NPR Ombudsman Discusses Her Job, Takes Calls From Listeners
Monday, August 9, 2010
NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard joins us today to discuss her role within the news organization, and to talk about some of the most contentious issues she's worked to resolve over the last two years. Alicia also takes questions and comments from listeners in San Diego.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Should NPR mention, in a news story, that the judge who decided on Prop 8 is gay? Should All Things Considered run a story about actor Mel Gibson's taped tirades? What story have you heard on NPR lately that you thought was just not right? We have with us this morning a woman whose job it is to look into the kinds of decisions National Public Radio makes about the news stories it covers and the way that news is presented. It’s a pleasure to welcome my guest Alicia Shepard, NPR Ombudsman. And, Alicia, good morning.
ALICIA SHEPARD (NPR Ombudsman): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners—in fact, we encourage them—to join this conversation. How do you think NPR is covering the news? Is the coverage balanced? Do you have a specific story choice that you’d like to talk about? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, I just characterized what your job is as NPR Ombudsman but I’m sure there’s a lot more to it. How do you describe what you do?
SHEPARD: The simple explanation is that I explain NPR to the listeners and the listeners to NPR. I physically work in NPR, I’m paid by NPR, but I actually have an independent status and I’m the public’s representative which means that if listeners have a complaint about a particular story or what they perceive as a bias, they can contact me. I will investigate that if I feel that it relate – rises to the level of being something, a serious concern, and, you know, we can discuss that later. But then I comment on it at NPR.org/ombudsman. And before I do that, no one within NPR will see the entire column.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Alicia, how are you involved, if you are at all, in the news meetings, in the decision making process, that NPR editors and producers use in selecting stories and presenting stories?
SHEPARD: I am not directly involved at all. I do not go to the budget meetings. I did—and everyone may not know that a budget meeting is the morning meeting to decide what will be on the air that day, or in the newspaper. What I will do, though, is, and some could say second guess them after they have made a decision and the role that I play that is not always public is that I will ask them to be accountable for that decision. So explain to me what the thinking was. And we all move at a really fast pace in our jobs, Maureen, as we both know, and there isn’t time to reflect often. And I think the very fact that I ask the questions does illuminate what the decision-making thinking was. You mentioned about Judge Walker, who is the judge in the Prop 8 case, and people will hear things on the air and that’s the final product but what they don’t always know is what was – what went into that decision. And I feel I’ve often—for years I’ve felt this—that if the public only knew, if they were only in these meetings and they could see that, you know, 99% of journalists are filled with integrity, they want to get the story out as accurately and fairly and in context as possible, they’d have a greater respect.
CAVANAUGH: We are inviting our listeners to join this conversation at 1-888-895-5727. If you have a question for the NPR Ombudsman, please do call, 1-888-895-KPBS. Let’s go to that, Alicia, that incident that you just mentioned about the fact that Judge Vaughn Walker, the fact that he is gay was mentioned in one of the NPR stories about the coverage of the Prop 8 trial. What were the arguments for and against mentioning that the judge is gay?
SHEPARD: Well, the argument would be first, is he gay? I mean, that was the question. I mean, I don’t think that he has actually come out and said, I’m gay, and that he’s an openly activist gay man. So, you know, in that sense, I know that NPR did try to do some research and they actually shared the research and there’s a – the LA Times, of all publications, was the most definitive other, you know, in saying, ‘Walker, comma, who is gay, comma…’
SHEPARD: Whereas many other news organizations said ‘reported to be…’ But then the other question is so what? And why is this relevant? And is this newsworthy? You know, sexual orientation descriptions are often tough, ethical decisions. They, you know, they’re – Why does it matter? Why are you bringing it up, and why should it be any different if his sexual orientation is heterosexual? Do you mention that? Probably not. And so in this case, you can see, I am still wrestling. I have been talking about this all weekend. I’ve put something on Facebook asking people what do you think? And, you know, even – and then, you know, I have a kind of an informal group of ethical rabbis in the…
SHEPARD: …news business that I send out and say, what do you all think? And, you know, someone might’ve said, I guess I’m just dithering. And I think because we can all see that if NPR didn’t mention it, you know, I’d be getting phone calls about that. And in this particular case, I don’t think I got a phone call or anything about, you know, why did NPR mention it. But there was actually a blogger who writes for the gay journalists and lesbian association (sic) – journalists association, and he wrote, openly gay? Really? How do you know? And why is it relevant? And it’s really – it’s tough.
