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NPR Ombudsman On Juan Williams Firing, Corrections To Online Content


What has been learned from NPR's controversial firing of former news analyst, Juan Williams? What issues is NPR struggling with as it tries to decide how best to make corrections online? We speak to NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard about the fallout from the Juan Williams firing, and we'll discuss some of the most common complaints she received from listeners in 2010.

What has been learned from NPR's controversial firing of former news analyst, Juan Williams? What issues is NPR struggling with as it tries to decide how best to make corrections online? We speak to NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard about the fallout from the Juan Williams firing, and we'll discuss some of the most common complaints she received from listeners in 2010.


Alicia Shepard, NPR Ombudsman

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When national public radio makes a bad decision or airs a controversial interview or even makes an honest mistake, one of the first persons to hear about it is my guest, Alicia Shepard. As NPR ombudsman, she evaluates both listener complaints and network explanations, and in that analysis is the hope that NPR can keep getting better at what it does. Alicia Shepard is entering the final few months of her tenure as NPR ombudsman. And it's a pleasure to welcome her once again to These Days. Good morning, Alicia.

SHEPARD: Good morning, Maureen. It's nice to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you look back at 2010, what are some of the most controversial issues you've dealt with from NPR listeners? And I think what we'll do is we'll put the firing if Juan Williams aside for a moment, and perhaps you can look at it from -- and we'll speak about that separately.

SHEPARD: Well, anything to do with politics, I mean, it's really hard to compare anything to Juan Williams.


SHEPARD: But politics, the Middle East. And then there are more, like, thornier issues about whether or not NPR should run a photo or how they handle Michelle norris and her new book, and how much air time they gave her. I mean, there's, like, major, and then there are things that just, as you said, that deal with trying to improve their journalism and to make it better.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about the newest explosion of WikiLeaks? Has anybody complained about how NPR has handled that.

SHEPARD: Well, I have not gotten as many complaints as I would have expected. And some of them are, you know, NPR should have broken this. NPR depends on other news organizations or there's too much on this. It's really all over the board. And I was wondering whether NPR struggles with anything in terms of what -- you know is their ethical issues, should we do this story, is this a violation of national security? But I did check and because these documents were leaked all over the world, it really freed up any American news organization to go ahead and use this information. Because it is out there, and you cannot take it back. And we live in a global news world. And the information was given to the Guardian, to Der Spiegel, to El País in Spain, and La Monde in France. So it was out there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, what kind of backlash did NPR receive as a result of firing former news analyst, Juan Williams? It became a national story, and I know it became a big issue for NPR.

SHEPARD: It was huge. I mean, in the three years that I've been here, never mind the biggest stories of 2010, just in the entire time since I joined NPR as ombudsman, in October, 2007, nothing has come close to this. I received over 23000 e-mails. And you could say, well, those were campaigns. But, you know, ask the listener to try to contact me and you have to go to hit contact us, fill out a form. So these were people that were really motivated. And I would say that 90 percent of them were critical of NPR, and that ten percent were -- said good for you, we are glad to see him go.


SHEPARD: But, you know, the issue was how NPR handled this, not really whether or not they had the right to fire Juan Williams or whether or not it was the right thing to do. And I have done plea postings at [CHECK AUDIO] on this issue, and you know, I supported the decision. Because I felt that it had become untenable to have Juan Williams behave one way on NPR and another way on fox. And so -- but it wasn't -- so the issue was really how they handled it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how did they handle it? What in your opinion was handled poorly in the firing of Juan Williams.

SHEPARD: Oh, first of all, Juan Williams is one of the most -- was one of the most high profile employees at NPR because he appeared on Fox. People knew him, they knew what he looked like, you know, he was a presence. And so they basically made the decision, it appears it's being looked into now, reviewed by an outside legal firm about how things were handled, but basically, the decision was made in less than a day, and he was called on the phone and told that his contract was being severed, and he asked to come in and speak, and they said no. The decision has been made. And I just think, you know, when you are going to make that kind of termination of somebody who's very high profile and well known, you know, you need to really think it through and think about the ramifications of it. And I think there's no doubt that I think anyone who works at NPR in top management would like a do over on this one.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. You said that this is now being analyzed and that there are legal consultants looking into it and so forth. Do you think there have been any lessons that have already been learned from this incident?

SHEPARD: Oh, absolutely. I think that you live in a world where your decisions, even your internal corporate decisions, are going to get out, and they are going to be made public. And so you have to be thinking about the brand and protecting it and the implications of it, of any decisions that you make am even if it's a decision to send out an e-mail to the staff advising those who are not covering the John Stewart, Steven Colbert rally, to not attend the rally. And there was much that was misunderstood about that memo because it wasn't thought through in terms of this is gonna get out, this is gonna get on the Internet, people are gonna be making fun of NPR, which I guess that's fine. But you know, why is NPR sending out a memo advising editorial staff on a rally for John Stewart and not sending out a similar memo for glen back? And the answer to that was that the glen back rally back in late August was very political.. and clearly so. Some of the staff at NPR were concerned, is John Stewart's rally with Steven Colbert going to be political or is it just entertainment?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it just a comedy show.

