Judging NPR


As expected, NPR is ending its relationship with its ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos. His contract expires at the end of the month and isn’t being renewed.

His demise was nearly a foregone conclusion since his astonishing seven-part “investigation” into NPR’s series on the removal of Native American children from their homes in South Dakota, an investigation that concluded that NPR committed five ethical sins in its reporting.

The NPR bosses were livid, penning a response that called his judgment “deeply flawed.”

While leaving Schumacher-Matos’ reports online, NPR immediately made it almost impossible to find on its website.

In the year since, the NPR ombudsman has been fairly silent. He didn’t even bother engaging the “open forum” posts he posted on his blog as a substitute — a poor substitute, to be sure — for penetrating analysis, leaving them as landfills for typical online comments.

This week NPR advertised for a new ombudsman. It’s a three-year term and this paragraph in the job description is noteworthy:

The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment. By explaining NPR News coverage and decision-making processes, the Ombudsman/Public Editor serves as one form of transparency and accountability for NPR News.

That’s not a description of an ombudsman. That’s a description for a public relations staffer.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, perhaps NPR’s most famous ombudsman, said in a Twitter conversation with Harry Shearer today that that paragraph was not in the job posting when he left the news organization.

Indeed, Schumacher-Matos’ predecessor, Alicia Shepard, regularly made judgments. The Juan Williams firing provides a perfect example. NPR already had someone on staff to explain the firing. Shepard’s job, as she saw it, was to assess whether it was appropriately handled. While supporting the firing, she concluded it wasn’t well implemented.

To its considerable credit, NPR is at least hiring someone to try to respond to readers who question the decisions and integrity of the newsroom. Far from being something to fear, it’s a healthy step in the relationship between the listener and the staff.

Dvorkin recently attended an international conference of news ombudsmen and found North America to be ill represented:

But this year the ONO convention saw an influx of younger, middle-rank journalists more amenable to the changing media landscape and the technologies that accompany these uncertain times. There were also more women in attendance, thus changing the impression that ONO is mostly a club of wise old (white) men.

We talked (at length) about the effect of media convergence on journalistic quality, how to convey media criticism without inferring a lack of patriotism, how to comment safely about blasphemy laws in some countries. In many countries, being the ombuds is not either a safe or easy role to fill.

We heard from a long time ONO member from Turkey Yavuz Baydar, who was fired from his newspaper specifically for advocating a less supine position for Turkish media. He now is deeply engaged in writing and advocating for a return to press freedom in his country. Yavuz was awarded the prestigious European Press Prize this year (equivalent of a Pulitzer), along with The Guardian for his work on behalf of independent journalism.

And we heard from the British actor Steve Coogan who has become an activist in the group “Hacked Off” dealing with the excesses of UK tabloid culture. He was warned not to make enemies among certain journalists and media companies. He too has endured appalling pressures and intrusions.

We were welcomed most warmly and most eloquently by Olaf Scholtz, the Mayor of Hamburg who spoke eloquently about the necessity for vigorous journalism. (It was hard not to compare and contrast with the present mayor of Toronto…).

I found the shrinking list of American ombuds to be a depressing commentary on the state of the media in the US. But the presence of so many engaged ombudsmen from the Middle East, Germany, and Latin America is very encouraging.