SHEPARD: I understand you discussed this earlier, Prop 8, did it come up?
CAVANAUGH: It did not come up in our conversation although it was alluded to by one of our guests. It did not come up, and I knew I was going to be talking to you about this…
CAVANAUGH: …and I was interested to hear what you had to say about this, and it sounds as if the issue didn’t come to any kind of resolution.
SHEPARD: Well, I think, you know, I’m actually going to be writing about this and so I’m really in the process of, you know, talk – sort of mulling it over but I think that I would say the sexual orientation is not relevant in this case and that it probably should not have been mentioned. Now, in the particular story, at the very end, Melissa Block, the host, said to the reporter, so, tell us about Judge Walker. And it was mentioned, well, he’s openly gay but nobody seems to have a problem with that. And then – so I just immediately thought, well, if no one has a problem with that, why are you mentioning it?
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, yeah.
SHEPARD: Because it does create inferences of, well, then maybe he couldn’t have made this decision fairly. And that – It is – the actual Prop 8 is about the law, not the judge.
CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Bill, calling us from La Jolla. Good morning, Bill. Welcome to These Days.
BILL (Caller, La Jolla): Yes, good morning. I think in your guest’s recent remarks she might’ve inadvertently answered my question and comment. But I was going to comment on the previous hour’s program and the guests you had on the These Days. The bias of KPBS in favor of homosexual marriage and in favor of what many people refer to as the homosexual agenda is evident to many but is never disclosed. The panel that you had was quite biased, as was your putative expert commentator on the law, and you said nothing. And whereas I would agree that the individuals’ personal orientation is not the subject and shouldn’t necessarily be disclosed, the evident bias of KPBS and its staff and the fact that it regularly touts the money and commercials that it gets from gay and lesbian organizations is a matter that is fair game for disclosure. And I’m very disappointed that KPBS never seems – sees fit to make that type of disclosure. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Bill, I’m glad that you called. Thank you for it. Of course, we don’t necessarily agree with your assessment of our last hour’s guest or panel and, indeed, what KPBS feels towards the subject matter. But I wonder if I could, in a way, turn this around to a larger issue, Alicia. And, of course, we can address this specifically in any blog or any disclosure that Bill would like us to make but, you know, if, indeed, there is a ruling that’s come down that turns around a ban on same sex marriage and the ruling in itself delineates a number of reasons why there should not be a ban on same sex marriage and we talk about them, that’s not bias. Would you say that, Alicia?
SHEPARD: It’s not bias but I also don’t know if there was somebody who might challenge the reasons that the judge came up with. I mean, you know, the issue of marriage gets, obviously, emotional when, in fact, marriage is a legal contract and so it is a legal matter. And, anyway, I’m curious, and I think it might help your listeners to know what was your thinking in putting the show together? What, you know – I know that without even talking to you that you sat down with your staff and you said who are the best people to have on and how can we get them and make sure that we are being fair and accurate and – and I won’t even say balanced because I think ‘balanced’ makes it sound like there’s one for and one against. And I think all complicated issues are nuanced.
CAVANAUGH: Indeed. And that’s quite what we did. And also I think that the driving spirit of the last segment was to explain the judge’s ruling. And in explaining the judge’s ruling, we didn’t necessarily have a pro and con, although, indeed, we did have an attorney, who is going to be helping to file an appeal against this decision, on to explain his feelings, his reasons for appealing the ruling, but just basically what the judge said. And sometimes I think because that is not a balanced presentation in the way that you mean balance, I think it comes off sounding to people as if we have an agenda.
SHEPARD: Right, but you said you did have an attorney on who is going to appeal this so…
SHEPARD: …that is obviously someone who did not think the judge made the right decision.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Okay, let’s move on to Deborah in San Diego. Good morning, Deborah. Welcome to These Days.
