Harry Shearer vs. NPR

Every now and again, the curtain is pulled back on the newsroom of National Public Radio. NPR’s ombudsman does so today with the story of Harry Shearer’s complaint that he couldn’t promote his film about Hurricane Katrina on other NPR shows, because he had already been booked to appear on Talk of the Nation.

It also gets into the always-controversial question of “underwriting” on public radio, because NPR refused Shearer’s copy for an “underwriting credit” to promote his documentary.

As is now standard, Shearer took his complaint to the Huffington Post.


Well, here’s a clue about what NPR stands for now. I’ve just made a documentary film about why New Orleans flooded, “The Big Uneasy”, in theaters nationwide on Monday. Having been denied access to coverage by either of the network’s two flagship news programs, I decided to buy in, purchasing some of those “enhanced underwriting” announcements that the rest of us would call ads.

Ombudsman Alicia Shepard (who is leaving NPR) responded:


But NPR has devoted extensive coverage over the past five years to Katrina and the aftermath. And NPR did cover Shearer’s new film – just not in the way he wanted it.

Shearer’s attitude that it’s only worthwhile to appear on a flagship shows ignores how the Internet has changed news consumption. Millions of people hear NPR content on podcasts, online and on mobile phones.

It was disingenuous of Shearer to criticize NPR on Huffington Post without mentioning that he had in fact appeared, for a half-hour, on an NPR show.

Just another day in the news business.

(h/t: David Brauer)

  • bsimon

    Point: Shearer. Which is not to say that I agree with his point, merely that he is now getting coverage beyond that which NPR had originally allocated. For instance, I am unable to listen to ToTN, and thus would have missed the piece – but now am aware of the film.

  • Harry Shearer

    In the relentless quest for “on the one hand, this/on the other hand that” coverage, both npr’s ombudsman and this columnist ignore certain unssailable facts:

    NPR has never covered the story of the whistleblower inside the Corps of Engineers whose allegations, investigated and supported by the US Office of Special Counsel (inside the Justice Department) raises the question of whether the “new, improved” system will fail catastrophically.

    Additionally, while the ombud frames the debate over acceptable language in the underwriting announcement as he said/he said, I supplied her with a copy of my email accepting the edit NPR Legal says they proposed. She gets no equivalent documentation from NPR legal, just a comment from a spokesperson.

    Petrhaps her next job shouldn’t be in journalism.

  • Mr. Shearer has taken the testimony of the experts and created a work of genius that puts gritty detail into a format people can understand.

    Mr. Shearer has done the investigative reporting about the metro New Orleans Flood in 2005 that no one else has done.

    When The Big Uneasy wins an Oscar, and after 100,000,000 viewers see the movie, all this nonsense will be put where it belongs.

    Sandy Rosenthal, wife, mom Who Dat and founder of Levees.org

  • This misses the point. Shearer wanted to underwrite a program, buy an ad, and his ad copy that read, “documentary about why New Orleans flooded” was rejected by NPR. He was told that in his sponsored spot he would have to use the words, “documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina” or they wouldn’t take his money and run his spot, which doesn’t surprise any one of us who’ve spent the last five years fighting to educate the public and influence the message sold by corporately funded media on the catastrophic infrastructure failure that killed 1800 Americans and destroyed more than 100,000 homes.

  • I resent NPR attempting to Frame this as “Harry Shearer vs NPR”.

    Rather than remedy the problem, N-PR would resort to throwing PR Spitballs at the victim of their censorship.

    Right, sew my lips shut and then tell everyone I’m screaming at you? Really? Do you seriously think this dog will hunt?

    It is obviously the other way around, NPR vs Harry Shearer, when you consider he is outnumbered here: by affiliates, by the ombudsman, by the lawyers, and by the sheer weight of N-PR being thrown at this by NPR.

    Harry played by the rules and N-PR changed those rules.

    Harry responded, and N-PR keeps attempting to Frame the story as something it is Not.

    Harry devotes a considerable amount of his career promoting N-PR, and N-PR does not reciprocate when public safety is at stake, as N-PR seems to accept the Corps of Engineers’ word over the copious engineering evidence to the contrary. N-PR would broach no counter-evidence to the Corps role in the flooding of New Orleans 8/29/05. N-PR would Dictate the words of Independent Engineering studies, for the only stupid reason being support for the Corps of Engineers or their Contractors, many of whom “advertise” on N-PR.

