Assessing how NPR covered NPR

Since the story of Michael Oreskes surfaced last week, I’ve been waiting for NPR’s ombudsman to check in with an assessment of how NPR covered the story of sexual harassment allegations against the newsroom boss, who has since been fired. Today, Elizabeth Jensen did.

The story, first reported by the Washington Post, has roiled the public radio network staff because although two serious allegations didn’t occur at NPR, the company knew about them a year ago, after a female NPR staffer filed and settled her own complaint with NPR. Oreskes wasn’t fired until after the Washington Post reported the whole story. Since then, nine women have come forward with similar stories, according to NPR media reporter David Folkenflik.

Apparently, at least one NPR listener objected to having an NPR employee interview NPR CEO Jarl Mohn on All Things Considered after the scandal erupted last week, even though Mary Louise Kelly won wide acclaim for grilling her boss.

“Kelly asked hard-hitting questions and did not seem the least bit intimidated by having to interview Mohn, and Folkenflik has reported unflattering details about the company’s handling of the situation,” Jensen said, rejecting assertions that NPR employees shouldn’t be reporting on stories involving NPR.

The company’s ethics policy explicitly addresses how to cover NPR: “NPR journalists cover NPR the same way they would cover any other company.” Many media organizations have similar policies, and keep their coverage in-house, as The New York Times did when reporter Jayson Blair was caught plagiarizing and fabricating for his work. NPR’s written protocol for such stories goes further than most, as far as I have been able to determine (and based on my own past experience as a media reporter who had to cover my own company). Folkenflik said the same to me: “I don’t know of another news organization that endeavors harder to tell the news about itself with the same dedication and intellectual honesty that it would try to bring to reporting on any other company.”

David Sweeney, NPR’s chief news editor, who oversees newsgathering, provided me with the written protocol, which includes working only through Folkenflik’s own editor (Pallavi Gogoi, NPR’s chief business editor) and the deputy managing editor on duty. There is a back-up chain of command should one of those editors have a conflict and have to be recused if she or he is “involved in the issue or event that is the focus of the story.” The overall goal is to immediately isolate Folkenflik’s reporting from any wider newsroom or corporate pressures. “Nobody in the upper ranks is allowed to guide or see it,” Folkenflik told me.

Folkenflik had a tough call when it came to the off-the-record town hall that yielded additional stories by the competition when someone leaked the audio to the Washington Post and CNN. Folkenflik could either be an NPR employee, or he could be a reporter covering NPR. He chose the latter, so he didn’t attend and got his own story be interviewing his colleagues afterward. That’s an attention to ethical details that doesn’t get near enough attention.

Going forward, NPR should find a way — with all the necessary safeguards — to bring in more help for these kinds of stories. Also, as many in the newsroom (and a few outside) have argued, NPR should assign a female reporter to the topic, in addition to Folkenflik. Sexual harassment is not uniquely a woman’s issue, but in this case the story directly involves women in the NPR newsroom, some of whom felt intimidated by what they described as sexual advances by the newsroom leader. NPR has had more women than men discussing these issues, overall, but having another reporter on the story, one with perhaps a slightly different perspective, can only enhance the coverage.

One of the women who came forward to report her experience with Oreskes at the New York Times, said she did so because she found it hypocritical that Oreskes, as the top editor,  was responsible for coverage of the sexual abuse and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. But Jensen said she found no evidence that Oreskes was involved in shaping Weinstein coverage.

Between Oct. 5, the date of NPR’s first story about the Weinstein allegations, and Oct. 31, when the Oreskes story broke, NPR had nearly five dozen on-air or online pieces on the topic of the specific allegations, other men against whom allegations were made, or the broader issue itself. NPR did not in any way shy away from the story.