DEBORAH (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I think your program is terrific. I like KPBS. I think it’s very well balanced. Now on to NPR. Over the years, I’ve had to write NPR many times about the invidious or insidious bias that they slip into their story introductions and then in the stories. One simple example of that would be saying that the Democrats failed to pass blah-blah-blah when, in fact, it was blocked by the Republicans. So when you say – you put the word ‘failure’ in there, you imply inadequacy. You have a tremendous bias built in. And I’d like to – And I’ve written your guest many times about this…
SHEPARD: Well, Deborah, let…
DEBORAH: …and I wonder what you guys are doing and why online you don’t publish the story’s intro as well as the story?
DEBORAH: Because sometimes the story intro is very biased and then the story explains it. But I think a lot of people just listen to the intro.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s give Alicia a chance, Deborah. Thank you for the call. Alicia.
SHEPARD: Well, I want to correct one thing she said, that NPR puts the whole transcript up. Now, the first – if you heard a story on the air and went right to the website, you would not see the transcript because it takes about 18 hours to get all the transcripts up, say, for Morning Edition. But that would include the intro. And the other thing I wonder, which I was hoping to ask is…
CAVANAUGH: Sure, I think – I think Deborah’s still on the line.
SHEPARD: …if NPR had begun Republicans block Democrats’ efforts today to pass such-and-such, I think I’d get the same kind of phone calls.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think, Deborah? Do you think that that wording would be biased?
SHEPARD: In another way.
DEBORAH: No, it’s not because it is in – it might appear to be biased but it is, in fact, the truth. Failure is an inherently bad word. So-and-so failed to do this, so-and-so failed to do that. That is – What I’m talking about is these little invidious things that you put in sometimes into your storylines without even thinking about them. So-and-so, the bad guy who lived down the street… When you say ‘the bad guy that lived down the street,’ that negativism colors your story, and unduly colors it. And I just believe that some of your writers are unschooled on this.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Deborah, thank you. I’m going to have to stop you there because we do have to take a break. When we return, we will continue our conversation with Alicia Shepard, NPR Ombudsman, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Alicia Shepard. She is NPR Ombudsman. And we’re taking your calls about what you’ve heard lately on NPR and whether or not you thought it was right or there was something missing in the coverage or something that was just not fair. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Let’s go right to the phones. Mary’s calling us from Valley Center. Good morning, Mary, and welcome to These Days.
MARY (Caller, Valley Center): Good morning. I’m a little bit ahead of you because I’m talking about the Mel Gibson…
MARY: …segment. But, first, I think there’s a certain semantic imbalance in your reporting of events in Israel and Palestine. The Israeli fighters are always called troops or soldiers whereas the Palestinian victims are always referred to as gunmen. So…
CAVANAUGH: Would you like to comment on that, Alicia?
SHEPARD: I will say that, Mary, this is a common complaint in terms of this particular issue and how people perceive it. Israel does have an army and a defense force and I do not believe that Gaza does, which is probably why they use the term ‘gunmen.’ I would invite you to send me an e-mail at ashepard.npr.org and I can answer that more specifically.
CAVANAUGH: You – Right, and we will be talking about, I think, NPR’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the great, ongoing, contentious issues that you hear in your job as ombudsman, is that right, Alicia?
SHEPARD: That is absolutely right. And, in fact, when I interviewed for the job, one of the things that I had to do was analyze a five-part series that had been done on the 40-day – on the – well, no, what am I thinking about? But, anyway, it was a five-part series about the war and in Israel and how Israel came to be. A look at the 40-year anniversary, I’m sorry.
CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.
SHEPARD: And I realized how loaded this issue is emotionally for a lot of people and that they – What I have realized over time, Maureen, is that I think as fascinating as the people listen to the prism of their own beliefs and that’s not a criticism, it’s just – that says – tells me a lot about how they listen because they can hear a story, just as Mary did, and pick up on something like that kind of difference between troops and gunmen and think that more respect is being given to Israel.
CAVANAUGH: Mary couldn’t stay on the line with us but she did have a question that I wanted to ask you, and I know that NPR got a lot of criticism for running a story on the taped tirades that are attributed to actor Mel Gibson. Now—and you wrote about that—and there was a lot of questioning as to why NPR was doing that story.