    N-PR missed a great deal in its biased coverage of the Flood of 8/29/05. For one thing they seem to have completely missed the Corps of Engineers role in that devastating man-made disaster.

    But I find it despicable that N-PR would also try to hide behind such tragedy of others as if they had some role in ameliorating it by their arguably lacking coverage of the Engineering Failures.

    N-PR completely missed Maria Garzino and the bad pumps. Some faux coverage is worse than no coverage.

    Finally, if N-PR doesn’t want Harry Shearer’s money to promote information Vital to Public Safety, then N-PR doesn’t get another dime of my money every again.

    They don’t need my money either for they have become truly National Public Relations radio.

  • Sanpete

    If Mr. Shearer wants to avoid “on the one hand, this/on the other hand that” and “he said/she said” coverage, he needs to do more than just say his claims are unassailable. For one thing, they aren’t. NPR did in fact cover the story of the whistleblower inside the Army Corps of Engineers.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10266237

    As for the email, let’s see the text of the exchange so we won’t have to judge based on assumed unassailability.

  • Sanpete, as I said: faux coverage is worse than no coverage. N-PR did NOT cover the Office of Special Counsel findings, which completely backed Ms Garzino –indeed said she did not go far enough!

    But N-PR did not follow this. Furthermore, the article you cited fails to report the engineering work of Mat MacBride at Fix the Pumps: http://www.fixthepumps.blogspot.com/

    –or Ms Garzino’s continued efforts to bring these inoperable pumps to light before they killed someone.

    N-PR allowed the Corps of Engineers to Lie: these pumps had never been run or tested at capacity. He lied right there and N-PR let it slide. Why? Because they have other stakeholders to please?

    This has been an ongoing story thanks to Ms Garzino. N-PR also failed to notice USA Today covering it: http://bit.ly/9B8OLZ

    Thanks to Ms Garzino, the bigger story here is that This Report from the OSC was laid on the President’s desk over a year ago, and we still have these bad, inoperable pumps.

    Right, N-PR, lemme see your Care Face!

  • Responding to Sanpete. You are correct that NPR did some initial coverage of Ms. Garzino’s allegations way back in 2007 which CLEARED the Army Corps of wrongdoing. Since then much more has happened, which is very significant.

    Since then, it has been certified by an independent engineering company (Aparique) that pumps costing taxpayers nearly a half billion dollars installed in New Orleans by the Corps of Engineers won’t work, according to the Office of Special Counsel in a June 12, 2009 letter to President Obama.

    Just as disturbing is news that the Defense Department, twice since 2007, and under two different Inspector Generals, rubberstamped an earlier investigation into Ms. Garzino’s allegations.

    Sandy Rosenthal, wife, mom Who Dat and founder of Levees.org

  • Sanpete

    I don’t doubt that national coverage of the issues facing New Orleans post-Katrina doesn’t meet the desires of those in New Orleans. That doesn’t make what Shearer said true. So far, after a free half hour on NPR, he has resorted to unsupported and misleading carping. I hope he’ll finally let whatever evidence he has speak for itself.

  • Says Sanpete: “I don’t doubt that national coverage of the issues facing New Orleans post-Katrina doesn’t meet the desires of those in New Orleans…..”

    Ad hominem. That is what it means when one has run out of talking points and so instead goes after the person(s).

  • Sanpete, no offense, but that isn’t really the point.

    Point #1: It is not Post “Katrina” but Post Flood.

    That is an important distinction which you have laid bare in your rhetoric here.

    That is the central point to The Big Uneasy, based on engineering studies –not Mr Shearer’s opinion.

    It is not Harry who accuses the Corps, but the damning evidence –just as this is not about Harry Shearer vs NPR but the other way around.

    Point #2: Harry tried to play ball and throw down the $$$s, but apparently N-PR has bigger stakeholders that would beg to differ with the Title description of the Federal Flooding of New Orleans. That is the only logical conclusion to N-PR’s actions in censoring The Big UnEasy.

    And yet now N-PR attempts to Frame this as Harry against N-PR? How limp. Harry Shearer has supported NPR for ever. Gimme a break.