SHEPARD: Right. And so, you know, answer the questions. Try to imagine what the questions are going to be, what the criticism, what the concerns are. I mean, you can't totally operate a whole news organization worried about everything that you do. But I think that it's -- you know, for all your listeners, we've gotta always remember, we live in a very public world. And there's no such thing as privacy. And there's no e-mail that is sent out internally that doesn't become external.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Alicia Shepard, she is NPR ombudsman. And one issue, Alicia, that news organizations all over the country are dealing with is how to make corrections to content on line. What issues is NPR struggling with as it decides to correct their on line content.

SHEPARD: Yeah, this is used for many use organizations, because right now they do things in different ways. But the question is, you know, how easy is it to report an error, and that's what I'm about to post a column today about, making it easier. Because if you have to hunt and you see something and you know it's factually wrong, and you have to hunt around with how to report it, there's no incentive to do that. And the thing today as I mentioned with the web is corrections live on forever on web. You know, you may have a mistake in a newspaper or even a mistake on a radio show, and you know, you can apologize, but it's not that searchable, whereas the web is totally searchable. So right now, I think this is one of the biggest issues fating journalism, and the question is, how do you handle it? Do you put a strike through? IE, this is wrong, or do you put a correction at the top of the page? What do you correct? The New York Times takes the position that if they were spelling your name wrong or they were spelling someone's name that no one really knew about wrong, in either case, you acknowledge the error. You say we incorrectly spelled so-and-so's name. And you know, it matters. Because correcting and admitting mistakes enhances a new organization's credibility. I think for so long these organizations were thinking, well, if we admit we're wrong, people don't like us or they will think less of us or for whatever reason, it has been something that news organizations have shied away from. I would say in the last ten years they're much better about correcting mistakes but --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I was wondering, is there a need for some uniform guideline?

SHEPARD: I think so, yes. That's why this new group called report an error alliance is trying to get new organizations first into an alliance where they start thinking about this particular issue and how, you know, what is the best standard to have? I mean, right now you have a standard in newspapers at least, if we made a mistake, we will always present the corrections on the second page of the first section. So you always know that it's there. And believe me, that is it a well read section.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, what is your goal when you receive a complaint from a listener or, you know, how NPR handled a controversial issue? What's the goal that you want to achieve when you look into it?

SHEPARD: That's a great question. Because I have two goals. In the sense -- one sense is to be transparent, to explain NPR to the listeners. This is how NPR works. I'm taking your complaint, I'm going to ask the people involved in the story, what was your thinking, why did you do this, why was this not included in this story? And then I would write a column if I felt that NPR had not lived up to the ethics code, which it created, NPR as an ethics code which is at my website, buds man. But the second goal that isn't as public, as professionals we get used to doing stories the same way. I'm sure you have a regular format for putting your show together. And the very fact that someone is saying, you know, Maureen issue what was your thinking in having those two guests, and did you think about getting more women on your panel, or anything like that. And you are compelled to be accountable, I think that's good. That's good for journalism. It's good for any profession to every once in a while take a step back and think, you know, why are we doing that this way? Is this a new way? Are we being fair to that person? And a lot of what happens especially with the radio is deadlines of and we gotta get it on. Hey, we always go to this person, he's always reliable. Of and there's a push now within NPR which I totally applaud and have been supportive, and pushed them on myself which is to get more diverse voices and have more women sources on the air. And to get away from going to the usual suspects.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, in the minute we have left, Alicia, and in the spirit of shaking things up, your tenure as NPR on buds man comes to an end in it the end of March, and why does NPR take that approach? Why do they bring in I new on buds man every couple of years?

SHEPARD: Well, I'm the third on buds man since they started it in 2000. And I think they're trying to do what other news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington post, which is make it a term limited position.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh 92 and part of it is just, you know, think about what a weird job it is. I am paid by NPR, I work at NPR, and I publicly take NPR to task. Of and you know, some say it's the loneliest job in the news room. People outside of NPR think I'm a shill for NPR, people inside of NPR think I'm internal affairs. Of and you know, it's -- you need to, you know, maybe I'm gonna start to drink the Kool-Aid pretty soon. And I think you need to bring in an outside perspective. I love the job. Of it has been -- I'm really sorry to see it end. It has been tremendously challenging. And anything that I personally can do to make journalism better is really an honor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, we hope we get a chance to speak with you before you leave, but thank you so much for your time today.

SHEPARD: All right. Have a nice day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You do the same. Alicia Shepard is NPR on buds man, and if you would like to comment, please go on-line, it's Days. Of stay with us for hour two of These Days, it's coming up in just a minute. Right here on KPBS.


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