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Last Thoughts: NPR And The Balance Between Ethics And The Nation

Jean Paul Bierlein reads the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo outside a newsstand in Nice, southeastern France, on Wednesday.
Lionel Cironneau

Editor's Note: My predecessor, Edward Schumacher-Matos, has been reflecting on his tenure as NPR's Ombudsman, which ended Jan. 31. Here is his final column. I'll begin posting here soon. - Elizabeth

If I am unethical, then so be it.

When I joined NPR nearly four years ago, I discovered that many of my fellow ombudsmen refused to say "we" or "us" in referring to their news organization. This show of independence was commendable, but I wondered if it wasn't also irrelevant, if not destructive—a small example of a fundamentalist mindset about news media ethics and related First Amendment freedoms.

Who among you doesn't believe that the ombudsman is not a part of her company? To be sure, my contract said that no one in NPR could tell me what judgments to make, and no one tried. But I was on the payroll, my office was in the building, the CEO approved my expenses and NPR's web site published my reports.

Distancing by pronoun may reinforce the image of what has been a mainstream news media ethic of independence, but it collides with a newer online ethic. This new code is suspicious about claims of independence, and doesn't believe in related claims of "objectivity" at all. Rather, the online ethic values transparency: Tell me your bias and I will judge your information on my own. Under this ethic, refusing to say "we" is a cheap language trick, and thus damages audience trust.

Refusing to say "we" is a cheap language trick, and thus damages audience trust.

And so having turned over my office key to my successor, Elizabeth Jensen, I leave with a concern about the dangers of fundamentalism, not just among the fanatics we cover, but among ourselves. NPR's ethics are of course necessary and good. But taken to an extreme, they undermine our place in the nation and the nation itself. This specifically can be seen today in the debates over the coverage of press freedom, hate speech and national security. We in the news media—in different ways between new and old—are exaggerating ethics at the expense of maintaining a civilized and free society.

We must remember this: Ethics change. And they are different in different democracies. Ethics are professional standards, not deeper morals, which can change, too, but far more slowly. Morals come from a society's soul, for lack of a better word. Ethics come from our more fickle brains, tied to the changing ways of, dare I say it, a business. And yet many in the news media are rushing to man the barricades for certain ethical interpretations of press freedom and independence as if they were absolutes—immutable principles worth dying for. Literally.

Think Charlie Hebdo.

I appeared recently on a call-in show of Kansas City member station KCUR to discuss the recent slaughter at the French satirical magazine. NPR editors had declined to reprint the cartoons that had provoked the attack by Muslim extremists. The editors also decided against reprinting the magazine's cover after the attack showing a seemingly benign drawing of the Prophet Muhammad with a tear falling from his eye. To many but not all Muslims, any printed image of the prophet is sacrilegious. My colleague and friend, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, criticized The Times for doing the same as NPR did. Two editorial cartoonists interviewed earlier on the show strongly defended the magazine's cartoons. I was asked on KCUR what I thought. I am sure that the interviewer expected some thunderous response from NPR's ombudsman on press freedom.

I mumbled meekly, "I don't know."

I had been flip-flopping for two weeks on how to respond to readers who had been complaining about NPR's "censorship" of the Charlie Hebdo drawings. I even wondered if on my own I could run a picture of the more benign post attack cover in this blog. I controlled the photos and headlines. But the blog is still part of NPR's site, and NPR had by then issued its own rule on the matter. Did my independence allow me to break their rule?

Ethics are professional standards, not deeper morals.

Then on the show, as I listened to a brilliant analysis by the Kansas City Star's public editor, Derek Donovan, about how the magazine reflected French historical peculiarities, a light went on in my dim skull.

I am not Charlie.

The French news media may have their ethical standards, but they are not American or sacred universal ones, and they shouldn't be French ones either. The United States has never had absolute freedom of the press. And the framers of the Constitution—I once held the James Madison Visiting Professor Chair on First Amendment Issues at Columbia University—never intended it to. You wouldn't know this, however, from listening to the First Amendment fundamentalists piping up from Washington to Silicon Valley.

In this case, the competing social and constitutional demand is the control of hate speech in the interests of social cohesion, without which the very idea of a nation is impossible. Look at the sectarian bloodbath that is the Middle East. Or look at the tensions in China, Myanmar, Ukraine, Nigeria, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Nothing guarantees that different peoples can live together, or that nations will remain as we know them.

The United States is the ultimate multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian society. It has sinned mightily against slaves and immigrants, but has managed to hold itself together through imposition by a civil war, an evolving sense of morality, and yes, political correctness in how we treat each other. Laws followed along.

