Wednesday, November 24, 2004

When NPR Fails You, Who You Gonna' Call? Not the Ombudsman

An e-mail came in on from a very angry reader asking me to address an incident re: NPR.
The incident aired on NPR during the program Morning Edition. Juan Williams had attempted to explain a statement of John Kerry's. Listeners were not pleased with Williams' attempt. So Robert Kagan was brought on Morning Edition on October 7th to provide "a little clarification" regarding Kerry's statement. (You can find a summary of this at Media Matters: (In a nut shell, Williams referred to Kerry's "global test" as "global consent.")

I missed Juan Williams' attempt at an explanation but I did catch Kagan's on October 7th and I remember my mouth dropping as he was introduced. Kagan writes an op-ed for The Washington Post and, as noted in his introduction by Renee Montagen, he's also a senior associate with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

That's what listeners were told. But Kagan also brings what appears to be a conflict of interest which Montagen didn't inform the listeners of. (This conflict of interest is why my jaw dropped as he was introduced, I'll get to it in a moment.)

The person who e-mailed this site advised that Jeffrey A. Dvorkin (NPR ombudsman) had addressed this issue in a column. Here is the section of Dvorkin's column (October 21, 2004) on Kagan:

Immediately after this correction, Morning Edition compounded its initial error -- or so many thought -- by airing an interview with Robert Kagan. Some listeners consider Kagan, a senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a "hawk" on Iraq.
Even though Mr. Kagan's specific remarks to Renee Montagne were, in my opinion, non-controversial, the very fact that he was asked to comment on Kerry's position was seen as a neutering of the correction of Juan Williams' statement.

Alex Pritchard from Fairbanks, Alaska, writes:
I was amazed to hear your story "clarifying" Juan Williams's earlier error regarding John Kerry's use of a global test. Your follow-up story went on to describe what the two candidates might do if we knew a foreign government posed a serious threat to the U.S. -- this is not what is in question. The pertinent question is did Iraq pose a serious threat that justified a preemptive attack?

Is Kagan a "hawk" on Iraq? That's truly the least of Kagan's (and NPR's) problems when he's commenting on John Kerry, a presidential candidate, during an election. And it's really sad that Dvorkin is either unable or unwilling to address the serious issue. (The e-mailer states Dvorkin was informed of the serious issue in an e-mail on October 8th. )

Let's talk a bit about NPR's mission to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

NPR correspondent Michele Norris is a political correspondent. Norris has earned her stripes at The Washington Post and ABC but this election cycle she provided no campaign coverage. Why?

Here's Dvorkin commenting on November 9th (

The reason was simple. Norris' husband, Broderick Johnson was a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign. For that reason, NPR management decided that Norris should not do any political interviews.

Norris is side lined because she's married to someone who's involved with the Kerry campaign.
Agree or disagree with their policy, that was reason enough for NPR to pull Norris from filing any stories or commenting on any campaigns. NPR has published guidelines: "Independence and Integrity II:The Updated Ethics Guide for Public Radio Journalism." Dvorkin, in fact, co-wrote these guidelines. As you read through these NPR guidelines ( you may note that the guidelines only appear to apply to people like Norris, NPR staff. What of "guests" brought on to address issues?

Apparently they don't apply. Apparently anyone can come on, be presented as an objective commentator, and discuss anything even if they have the appearance of a conflict of interest . . . provided that they are a "guest" and not an NPR employee. Further more, neither Dvorkin nor Montagne are under any NPR ethical guideline to inform the listener of a potential conflict of interest. Montagne didn't tell listeners about a possible conflict of interest when she introduced Kagan October 7th. Dvorkin didn't tell readers of the potential conflict of interest when he "addressed" the issue in his October 21st column.

When NPR fails you, who you gonna' call? Not the ombudsman. Don't raise the issue with Dvorkin because he's either unable or unwilling to address it. (Unable includes the "I didn't know" excuse if the basic research wasn't done.)

What is Kagan's conflict of interest appearance? (An issue NPR has still not addressed.) It's not that he writes an op-ed for The Washington Post. Dvorkin does toss out the "hawk" issue but without ever addressing it. But he also doesn't address a very important fact: who is Robert Kagan married to?

He's married to Victoria Nuland. For all I know, she's a wonderful person. But that's not the issue. The issue is who Ms. Nuland works for. Want to take a guess on that?

Did you guess Dick Cheney? If you did, you may be more informed than Dvorkin or Montagne because possibly they are unaware of that fact. Possibly, they haven't done the basic work required -- Montagne to know about the "guest" she is introducing; Dvorkin to address the issue of Kagan as a commentator/interpreter of John Kerry's remarks.

Michele Norris' husband worked for the Kerry campaign. (Warning: we're going down a very basic road here. But apparently, it's not one that NPR can navigate by themselves so let's move slowly to allow them to keep up.) Since Norris' husband is involved with attempting to get what we will call "team A" into the White House, Norris has the appearance of a conflict of interest and her reporting duties can not include commenting or covering the campaigns. That's a simple path to follow whether you agree with it or not.

But with Kagan, the path has a huge u-turn and veers off to God knows where. Kagan's wife works as Cheney's deputy national security adviser. That's Ms. Nuland' s title. So in effect, Ms. Nuland's employed by "team B" -- she's apparently not working on team B's campaign, but she works for team B. Potentially, Kagan has a vested interest in the outcome of the 2004 election.