SHEPARD: Yes, and, excuse me, in that case the e-mails ran something along the lines of, you know, I read this stuff when I’m standing in line at the supermarket and I expect a higher level of quality and thought in NPR pieces. And when I raised this with the staff at All Things Considered, the executive producer said, well, that’s what people were talking about that day. And I had a problem with that because talking about where? Sometimes I feel that NPR – because NPR is centered and their headquarters is in Washington, D.C., that, you know, a lot of the coverage seems to relate around that. And he mentioned that that day he was in a coffeeshop and people were talking about it and that still doesn’t, to me, rise to the level of being newsworthy. And the other thing was the particular story that they were doing was how does this so-called tirade af—
CAVANAUGH: We have been talking with NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard and it sounds as if her line has gone dead. But we will take a break, get her back on the line, and have her share her thoughts about the kinds of news stories that you hear on NPR. And we’ll continue to take your calls, 1-888-895-5727, or you can go online at KPBS.org/thesedays.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And we lost our ISDN line with Alicia Shepard but we have her back on the telephone. Alicia, good morning. Thanks for coming back.
SHEPARD: I’m right here.
CAVANAUGH: Alicia Shepard is the NPR Ombudsman. And you were talking to us about All Things Considered decision to run a really rather long story about the troubles of actor Mel Gibson.
SHEPARD: Yes, and the context of the story that was used as to why are we doing this story was, one, that people were talking and, two, how was this going to affect his career, his Hollywood bankability. And I still think you could’ve had this story on without airing the rant. And what really surprised me was that they, the ATC people, used the words ‘allegedly Mel Gibson.’ Well, if you’re not sure that it’s Mel Gibson and you’re using the word ‘alleged,’ then why use it at all?
CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Yeah, I know that was one of the criticisms that you especially brought out in your blog about that choice. We have a lot of people on the line, so I want to take…
CAVANAUGH: …some calls back to back. Tom is calling us from North Park. Good morning, Tom, and welcome to These Days.
TOM (Caller, North Park): Hi. How are you today?
CAVANAUGH: Great, thank you.
TOM: My question is much broader than what’s been on so far but I have noticed at the end of all the shows on NPR, as well as on our local station here, that most of the personnel or a majority of the personnel are female, and I would just like to caution to any men who want jobs in broadcasting since things are supposed to be balanced and 50-50, let’s see whether women aren’t dominating the airwaves. That’s okay with me as far as 50-50 but I would like to see a balance there. The other one is that with Gloria Penner’s show, most of the editors she has on there are always liberal. I don’t know if there’s a dearth of conservatives in San Diego but, nevertheless, it seems that she has almost all those editors are seemingly liberal or Democrats.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I understand and, believe me, you can put that online at KPBS.org and let her know that. Alicia Shepard’s expertise is really at NPR so I want to have her address that female dominiation question. Alicia, what do you think about that?
SHEPARD: Well, I don’t think that he’s correct but I think that perceptions are a reality to many people. But I – NPR is actually good about female hosts and having an equal number of male-female reporters that are on air, surprisingly good. And, in fact, I did a study which is at NPR.org/ombudsman. If you search ‘women’s voices,’ and look at the number of women who are used as sources, not the reporters, but who are they calling for their expertise in looking for people to explain things in academics, experts, politicians, etcetera. And, unfortunately, it was about 75% male and 25% female. So I think we have – we still have a long way to go. But…
CAVANAUGH: Another thing about the journalists that – NPR journalists, I know that it’s been an issue that journalists Juan Williams and Mara Liasson sometimes appear on Fox News. What has that conversation focused on over the last few years?
