Tag Archives: NPR

Journalism that deepens our understanding

Walmart in Merida, Mexico

I’d like to call your attention to three stories that stood out for me yesterday as examples of high-quality journalism that tells you something important that you didn’t already know, that places isolated facts within a broader perspective, or both.

• First up is David Barstow’s remarkable New York Times story on Wal-Mart’s Mexican bribery scandal — a scandal that was known to few outside Wal-Mart before this weekend. Clocking in at a New Yorker-like 7,600 words, Barstow’s article documents corruption at every level of the company, from active bribery in Mexico to passive acceptance at Wal-Mart’s U.S. headquarters.

Given the complexity of the story, I thought the “Guide to People in This Article” was a nice touch. So was the inclusion of Wal-Mart’s full response as a stand-alone document.

The story is a tour de force with implications that will be playing out for some time to come. It’s also a reminder that there are certain types of public-interest journalism that can be carried out only by a high-profile, well-funded news organization with its own army of lawyers.

• Next is Meghan Irons and Beth Healy’s Boston Globe article on the financial crisis that threatens the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, a leading institution in Boston’s African-American community that is in big trouble over an ill-advised expansion project.

The church’s primary lender is another African-American institution, OneUnited Bank, which brought down the hammer in part as a reaction to its own problems related to the national mortgage crisis.

The story has been in the news for some time now, but Irons and Healy are the first to pull all the strands together in a way that makes sense, even though no one from OneUnited would talk with them on the record. It’s fleshed out with photos and a video of a recent protest by African-American leaders in front of OneUnited headquarters.

• Finally, I was driving home from work on Sunday when I heard a long (11:29) piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered” called “Poverty in America: Defining the New Poor,” which explained how Clinton-era welfare reform has resulted in a shift toward food stamps as the primary means by which the government provides assistance to poor families.

During the recession of the past several years, the number of Americans on food stamps has risen from about 30 million to about 46 million.

Particularly riveting was NPR’s interview with Vicki Jones, who recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Sun-Times on what it’s like to live on $60 a week in food stamps while going to chiropractic school full-time and supporting her 7-year-old son.

Although the clear message of the story, reported by Guy Raz, is that we are not doing enough for the poor, the piece also functions as an outstanding explainer, bringing into focus a number of issues that are poorly defined when used as debating points by partisans.

Thanks to the Times, the Globe and NPR, I know more today than I did 24 hours ago.

Photo (cc) by ruffin_ready and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

“NPR” is not a synonym for public radio

This is a mistake that comes up over and over, and today’s offender is the Boston Globe. The headline on an editorial about the Mike Daisey/“This American Life” debacle reads “NPR: Exposing Apple’s worm, and its own.”

The editorial itself refers to “This American Life” as an “NPR show.” It goes on to note that Daisey’s fabrications about his trip to China were unearthed by “another NPR reporter.” (“Another”? Daisey is not a reporter.)

If you haven’t figured out where I’m going by now, “This American Life” is not an NPR program. It’s produced by Chicago’s WBEZ Radio, a public station, and distributed by Public Radio International, a competitor of NPR’s.

Daisey’s assault on the truth was exposed by a reporter for “Marketplace,” which is produced by American Public Media, yet another NPR competitor.

But wait. Doesn’t “This American Life” appear on NPR stations? No. And here’s where it gets confusing. Plenty of public radio stations market themselves as NPR stations because it’s a name brand they can use to attract listeners and advertisers — oops, sorry. Underwriters. NPR itself does not own stations.

Both of Boston’s large public stations, WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) call themselves NPR stations. But WBUR’s license is held by Boston University, and WGBH is an independent nonprofit organization that includes radio and television stations. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH.) NPR is just one of several services (albeit the best-known) from which public radio stations buy programming.

“In a just world,” Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer recently tweeted, “we could say ‘NPR’ to describe all public radio, just as saying ‘Kleenex’ covers Scott Tissues and generic brands.”

Shafer was kidding, of course. And it does get confusing. But NPR takes enough grief from its critics without having to get blamed for programming on rival networks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to send an email to CNN complaining about Sean Hannity.

Afternoon update: The headline and editorial have been rewritten, and a correction has been appended.

