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NPR FLOATS AN OMBUDSMAN, BUT PROBLEMS RUN DEEP


Norman Solomon

What

if a big restaurant chain announced that it was hiring a chief inspector — and

filled the job with the person who’d been in charge of the company’s kitchens?

We might roll our eyes if the incoming inspector proclaimed from the outset that

the meals on the menu were delicious and nutritious.

National

Public Radio has hired an ombudsman — "to receive, independently

investigate and respond to queries from the public regarding editorial standards

in its programming." Jeffrey Dvorkin, the NPR vice president for news and

information since 1997, is now moving into the new position. A press release

quotes him as saying that the creation of the ombudsman post "keeps NPR at

the forefront of editorial excellence."

In

this context, NPR’s first ombudsman in two decades is not off to an auspicious

start. The boosterism should make us wary. But Dvorkin seems committed to

dialogue. "I’m the agent for the listener, and I’m there to help raise

issues to the editorial staff that are of concern to the public," he told

me a few days ago.

Describing

his ombudsman role as "a kind of partnership with the listener,"

Dvorkin spoke of "putting the public into National Public Radio." That

would really be quite a change.

John

Hockenberry, who worked as a correspondent and program host for many years at

the network, was being candid when he told Mother Jones magazine last spring:

"By the time I left NPR in 1992, it was an audience-driven, revenue-driven

entity, not unlike corporate media outlets. The programming strategy was

dominated by the ideal that we had to grow our audience in the same way that the

commercial media grows its audience."

As

for "the idea that NPR is more in-depth, or is saving the world,"

Hockenberry added, it’s "laughable."

NPR

certainly provides lengthy news programs. But lots of words don’t necessarily

mean depth. Especially in policy-related coverage of economics, national

politics and foreign affairs, NPR News excels at stenography for the powerful.

Most reports from Washington — and from capitals overseas — rely on the same

official sources that glut the rest of America’s media market.

Looking

ahead, the NPR ombudsman will report directly to the network’s president and

CEO, Kevin Klose. A little more than a year ago, Klose came to NPR from his job

as director of the U.S. International Broadcast Bureau, which runs such

government media projects as Voice of America and the Office of Cuba

Broadcasting. Apparently, it was a smooth transition.

These

days, NPR has appreciable clout, airing on 625 radio stations in the United

States. The network says its audience tripled during the 1990s and now amounts

to 15 million Americans per week. If you’re among them, maybe you have some

thoughts to share with Dvorkin (who’s reachable at [email protected]).

To

help get the ball rolling, here are a few questions:

  • Why

    does NPR News feature an hourly "Business Update" but no hourly or

    daily or weekly "Labor Update"?

  • Is

    NPR proud of the increasingly long "underwriter credits," which

    sound more and more like flat-out commercials, bracketing numerous NPR

    program segments on stations across the nation?

  • Why

    do NPR economics reporters frequently air the views of analysts at Wall

    Street firms and corporate-funded think tanks, while rarely including the

    voices of economists who work for labor unions or public-interest groups?

  • Why

    do NPR’s national political correspondents routinely sound like note-takers

    for officialdom instead of independent journalists? And why are they as

    willing and able to devote endless minutes to "horseracing"

    elections as reporters on any other network?

  • When

    the United States engages in warfare, whether bombing Iraq or bombing

    Yugoslavia, why does "NPR" seem to stand for "National

    Pentagon Radio"?

  • Why

    is it so unusual for progressive foes of corporate power to get more than a

    few words in edgewise on NPR’s main news programs? Why is the repeated

    spectrum of opinions limited to the sort of perspectives heard along

    Pennsylvania Avenue?

On

NPR’s big drive-time shows, "Morning Edition" and "All Things

Considered," the reliance on official sources is so dense that there’s

often a heavy smell of propaganda in the air. Correspondents make a habit of

echoing the assumptions that hold sway in Congress, the White House and top

federal agencies.

In

mainstream media, what passes for news is apt to be more like newspeak. Too bad

NPR News is no exception.

 

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