Norris isn't even allowed to comment on the campaigns (or politics at all) on NPR during the election due to her marital connections to team A; however, Kagan is brought on to comment on a candidate from team A while his wife works for team B. Conflict of interest?

If NPR felt Kagan was such an expert that his wisdom overrode any appearance of a conflict of interest, they could have informed listeners of the potential conflict when Montagne introduced him. The same could be said of Dvorkin. When responding to listeners' complaints on Kagan, he could have stated whom Kagan was married to and whom Nuland worked for.

Instead it's been treated like a dirty little secret which only makes it look even worse (if that's possible). Maybe Dvorkin didn't read the e-mailer's e-mail re: Kagan & Nuland, maybe he was too busy, maybe the e-mail gods didn't deliver it. Dvorkin might even question whether anyone e-mailed him of the conflict of interest appearance. (I did request a copy of the e-mail to Dvorkin from the reader who contacted this site but was informed that NPR has a form you fill out on their site and it doesn't copy to your e-mail account.) I don't know what happened, I don't read Dvorkin's e-mail.

What I do know is that if Dvorkin is the ombudsman (which he is) and listeners have a complaint about whether or not Kagan was able to objectively comment on John Kerry (Dvorkin admits in his column that listeners did complain about Kagan), then it was incumbent upon Dvorkin as the ombudsman to do a minimal amount of research on Kagan before he responded in his online column. Putting the word hawk in quotation marks and writing that "[s]ome listeners consider" Kagan to be a "hawk" isn't addressing the issue of his potential conflict of interest. (Nor does it address whether or not Kagan's a "hawk.")

Did Dvorkin do the basic work and research required of his position when he chooses to comment on listeners' concerns/complaints? Did he do what he was paid to do? Did he live up to the responsibilities of his position?

If he did bother to research Kagan then Dvorkin either needs some assistance with basic research or he made a decision not to include the information regarding Kagan's wife and her employer. If it's the latter, he concealed information from NPR listeners to whom he's supposed to be responsive to. Dvorkin can feel that Kagan's marriage and his wife's employment had no bearing on Kagan's commentary; however, feeling that way doesn't remove his responsibility to pass on that information to NPR listeners in his column.

Of course, Dvorkin just may have blown off his responsibilities and duties that day. He might not have done the work, he might not have done the research. All of this applies to Montagne as well. Although I would note that Montagne doesn't hold the title of ombudsman. If Montagne was unaware of Kagan's marriage to Nuland or whom Nuland worked for, if there were pressing issues as they were pulling the show together, getting it on air and as a result she made a mistake by not knowing the basic facts about the guest commentator then it's a mistake and one she should take accountability for. But Dvorkin acts as the high court for the listeners.

The ombudsman is who you take your issues to and he's ruling on them -- on whether your issues are a concern or not. If he didn't do the basic research required to comment on listeners' concerns (concerns he elected to write about), he can't argue he suffered from pressing time constraints since he's decided to address the concern himself and this is basic information. Nor is he rushing to get on air the way Montagne (or Morning Edition's producer) might be. (The NPR guidelines do not offer "rushing to get on air" as an excuse.)

He's offering a ruling and to make that ruling he needs to know the basic facts. If he's unaware that's required of his position then possibly this person who co-wrote the ethics policy is not up to being ombudsman.

Dvorkin needs to address this. NPR listeners need to know: "Why it is okay for someone who's wife works for the administration to come on and evaluate/critique Kerry's remarks in the midst of an election?" NPR listeners also need to know: "Why was Kagan's marriage and his wife's position in the administration not disclosed on air or later in Dvorkin's column?"

Right now, it appears that NPR staff have to live up to ethical guidelines, but invited commentators do not. Dvorkin should also address the ethical guidelines that apply to "guests" invited on NPR to serve as commentators.

In his column on Norris being removed from political coverage during the election, Dvorkin noted:

After all, with the media under scrutiny for the slightest sign of liberal bias, it made sense to avoid any appearance of partisanship.

I would hate to read the above to mean that NPR scrutinizes bias only "for the slightest sign of liberal bias" and that conservative bias isn't an issue of concern for NPR. That's another question for Dvorkin to address.

A message for Dvorkin can be left at: 202-513-3245. In addition, the e-mail form
for Dvorkin is located at

Added Nov. 26th: jnagarya provides this toll free number to leave a message for Dvorkin: 1-800-433-1277. jnagarya has posted a comment on this entry that's worth reading.

In Media Matters' discussion area, the basic facts are posted (Kagan's married to Nuland and Nuland works for Cheney) In addition to that and the link the poster provides, other online sources for Nuland's employment can be found here:
[the above Christian Science Monitor link takes you to a main page with an entry on Irving Kristol; to find out about Kagan you have to click on his picture on this main page -- he's in the left column, the fifth picture down or the second from the bottom; once you click on his photo, the page will reload]

[Three corrections were done to this post. The word "to" was inserted into a sentence. In addition, two paragraphs were reduced to the point where you couldn't read them. This isn't a "font" issue and wasn't present in the quick read through I did last night. One of them is in bold italics above now and the other has been played with to again appear in normal size. Not sure how the last two errors happened but hopefully they are fixed now and thanks to e-mailers who pointed this out to me -- Frank in Orlando, Natalie and MR in New York.]