    He could’ve gone anywhere with Le Show, BUT NO! And this is the thanks he gets HA!

    Getouttaheah N-PR!

  • Sanpete

    Sandy, I don’t know how you get an ad hominem out of that quote, but it doesn’t matter. Shearer just needs to put up, and then we can all tell what really happened.

    Editilla, this is MPR, not NPR. There is as yet no evidence of any censorship. On the contrary, Shearer got a free half hour, and it appears he could have had his ad too with some better communication.

  • Sanpete, I’ve been with MPR for ever too.

    They set the standard, not to mention the first coffee house in the nation ahem.

    We’ll see how this shakes out indeed.

    Please go see The Big Uneasy.

    It’ll knock yer’socks off.

    Who wouldn’t want to discover that New Orleans was flooded by Corps of Engineers incompetence, and that 53% of the nation’s population lives behind such levees. HA! http://bit.ly/9JJAJS

    It appears now that with N-PR…(NOT MPR:)

    what we have heah is a fail’yah to comoonicate!

  • Bob Collins

    Just to jump in her during this pause in the action. One of the things I’ve learned today is “Who Dat” is a noun.

    Now back to the action.

  • Sanpete

    Lynn S, who posts at the NPR discussions, points out that the NPR story I linked to was web-only, not broadcast on-air. There was an on-air story that mentioned the faulty pumps but not the whistleblower as a source. So Shearer may be correct, assuming he means that NPR didn’t cover the whistleblower, as opposed to the faulty pumps, on the air.

  • WHO DAT !!!

  • Harry Shearer

    Sampete, I did “put up”, it’s all in the film. And the background information supporting the film is available to you at thebiguneasy.com. The primary issue, beyond the silliness of the “Dibs” system–All Things Considered, except those considered on Talk of the Nation–is that NPR Legal contended my underwriting language was “personal opinion”, when anyone seeing the film or looking at the documentation on the website will conclude that it’s based on the factual findings of two independent forensic engineering investigations, and on the allegations of a whistleblower which have been independently investigated and vindicated by the US Office of Special Counsel. I’m not going to reprint private emails here, but suffice to say that the final email from NPR Legal did not mention the issue of “and why it could happen again”, as contended by the ombudsman. It only contained the language NPR Legal would approve: “documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina”.

  • Sanpete

    I don’t know what to make of this story, which is different every time I read it, and doesn’t make sense. At HuffPo you said,

    “And NPR legal told me this language was unacceptable, quote, ‘documentary about why New Orleans flooded’. The only language that they found acceptable was ‘documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina’. And when I told them it’s not about a hurricane, that was the end of the conversation.”

    No hint that you had accepted alternative language proposed by NPR. The clear implication was that you had not. When asked by Steve Moore of Mulligan Stew if NPR Legal explained why they rejected your language, you responded “lawyers don’t do that.”

    Then the Ombudsman says the language was “about why New Orleans flooded and why it could happen again,” which is materially different from what you had said. Her account clearly implies you were told why NPR Legal objected and that you responded to their reasoning. She says you rejected their proposed language. Then she seems to imply other language had been proposed, striking “and why it could happen again,” which you told her you had accepted, but that NPR Legal says they didn’t receive word from you accepting it.

    Above you say again you did accept “the edit NPR Legal says they proposed,” but then you say in your latest the last edit didn’t affect “and why it could happen again.” So which edit did you accept, and why wasn’t *that* the end of the conversation?

    I doubt NPR would object to you publishing the emails from their legal department that have become the focus of a public disagreement and that it appears both you and NPR are referring to.

  • Harry Shearer

    Okay, let me try to clarify, with the advisory that much of this is a smokescreen created by NPR legal to obscure the fact that their basic argument was that my core language, “documentary about why New Orleans flooded” was improperly opinion-based.

    Here, with address redactions, is the final proposal from NPR. Note the date: one week before the movie screened nationwide.

    From: (redacted)

    Subject: FW: The Big Uneasy -NPR

    Date: August 23, 2010 11:05:28 AM PDT

    To: Harry Shearer , (cc recipients redacted)

    Please see revised copy below from NPR. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Thanks -MKL

    HARRY SHEARER, PRESENTING HIS DOCUMENTARY “THE BIG UNEASY” ABOUT NEW ORLEANS AND HURRICANE KATRINA. IN THEATRES NATIONWIDE FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY – AUGUST 30TH.

