions on such topics.
Paul's effort to win over Millennials and other constituencies historically suspicious of the GOP came to the fore with his March 19 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, where Paul condemned government surveillance programs as a threat to privacy.
The chattering class proclaimed that the speech was emblematic of Paul's appeal as an unconventional, "intriguing" Republican. And despite Paul's conservative stances on issues like marriage equality, reproductive choice, and creationism, many media outlets have also pointed to Paul as the kind of candidate who could help move the GOP away from its hardline social positions. It's a narrative that even some of Paul's conservative critics have come to accept, as Charles Krauthammer showed when he called Paul "very much a liberal on social issues."
A look at media coverage of Paul helps explain where Krauthammer got that notion.
The photographer who captured Obama's selfie with the Danish Prime Minister criticized the media frenzy surrounding the picture as 'unfortunate' and "sad" during an interview on NPR, citing a Media Matters report that found the majority of cable coverage of Nelson Mandela's memorial focused on the selfie and Obama's handshake with the Cuban president rather than Mandela himself.
When President Obama and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a "selfie" together during the December 10 memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the photograph quickly became one of the biggest media stories of the week, eclipsing even Mandela.
According to a Media Matters report, a majority of cable news coverage of Mandela's memorial service focused on Obama's selfie and his handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro rather than on the service itself or Mandela's legacy.
Roberto Schmidt, the Agence France-Presse photographer who captured the selfie, criticized the obsessive coverage of the picture as unfortunate during an interview on the December 16 edition of NPR's On The Media. According to Schmidt, the photograph gave "refreshing" insight into the "human-side" of "dignitaries" and was not "shamefully disrespectful," but the media has "blown it out of proportion." He added:
SCHMIDT: [W]e put out close to 500 images that day and some of the images are very, very interesting, nice, strong images, showing the celebration for Nelson Mandela. And unfortunately, you know, the picture that got the most front-pages in dailies and websites around the world was the selfie.
Host Brooke Gladstone asked Schmidt about Media Matters' report about media coverage and the media storm surrounding his photo, and he decried it as "just sad," wondering what it "say[s] about our society" [emphasis added]:
From the November 8 edition of National Public Radio's All Things Considered:
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News Corp. not only declined to participate in David Folkenflik's new book about Rupert Murdoch, but "actively discouraged" people from speaking with the NPR veteran, while also "denigrating" his reputation, the author says.
Still, Folkenflik says he was able to conduct his reporting for Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires and has come away with a detailed look at how the mogul built and sustains a global media conglomerate. In a wide-raging Wednesday interview with Media Matters, Folkenflik discussed Fox News' role in Republican Party primaries ("arbiter and umpire"), the network's PR department (Roger Ailes' "unbridled id"), the "searing experience" the Murdoch family has undergone due to the still unfolding phone-hacking scandal in Britain, how the network used Juan Williams' firing to "unleash" unprecedented "vitriol" on NPR, and what the future may hold for the empire Murdoch built.
Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to write this book since so much has been written about Murdoch and News Corp.?
I thought that the extraordinary revelations of the summer of 2011, which I was involved in covering for NPR, offered an extraordinary and new window into the inner workings of how News Corp. operated. If you look at it it involved his properties in England, and yet the stakes were felt very keenly here in the heart of midtown Manhattan just a few blocks from our bureau where News Corp. has its global headquarters. And as I looked at the story more closely, it became clear to me that there were commonalities in the cultures that News Corp. had created, particularly in the three great English-speaking nations in which Murdoch casts such a great shadow, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. That they evolved differently in some ways through the culture of each country, and yet there were these common threads that I thought were worth exploring and teasing out and understanding ... I thought it was important to see what kind of steward he had been at The Wall Street Journal, how Fox and Murdoch had operated in the age of Obama, and what possibly could give rise to the conditions that would allow what now appears to have been fairly widespread criminality to have occurred at his two best-selling newspapers.