I do not know if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution, but I know—hope?—that most Americans would. It is one thing to lampoon popes, imams, rabbis and other temporal religious leaders of this world; it is quite another to make fun, in often nasty ways, of their prophets and gods. The NPR editors were right not to reprint any of the images.

Is this a form of affirmative action? Of course it is. And it should be, so that all the nation's public can hear itself and be represented on the nation's public radio.

None of this is to justify the bombing. That was far worse still. But France itself is now undergoing a soul searching about how it treats its Muslim minority.

Many conservative critics wrote me over the last four years to say that NPR is too politically correct. There is such a thing, reaching absurdities. But on the coverage of hot button social stories such as Ferguson, abortion, gay marriage and the name of Washington's football team, I found that NPR editors and reporters generally tread moderately and responsibly. Many of us in the audience have had problems with individual stories, but these were the exception. The overall coverage was excellent. New online features such as Code Switch capture the changing racial zeitgeist perhaps better than anything in American journalism.

Where NPR has failed socially has been elsewhere. It has not interviewed enough minority, female and regional voices on air. Studies I have done show that NPR's staffing is fairly diversified, but the experts and others interviewed are overwhelmingly white males from the Eastern corridor. To their credit, editors have been making a huge internal push in recent years to change that.

Is this a form of affirmative action? Of course it is. And it should be, so that all the nation's public can hear itself and be represented on the nation's public radio.

National security is similarly another area of misguided media fundamentalism. The new digital media is the loudest in demanding that journalists be blind to the security concerns of their government or their country. Secrecy is a priori bad; information, even about individuals and companies, demands to be out and free. These are the modern Puritans, in the rabid service of a universal ideal, and here the humanitarian left finds company with the libertarian right and that curious hybrid we might call Silicon Man. Wikileaks and the Edward Snowden leaks from the National Security Agency are to these fundamentalists the great coups of our time.

The real failure of NPR has little to do with secrecy and more to do with timidity about what is in plain sight.

And to be sure, our government has done some unsavory things that deserve exposure. But until we have a global rule of law—and little is in sight—nations are the only effective organizing units we have. Among nations, the United States errs but is a force mostly for good. It is not wrong for an American journalist to be patriotic; I am.

This is not to say that we in the news media should be in the pocket of the government, as Glenn Greenwald and some listeners have accused NPR of being. But it is to say that editors rightfully should exercise judgment on what secrets to publish and what to not, taking into account the national and personal damage their revelation might cause, balanced against the public's need to know what the government is doing.

The real failure of NPR has little to do with secrecy and more to do with timidity about what is in plain sight. If the coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq was a low point in American journalism—and it was—then we still have been too lost in the weeds of the 24-hour news cycle or too weak-kneed to stand back and question whether we have become a scaredy-cat nation too quick to employ violence by a military that is far larger and more expensive than anything we need. And I say this as an Army brat and Vietnam War veteran who cries at military parades. The big analytical questions about national security and national psychology are the hard ones of our era. They don't make for easy storytelling, but need more to be told.

Backing away from calling torture "torture," however, as NPR often did, was not a step in the right direction.

So in the face of these fundamentalisms, what should NPR do? Actually, it is already doing it.

Three years ago, NPR introduced a new code of ethics that replaced rigid rules with flexible principles and human judgment. It dropped an insistence on "balance," which had come sometimes to mean that there are at least two equal sides to everything, which simply is not true. The claim of pure "objectivity" was deleted too, as impossible and misleading.

The new code instead emphasized independence and fairness. This latter is openly subjective and puts the onus on reporters and editors to weigh arguments and provide context as honestly as they can. It allows NPR's journalists, in other words, to insert human and national values and see stories through more than a limited, fundamentalist interpretation of news media ethics.

The irony is that while our ethics in terms of conflicts of interest and bias have never been higher, public trust in us has never been lower.

For continued survival, they better. The 50 or so years beginning with the Vietnam War and Watergate have been the Great Age of American Journalism. Yet, the irony is that while our ethics in terms of conflicts of interest and bias have never been higher, public trust in us has never been lower.

This is partly because of a growing cynicism about all institutions. Authenticity is widely more valued today than authority. Moreover, in our magnificent ethical obsession, we in the news media like to think of ourselves as nobly holding other institutions accountable, but come across more like religious police. Small wonder we are accused of arrogance, as many Americans ask, with some resentment, "Who elected you?"