    And this, from me, earlier. Note that it’s me who’s proposing the elision of the “and why” language, for time reasons:

    From: Harry Shearer

    To: (redacted)

    Sent: Wed Aug 18 17:07:40 2010

    Subject: Re: THE BIG UNEASY

    The spreadsheet says Lgth is :15. Not true?

    As for copy: “The Big Uneasy”, Harry Shearer’s new documentary film about why New Orleans flooded. IN theaters nationwide this Monday.

  • Sanpete

    That is helpful, but some things remain as mysterious as before.

    How did NPR respond to your shortened text, which they now seem to find acceptable? Did they reject it?

    Is there some correspondence showing their objection was specifically to “about why New Orleans flooded”?

    That’s always been the most perplexing part of the story. The only objection I can see to that language would be that they thought it might seem to endorse your particular view of why the flooding occurred, which they might have feared would have some controversial point in it. If so, that ought to have been a fear capable of being resolved. “Harry Shearer’s new documentary film about the flooding of New Orleans,” or whatever. NPR has referred to the flooding of NOLA often enough in such words.

  • Harry Shearer

    Look at the two dates. I have no response from NPR except the email from the 23d, which was presented to me as the only language they would find acceptable. Did they explain? They did not, hence my quote elsewhere that “lawyers never explain.” Given the date, one week before screening, I was out of time to try to explore their minds, I had to find someplace else to advertise the film.

  • Bob Collins, yes!

    While initially conjunctive, used to introduce a subordinate clause stating a result, wish, purpose, reason, or cause: “Who dat —say dey gonna beat dem Saints???”, it has become a Proper Noun which describes an individual or group made manifest by a particular belief system, in this case one born of disillusionment and wandering, though steeled by steadfast Faith and the Smell of Greatness in Our New Orleans Saints.

    Who Dats love each other because we know what it means to stick together despite our differences.

    Harry Shearer is most definitely a Who Dat.

    Who Dat describes any Citizen of the Saints Nation.

    Though arguably New Orleans, predominantly Louisiana and the Gulf Coast (with NOLA as its capital), you can find Who Dats all over America and even the rest of the world. Why, I even have a friend who calls himself a Foo Dat! Guess their country. You can even find Who Dats in Minnesota –but they be layin’low right now in condolent respect for Viking fans bless y’alls heart ahem. That was a good hard game opener and we know it’s a good chance our boys will face yours again this season.

    But it is Our Time.

    And again, we will ask you, who dat? Who dat?

    Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints?

  • Bob, since you brought it up, on last thing…ha!

    This illustrates the central, vicious point to Harry’s documentary of the facts behind the Federal Flooding of New Orleans 8/29/05.

    What you name a thing is most important.

    N-PR’s lawyers know this of course.

    It was NOT KATRINA that devastated New Orleans.

    That is the Fact of The Big Uneasy.

    It was NOT a Natural Disaster that forced 12,000 American citizens into the Who Dats’ most sacred space.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9v6-dnHtAE&feature=player_embedded

  • I lead an organization which for 5 years has been collecting and disseminating publicly available data and expert testimony on why metro New Orleans flooded. Our info was called “opinion” and “point of view” whenever those receiving that info found it not to their liking.

    Mr. Shearer received inexplicable push back when he tried to buy an ad to promote his documentary on NPR. The content of his movie, and why it took a ‘funny-man’ to produce it, may not be to the taste of those in control at NPR. And if that’s true, NPR’s refusal to accept the ad copy could be an abuse of power.

    Sandy Rosenthal, wife, mom, Who Dat and founder of Levees.org

  • Sanpete

    So, if I’m following this trail of bread crumbs correctly, the only word you got from NPR after the 18th was the email of the 23rd, which seems to make no reference to the one of the 18th, and isn’t clearly from the same person or department the one from the 18th was addressed to. Due to time constraints (and perhaps some exasperation judging from your later comments), you didn’t pursue the invitation of the 23rd to continue the process. I take it from your comment elsewhere that “the bickering went on for days” that there was substantial correspondence before the 18th, then, which must have been when the legal issues were discussed, and that the lack of further explanation after the 23rd was due to your choice to not pursue it. And it appears that your view that NPR Legal objected specifically to “why New Orleans flooded” is an inference based on their supplying copy not including that text.

