Exiting National Public Radio ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos wraped up his three-and-one-half-year term with a lengthy column.
Specifically, Schumacher-Matos focused on three key questions:
- Why National Public Radio was right to not publish the Charlie Hebdo Muhammd cartoons,
- If the media should consider government requests to keep information private, and
- If NPR is biased, and what that bias is
“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,” Schumacher-Matos wrote. “NPR reporters and editors generally walk this tightrope well, but it is easy to slip.”
1. Why NPR was right to not publish Charlie Hebdo cartoons
In light of the January attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Schumacher-Matos argued that ethics aren’t universal so what works for French publications doesn’t necessarily for the U.S. “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,” Schumacher-Matos wrote.
Schumacher-Matos agreed with NPR’s decision against publishing Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons because he said “most Americans” would probably consider them hate speech.
“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,” Schumacher-Matos argued. “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.”
NPR explained that it didn’t publish the cartoons because they would offend readers, NPR’s standards and practices editor Mark Memmott reported last month.
“Just because offensive images are part of a story does not mean a news organization must publish or post them with its news reports,” NPR explained in January. “In this case, posting just a few of the cover images of the Prophet Muhammad that Charlie Hebdo published could be misleading. ”
Further, NPR explained that if it were to publish enough images to provide “a comprehensive display of Charlie Hebdo’s work would require posting images that go well beyond most news organizations’ standards regarding offensive material.”
2. Why Journalists Should Consider Government Security
Schumacher-Matos also said sometimes it is OK for the media to agree not to report certain information at the government’s requests. Arguing “the United States errs but is a force mostly for good,” Schumacher-Matos said it’s “misguided” to disregard the U.S.’s “security concerns” when reporting.
“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.”
Calling himself patriotic and a veteran, Schumacher-Matos said “The real failure of NPR has little to do with secrecy and more to do with timidity about what is in plain sight,” pointing to the media coverage of the lead-in to the Iraq war.
“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,” he wrote.
3. What Bias Does NPR have?
NPR has a “bias of sorts,” Schumacher-Matos concluded in his column, but he denied it is a “liberal bias” or that it was bad.
“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,” Schumacher-Matos explained.
He pointed out NPR’s ethics code update in 2012 “replaced rigid rules with flexible principles and human judgment” by replacing requirements for “balance” and “objectivity” with “independence and fairness.”
“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.”
Now that Schumacher-Matos is no longer with NPR he will be a public policy scholar of immigration at the Woodrow Wilson Center, he added.