SHEPARD: Well, that’s another issue that I would say is perennial and that I’ve written quite – at least three blog posts. Again, these are all at NPR.org/ombudsman. But the issue is that both Juan and Mara for, I think, over 10 years have been appearing on Fox News Sunday, at Roundtable with Chris Wallace, that does look at the news, talking about the news. And I often wonder do NPR listeners not like the fact that they’re appearing on Fox or do they – or is it what they say on Fox? Because NPR’s ethics code is clear, which is the ethics code, if your listeners are interested, is also on my blog. But it says that you cannot say something – If you’re an NPR reporter, you cannot say something on another network that you would not be allowed to say on NPR. So there’ve been a couple times where each of them have done that and broken the ethics code, and I, as NPR’s Ombudsman, who get the complaints about that, sometimes I feel that Fox should be paying me, too. But – So over time, it has become a problem with Juan Williams, in particular, because he also hosts Bill – is a substitute host for Bill O’Reilly, so he has a part-time status with NPR. He is a contractor; he is not a staff reporter the way that Mara Liasson is. And he is considered a commentator or a news analyst. So that’s how they feel that they can deal with the fact that Juan is giving his opinions. And Mara pretty much says she tries to keep it straight down the line as a reporter just commenting on the facts because she covers national politics and the White House.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Jenna is calling us from North Clairemont and, Jenna, welcome to These Days.
JENNA (Caller, North Clairemont): Well, thank you very much. I never said this before but thank you for having me on and I’m surprised because all I can say is, wow, you people are going to have a headache, all of you. I mean, it’s impossible to please everybody. And my question was can you screen the people who call to make sure – that who want to get on the show to make sure they’re not Republicans or liberals or conservatives or God knows what else?
JENNA: I mean, I can just say how I really think you’ve put yourselves on the line here today.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Jenna, thank you for the call. And, you know, we do screen phone calls. We screen phone calls to make sure that people have a focused comment to make, and – but we don’t screen out people because they’re going to say something that doesn’t go along with what one of our guests is saying. And I do appreciate the phone call. Thank you, Jenna. Let’s go to Hans in Escondido. Hans, welcome to These Days.
HANS (Caller, Escondido): Hello. Thank you. My comment is pretty straightforward and it’s not really on either side of the debate here. I just want to point out that just the fact that you guys are going through this process of self-examination and doing it in an open manner, if people, whatever their accusations may be, if they’re going to be honest with themselves, they need to acknowledge that this act alone, I think, is a compliment to the quality of NPR. So regardless of which side, you know, their beliefs and biases may fall on, the fact that you guys are doing this is positive and I think it puts you guys above quite a few news organizations that are out there.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Hans. Thank you for the call. I’m wondering, Alicia, why do you think it’s important for you to do shows like this, to engage with a local audience like here in San Diego?
SHEPARD: Well, first of all, NPR is National Public Radio and so it is important that I hear from the public as much as possible. And radio’s one way, being e-mail, Twitter, I’m actually @ombudsman on Twitter, and these are all ways that makes the communication two ways. And this is the blessing and godsend of the internet is that it has opened up the doors. And the concept of us as journalists as gatekeepers is gone, and that’s great that you can hear from people and have a con – If you can have civil, constructive conversations then it’s great. But I wanted to follow up what Hans said because it is a compliment to NPR and a sign of their confidence as a news organization that they would hire someone like me in a public position who has a contract so I can’t be fired, and publicly criticize them, hopefully constructively does that. But I think that speaks to the fact that they know they make mistakes and they, you know, sometimes they don’t like what I write and sometimes people walk right by me in the hallway and look the other way and – or I’ll call someone and they’ll – I’ll say, hello, and they’ll say – I’ll say how are you? And they’ll say, well, it depends on why you’re calling. But at the end of the day, if you really are a good journalist, you have to be open to the fact that you’re going to make mistakes and that you need to think through or rethink sometimes decisions that are made. I must say that Melissa Block who is the host on All Things Considered, when they – when the issue was whether or not to mention Judge Walker’s sexuality, you know, sent me a long e-mail about all of the things that she had considered and research that she had done before she concluded that it – that she would feel comfortable to go ahead and say that. And I, you know, that’s what I will write about today because I feel like that’s something the public doesn’t see and it’s good to know that, you know, she wrestled with this.
CAVANAUGH: Alicia Shepard, we’re out of time. Thank you so much.
SHEPARD: All right. Well, please have me back, Maureen. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: We always will. Thank you so much. Alicia Shepard, NPR Ombudsman. And if you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, I’ll speak with the music director of SummerFest, violinist Jimmy Lin. That’s ahead as These Days continues here on KPBS.