Newly christened Fox News contributor George Will sat down with NPR's Steve Inskeep on the October 9 Morning Edition to educate us all on the subtle governmental intricacies behind the week-old government shutdown and the week-or-so-away debt limit fracture. Leaning on the Founding Fathers, Will gave his stamp of approval to the Republican-led effort to repeal Obamacare and argued against the inviolability of the Affordable Care Act as "the law," observing that "the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law, lots of things are the law and then we change them."
Will is right: laws are not sacrosanct and can be altered or thrown out at any time. Obamacare is real-time proof of that -- the Supreme Court upheld the law but ruled that states could not be forced to participate in its expansion of Medicaid. But that's a pedestrian observation made provocative by the out-of-line invocation of segregation and slavery. "Separate but equal" and the Fugitive Slave Act were moral travesties; the ACA helps people buy health insurance. The similarities begin and end with their status as laws. Other laws have been scuttled too -- Prohibition, for example -- but Will chose those two particular laws and in doing so invited a comparison that he can't justify because it's unjustifiable.
And then there's Will's assertion that what we're seeing with the government shutdown and the attendant gridlock over Obamacare is the "Madisonian scheme," the idea that government is "hard to move, it's supposed to be. People look at Washington and say 'oh, this is so difficult.' It's supposed to be difficult."
Again, Will is right that governing and passing legislation is hard work. It was hard work for the Democrats to win majorities in both houses of Congress, and it was hard work for Barack Obama to win the presidency in 2008. Even with those majorities, it was really quite difficult for the president and the Democrats to craft a health care bill and get it through Congress, and they paid a difficult price for it at the ballot box in 2010. Defending the law in front of the Supreme Court was a monumentally difficult task, and even though it emerged, it did not do so unscathed. And then Obama and the Democrats had to go before the electorate again, in 2012, to defend the law, and not only did they succeed, they actually improved their standing in both the House and the Senate.
NPR pushed the myth that increasing the minimum wage would result in job losses. However, a wealth of economic evidence disputes the claim that minimum wage hikes are job killers.
In an August 29 post on the nationwide fast-food workers' strike, NPR gave credence to the myth that increasing the minimum wage forces businesses to cut jobs. Rather than turning to economists, the piece, which described the plight of fast food workers, quoted a restaurant industry lobbyist who claimed that increasing the minimum wage would kill jobs:
Industry officials say a sharp increase in the minimum wage would kill jobs.
"Doubling the minimum wage is absolutely, positively going to reduce the number of jobs," says Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association. He says the industry is proud that one-third of all American adults got their start in restaurant jobs. Part-time work and flexible schedules are a big attraction for many, he says, and he points out that half of those making the minimum wage are teenagers.
Above all, DeFife says, the restaurant industry offers opportunity. "It's there for people who have had economic difficulties in the past, or who may not have finished four years of a college or university program," he says.
Media outlets including NPR and Fox News are targeting federal disability benefits programs through a campaign deceptively portraying these programs as wasteful and unsustainable. In reality, these programs have low fraud rates and help the rising number of Americans with severe disabilities survive when they are unable to work.
A wide swath of media figures have cited economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff's January 2010 finding that a country's economic growth becomes impaired when its debt level exceeds 90 percent of gross domestic product. But the Reinhart-Rogoff paper is premised on an Excel error, revealed when other researchers reviewed the data underlying the commonly-cited debt-to-GDP threshold claim.
Austerity proponents, such as House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), frequently claim that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 90 percent signals economic doom, using Reinhart and Rogoff's work as leverage for imposing sharp cuts that economists agree would do serious harm to economic growth. Media coverage of budget and economic policy throughout the past three years has also repeated that claim, often without a direct connection to the Reinhart-Rogoff work from which the notion derives.
But that work, arguably the lynchpin of the case for imposing austerity in order to deliver economic growth, is crippled by basic errors, as the Roosevelt Institute's Mike Konczal explains:
From the beginning there have been complaints that Reinhart and Rogoff weren't releasing the data for their results (e.g. Dean Baker). I knew of several people trying to replicate the results who were bumping into walls left and right - it couldn't be done.
In a new paper, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadhseet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed.