    If the above is basically correct, it seems this whole to-do may have been (and continues to be) a matter of poor communication. It isn’t clear based on what you’ve said so far that NPR Legal really did object to “why New Orleans flooded” or that the parties to the conversation were all on the same page. The Ombudsman’s column suggests the objection was really to “and why it could happen again.”

    This isn’t to minimize the frustration and harm to your project (which I hope was minimal), but maybe the damage was due more to universal human foibles in communication than a peculiar legal doctrine.

  • Sanpete

    Sandy, there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that the ad copy was rejected because of some matter of taste regarding Shearer at NPR. That he got a half hour on NPR rather suggests the opposite.

  • Harry Shearer

    Sampete, clearly you love npr, so here’s all I can say in conclusion: it was made perfectly clear to me in telephone conversations with my marketing person–who, unlike me, was in direct contact with NPR Legal–that, in fact, their objection was to “why New Orleans flooded”. The other clause–“and why it could happen again”–was, as my email fo the 18th makes clear, eliminated by me for time constraints. The fact that NPR brought it up to Alicia was pure throwing sand in the umpire’s eyes, and it worked.

    Please give.

  • sampete,

    “but maybe the damage was due more to universal human foibles in communication than a peculiar legal doctrine.”

    You are talking about lawyers here right?

    It has become apparent to me that you are performing a function that I define in PR terms as “the Waterboy”, running between opposing arguments to reinterpret each side of the issue. This serves to spread ambiguity as to your stakeholder’s (N-PR in this case) actual position –which has been stated by them and their lawyers most succinctly.

    This is not a personal attack, but an observation of your tactics. N-PR canned promotion of The Big Uneasy –in this way– because they have greater interests of other stakeholders in mind. N-PR’s position is so indefensible that they must have you run interference for them on comments sections. It is known as Astroturfing: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Astroturf

    In light of the lack of honest reasoning on their part, we must speculate as to N-PR’s motivations for disallowing The Big Uneasy the same timely promotional opportunities that they grant Chevron, BP and other funding stakeholders.

    The bottom line here, and don’t try to kid me that this isn’t about the bottom line, is that N-PR has greater stakeholder allegiances that do We The Listeners.

    That truth is becoming increasingly self-evident.

  • Sanpete

    As I was saying before, this story changes every time I read it.

    I gather from what you just said the emails quoted above were with NPR’s business office, not NPR Legal, which would explain why NPR Legal said you didn’t make it known (to them) that you were willing to drop part of the copy, and why the Ombudsman didn’t say you had either.

    That it was actually not you but someone else who was in direct contact with NPR Legal adds an additional element of the “telephone game.” It only increases the likelihood that the effort foundered on poor communication. There’s been no direct evidence given that it was more than that, or that anyone has been speaking in bad faith.

  • Harry Shearer

    You gather incorrectly, all correspondence on this matter, to my knowledge, was with NPR legal. And you must be rather naive to assume that these contacts are not made directly by “talent” but by professionals in the field of media buying. But assume away, it seems to fill some need.

  • Harry Shearer

    I meant, in last comment, “to assume contacts are made directly”. And, finally, finally, you’ve engaged with one of the principals in this dispute, who provided you with the pertinent emails on this subject, and you’ve (apparently) had no contact with the other principal, which continues to not document his/her assertions but rather to rely only on spokeperson statements. You clearly deserve the journalism you emulate.

  • Sanpete

    I can only gather based on what you say, which keeps changing. You said a couple posts ago you weren’t in direct contact with NPR Legal. Now you imply you were in direct contact by email. Maybe by “direct contact” you meant in-person contact or something. (Thus we see it’s easy to have miscommunications.)

    The Ombudsman seems to imply NPR’s business office was in contact with you about this, that they were the ones who suggested the final text you rejected. Perhaps not everyone you thought was with NPR Legal actually was.

    I make no assumption about talent vs professional media buyers buying ads, of course.

  • Sanpete

    Mr. Shearer, you deserve credit for being more open than NPR, who I hope will also provide more information.

    Editilla, you’ll do better to focus on the facts, not theories about secret connections.