Did NPR whitewash Ted Kennedy’s career?

National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia Shepard has blown the whistle on her employer’s news staff for its coverage of the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy:


But on that first day, in the 23 on-air stories, only one mentioned the name Mary Jo Kopechne and 5 mentioned Chappaquiddick.

Shepard was responding to complaints from listeners who suggested the network was whitewashing Kennedy’s biography:


Kennedy may have been a great legislator. He may have been a wonderful uncle, a terrific father, a faithful friend and rejoiced in his second marriage, but there were warts too. He got kicked out of Harvard for cheating. He was known in his younger years for womanizing and drinking too much. In 1991, he was carousing with his son, Patrick and nephew, William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach. Later that night, a woman accused Smith of raping her. Smith was tried and later acquitted.

Not everyone loved Teddy Kennedy. He was a complex man with a family history that defies belief when all the tragedies are strung together. To accurately portray any man or woman, it is just as important to fully include what is unpleasant or unflattering — especially since those events for Kennedy went a long way toward shaping who Teddy Kennedy was when he died.

  • Bobbydole

    please he just died, people tend to focus on the good stuff when people die..

  • Sean

    And no one said “yay the pedophile is dead” when MJ died. Cry me a river people.

  • Bob Collins

    //people tend to focus on the good stuff when people die..

    We’re not talking people, we’re talking journalists tasked with an accounting of someone’s life. It’s not a “taste” question, it’s an “ethical” question.

    I recall once getting into trouble when writing an obit for Rudy Perpich, noting that his detractors called him Governor Goofy.

    So the question is: If you bow to only a flattering portrait, are you distorting a story?

    That’s the issue that Shepard was dealing with.

  • http://minnesota.publicradio.org Ken Paulman

    It’s a legitimate question, and comments 1 and 2 illustrate the kind of pressure media organizations are under when it comes to political obituaries.

    I recall a similar debate when Reagan died.

  • Karl

    Then every time Nancy Reagan talks about how she’s such a big advocate of stem-cell research–like when NPR reported she worked with Kennedy on that issue–listeners should be reminded that Ronnie Reagan was the one who first politicized the issue and brought federal research on stem-cells to a screeching halt at the demand of the anti-choice community.

  • John P.

    We just traditionally say the good things we can about those have just died. Respect for the grief of their family and the fact that they can’t fight back seem like good enough reasons to do that. History will highlight Ted Kennedy’s or Ronald Reagan’s flaws as time passes.

  • John W

    I resented the whitewash of Kennedy AND MJ. Just because they died doesn’t remove them from the taint of scandal. They were larger-than-life men who did some heinous things. Last I recall, negligent homicide and rape were newsworthy.

    At lunch yesterday, several of were bemoaning the over-the-top coverage of Ted Kennedy’s funeral. I mentioned the old rape allegation story. “WHAT” said one of our younger companions. Seems they were too young to catch the story the first go-around. And since the media ignored it the second, they failed in their duty to inform.

  • Bob Collins

    So in matters of obituaries, facts should be ignored if they reflect poorly on the dearly departed?

  • kates

    while I agree with John P that history will tend to include the facts, both good and bad, John W’s story illustrates the need for the media to present all facts from the first go-round. our short attention span means many people won’t be paying attention the second or third time an issue is brought up.

  • kennedy

    I guess the question is, “What is the point of an obituary?” Looking at the ones in today’s paper, they generally talk about the major accomplishments in a person’s life.

    Does an obituary for a well-known person have a different standard? Who’s job is it to point out the failures of the recently deceased? What forum should be used?

    Relying on obituaries to provide a complete biography is ridiculous. I don’t expect any obituary to be anything other than flattering.

  • Bob Collins

    The obituaries in the paper and the obituaries as news stories of often two different things. Obituaries in the paper are often paid. Occasionally, someone is “important” enough to get a news story written, but that would be treated as a different beast.

    If a journalist writes it — even if it’s an obit — it should adhere to ethical standards.

  • GregS

    Chappaquiddick was not just a scandal, It was a central event in the life and career of Ted Kennedy. It should not have been excluded from stories.

    On the other hand, is anyone shocked by NPR’s whitewach treatment of the Kennedy story?

  • kennedy

    Perhaps the need for full disclosure depends on the nature and depth of the story. A story on how his death will affect the health care debate need not provide a full biography. However, a story that is biographical should include major events good or bad.

    The only biographical coverage of Ted Kennedy that I tuned in to was on MPR. Maybe I got lucky, but the story I heard did include Chappaquiddick described as the sinking of his presidential aspirations.