They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result. [...]
So what do Herndon-Ash-Pollin conclude? They find "the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent as [Reinhart-Rogoff claim]." Going further into the data, they are unable to find a breakpoint where growth falls quickly and significantly.
Rogoff and Reinhart responded to the criticism, which has since been criticized as a weak rebuttal. But now that those numbers are known to be wrong, the litany of media outlets which have cited them have an opportunity to reexamine their coverage of the austerity premise. Print media, notably The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have frequently reproduced the Reinhart-Rogoff thesis in covering budget and economic policy. Television and radio media have made frequent use of the Reinhart-Rogoff paper, including prominent mentions on NPR, CNN, and Fox Business.
The Reinhart-Rogoff threshold has long been challenged by fellow economists, such as former Federal Reserve economist Joseph Gagnon, Paul Krugman, and Josh Bivens and John Irons of the Economic Policy Institute, on the grounds that it gets the directionality of causation exactly wrong. These and other economists argue that high debt levels are a consequence of prolonged weak GDP growth, rather than its cause.
As the Center for Economic and Policy Research's Dean Baker notes, however, the newly discovered errors obviate these more intricate economist responses to Reinhart-Rogoff: "we need not concern ourselves with any arguments this complicated. The basic R&R story was simply the result of them getting their own numbers wrong."
From the April 5 edition of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes:
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NPR gave undue credence to wind power opponents who claim turbines are "making them ill" with a variety of symptoms. But there is no demonstrated link between wind turbines and health impacts, and studies suggest that psychological factors are behind these symptoms.
In a post titled, "Could Wind Turbines Be Toxic To The Ear?" NPR gave pediatrician Nina Pierpont a platform to promote "wind turbine syndrome," a term she coined. Although NPR noted that her claims "have been met with heavy skepticism from a host of experts in energy and public health," it nonetheless suggested that a recent scientific review supported her "self-published report."
Pierpont's report consisted of telephone interviews with 23 people who responded to an ad asking for people who claimed to experience "wind turbine syndrome," and their anecdotes about 15 family members.
The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, Canada stated in a report that "no conclusions on the health impact of wind turbines can be drawn from Pierpont's work due to methodological limitations including small sample size, lack of exposure data, lack of controls and selection bias." Pierpont claimed that her paper was peer-reviewed, but it was actually evaluated by people she selected, including her husband, an anti-wind activist who compares his struggle to the civil rights movement:
Dr. Martin Luther King (see below) didn't use lawyers. Neither did Gandhi, who was a trained lawyer. Wrong strategy. If you think the Big Wind Onslaught is not on the scale of a Gandhi and King, but just a minor issue -- think again.
As Rosa Parks did, when she sparked the Civil Rights movement: you need to refuse to give up your seat to the wind bastard on the bus.
NPR also trumpeted the significance of a new scientific review, saying it "showed that outer hair cells of the cochlea respond to infrasound, which could affect the functioning of the ear." But there is no evidence that the outer hair cell response actually does "affect the functioning of the ear." Previous reviews have also noted that outer hair cells respond to infrasound, but nevertheless concluded "[a]vailable evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the vestibular system."
Under fire for a sloppy report that leaned on anecdotal evidence to make sweeping generalizations about federal disability benefits, NPR has edited portions of that report even as Ira Glass publicly defends the initial reporting.
On March 22, Media Matters highlighted several myths and errors in a report from NPR's Planet Money about Supplemental Security Insurance, a federal disability program for children. The report drew further criticism, and more than 100 organizations that advocate for and support people with disabilities have signed a letter criticizing the piece, saying it "paints a misleading and inaccurate picture of the Social Security programs that serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with severe disabilities."
On March 26, This American Life host Ira Glass responded to Media Matters' criticism by claiming he stood by his program's work, saying "our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors" and that "We know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."
But while Glass publicly claimed to stand behind the story, Wired Business senior writer Ryan Tate has noted that the online text version of the radio program has been altered since its original posting.
NPR has since said that the changes were made "for clarity after publication."