Photo (cc) by Raul654 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” has a fascinating conversation this week with NPR’s Andy Carvin and Sky News’ Neal Mann about whether they felt comfortable tweeting a horrifically graphic video of a Syrian boy whose lower face was blown off in the city of Homs, which is under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mann’s answer: No. Carvin’s: Yes, with appropriate warnings.

I want to play the segment for my Reinventing the News students tomorrow. I thought it was a great example of the dilemmas faced by professional journalists whose duties now include curating citizen media. And I considered whether to show them the video. It’s not hard to find, though I won’t link to it. I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll think about it a bit more. But right now I can’t imagine subjecting a captive audience of 15 students to such a disturbing video.

Frankly, even though Carvin says he gave his Twitter followers plenty of warning, I think I’m with Mann. Because what, really, is the larger meaning of the video? Carvin tells Garfield:

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we’ve seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

Yet, driving home this evening, I heard a report about an investigation into the deaths of eight children killed in Afghanistan by a NATO air strike gone awry. Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours? Might a citizen journalist in Kapisa province have shot footage of a boy fatally injured by American-backed forces just as horrific as the one Carvin tweeted?

Not to stack the deck. I have enormous respect for Carvin, and his action definitely accomplished some good. As he tells it, because of his tweet, an emergency medical team mobilized in Lebanon, ready to help the injured boy. Unfortunately, he died before he could be spirited out of the country.

What the Assad regime is doing in Syria is absolutely savage. But the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.

Photo (cc) by Maggie Osama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Birth control and the Church: The missing context

Even a card-carrying secular humanist like me couldn’t help but be troubled that the Obama administration was ordering the Catholic Church to provide birth-control coverage to its employees despite Catholic doctrine prohibiting the practice. My angst only grew last week, when liberal commentator Mark Shields voiced his objections to the policy on the “PBS NewsHour.”

As it turns out, the controversy has much to do with the media’s all-too-characteristic inability to do their homework and provide context.

Which is why you need to read Julie Rovner’s NPR report in which she discovers that the federal government has been requiring religious organizations to cover birth control since 2000. The rule, as is the case with the Obama administration’s approach, applies to non-religious institutions run by religious organizations, such as hospitals and universities.

The only difference is that under the 2000 rule, birth-control coverage was subject to the normal insurance co-pay. Under the current federal health-care law, contraception must be provided free of charge. But it’s the coverage itself that’s the issue, not whether there’s a co-pay.

Referring to the Obama rule, Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the ACLU tells Rovner, “[A]s a legal matter, a constitutional matter, it’s completely unremarkable.”

What’s hard to understand is why the White House didn’t make sure everyone knew there was little that was new about the policy. But it is the news media’s job to provide context and analysis. In this case, and in all too many cases, they have failed miserably.

Photo (cc) by Ceridwen and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Turmoil at NPR finally reaches the top (II)

I’ve expanded on my earlier thoughts regarding Vivian Schiller’s forced resignation from NPR in a piece for the Guardian.

Turmoil at NPR finally reaches the top

NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller has resigned following the latest controversy to dog one of our three or four most vital news organizations. Yesterday we learned that NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller — no relation — was secretly recorded by right-wing prankster James O’Keefe. Among other things, Ron Schiller was heard trashing the Tea Party and generally coming off as a liberal.

I’m writing this up for the Guardian later today, and at the moment we don’t know much. My snap reaction, though, is good riddance. NPR handled the long-overdue departure of Juan Williams ineptly and over the wrong issue. Vivian Schiller threw her top news executive Ellen Weiss, over the side of the boat when it was all over.

Then, yesterday, Vivian Schiller publicly humiliated Ron Schiller despite O’Keefe’s flagrant history of doctoring videos of his other targets — principally ACORN.

My fear, though, is that NPR got rid of Vivian Schiller because she didn’t pander to the right hard enough at a time when its funding is in jeopardy. We’ll see.

Keeping the “public” in public radio

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that NPR and public radio stations shouldn’t walk away from government funding, even if they don’t need it. For one thing, it would hand the right a victory in the culture wars. For another, it would set a dangerous precedent for public television, which is far more dependent on public money.