What many of us fail to see—have failed to see since the first penny papers in New York City 180 years ago created "mass media"—is that the ethics of independence, impartiality and objectivity were born out of business necessity. You couldn't be mass if you were too identified with the political parties and advocacy groups that controlled newspapers until then. This independence reached its apotheosis in the current Great Age, when impersonal corporations bought up newspapers and broadcast stations across the land. They improved professionalism by bringing in highly trained journalists like hired guns from around the country. But they lost the personal ties to the local community. Like the volunteer military, journalists are in danger of becoming a separate, elite caste in American society.

And now the business model is changing, too. The digital revolution prizes specialization, not mass appeal. And so we see the rise of advocacy journalism, such as talk radio, Fox News, MSNBC, Huffington Post and a plethora of web sites. These are aligned with partisan groups, ideologies or causes that help support them. This is not inherently bad, as heretical as that will sound to my colleagues. The early American republic survived, and many other democratic countries do just fine with similar advocacy models. Anyway, it is the new reality. To be a fundamentalist about the old model is to stick your head in the sand.

So where does this leave NPR?

As a public media that receives some 11 percent of its funding indirectly from the government, it cannot be partisan or have a declared bias. With multiple streams of other income—foundations, corporations and individuals—it also is not under the same pressure as the commercial news media to do so.

Let's be honest: NPR has a bias of sorts.

But let's be honest: NPR has a bias of sorts. It is the bias of its college-educated audience—you and me—to pick and frame stories in ways that represent our interests. This is not a liberal basis, as the far right likes to claim. It is a center-right to center-left bias interested in fact-based analysis and policy on matters such as the environment, health care, gay rights and fiscal issues, as opposed to ideology or belief. Over my four years I received more complaints from the left than the right, and not because Republicans aren't listening. Audience polls show a pretty even Republican-Democrat breakdown, with even more listeners self-identifying as "independent." It is that the political debate today and coverage is between the centrists and the far right; the far left feels ignored.

You will decide for yourself whether this is a good bias for NPR to have. I like it. As the news media fractures along narrow, advocacy lines, I think the NPR breadth and framing is valuable for the nation. With its strong storytelling voice, moreover, NPR is a peculiar institution in a way that perhaps only radio and podcasts can be. It is intimate with us, and has become part of our lives.

But NPR's journalists are not immune from the fundamentalisms. The position of ombudsman is one way that the organization seeks to break down the caste temptations, open up the newsroom to the audience's varied concerns and build trust. Journalists like to question others but are notoriously thin-skinned when questioned themselves, although most at NPR have been cooperative. The NPR newsroom is remarkable not only for its journalistic quality, but also for its niceness.

To me, the greatest everyday ethical challenge at NPR is finding the right balance between form and function, between the techniques of storytelling and the demands of accuracy and context. NPR reporters and editors generally walk this tightrope well, but it is easy to slip.

The new public editor, Elizabeth Jensen, comes into the job with an ideal background. She has worked for stellar newspapers as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, where she and I once worked together. Elizabeth has covered media, and especially public media, for years, and so is expert in the issues confronting the news media in general and NPR in particular. More than that, she is wise and thoughtful, with a sense of fairness that is the primordial quality of a good public editor. I am honored to be succeeded by her.

If I have any advice for Mohn, it is not to be afraid to interfere in the direction of the newsroom.

If I have a regret—and it is only tangentially an ombuddy one—it is that I could not get NPR to go global. With the support of former CEO Gary Knell, I started a project to compare how news media around the world frame the same story. The immediate purpose was to expose us to other ways of seeing events and trends. But I also had an ulterior motive. State-owned media from China, Russia, Iran and other authoritarian governments are expanding aggressively around the world, in many languages and with surprisingly good technical quality. Meanwhile, the democratic Western news media, including the BBC, is wrapped in an existential crisis and shrinking. Voice of America is largely irrelevant. I had hoped that my small project might be a bridge for NPR to expand internationally. The project was killed due to budget reasons.

I leave to pursue my two passions. One is immigration in a position as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The other is to find a way to break that global nut.

I am grateful to former CEO Vivian Schiller for having hired me, and for the support of CEOs and interim CEOs Knell, Joyce Slocum, Paul Haaga and, now, Jarl Mohn. Each has been excellent in his or her way in furthering the institution. If I have any advice for Mohn, it is not to be afraid to interfere in the direction of the newsroom. The professional journalists will want to burn me at the stake for this advice, but it is the CEO who ultimately is held accountable in how NPR serves you, the audience.

Finally, I am grateful to you. Thank you. It has been a pleasure.

- Edward Schumacher-Matos

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is the ombudsman for NPR. His column can be found on NPR.org here.