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NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Over the past several weeks, long-simmering questions about bias in public broadcasting have boiled up into the news, in no small part because the chairman of the CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has said that programs on public television and radio are not always politically neutral and that insurance balance is part of his job. Then last week, a House subcommittee voted to cut CPB's budget by a quarter for next year and end it altogether in two years. Previous efforts to zero-out funding for public broadcasting have failed, and the best guess is that this one won't succeed either, but clearly complaints of bias lie near the heart of the funding issue, as well.

To monitor his concerns, Kenneth Tomlinson, the new head of CPB, appointed two ombudsmen, a liberal and a conservative, to monitor NPR and PBS programs. Just yesterday, PBS announced plans to appoint an ombudsman of its own, and NPR, as many of you know, already has an ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, a longtime news executive at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and former vice president of NPR News. Jeffrey regularly responds to listeners in a column on our Web site at npr.org. From time to time, he joins us here on TALK OF THE NATION to take your calls and e-mails directly.

Later in the program, Frank Miller joins us to talk about Sin City, Gotham, the comics and the movies. But first, ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin.

Jeffrey, always nice to have you back on the program.

JEFFREY DVORKIN (NPR Ombudsman): Nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And if you have questions about the recent controversy, about funding for public radio or if you have complaints of your own about NPR News, give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And, Jeffrey, a couple of weeks ago, you attended the annual meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, an organization with the wonderful acronym ONO, where you concluded your yearlong tenure as the group's president. There was controversy over an application for membership from those two CPB ombudsmen.

DVORKIN: Right. And the difficulty that a lot of people in ONO, the Organization of News Ombudsmen, had was the idea that these were named as political ombudsmen, and most ombudsmen, whether in print or broadcast, see their job as non-political. So we have been discussing who should belong, who's eligible to belong to an organization of news ombudsmen, and it was decided that the two CPB ombudsmen would be offered the chance to join us but as non-voting observers, not as full members.

CONAN: And it was also a question, as I understand it, of to whom were they answerable. News ombudsmen--their job is to be, in your case, the listeners' advocate, or in a newspaper ombudsman's case the readers' advocate. For whom are the CPB ombudsmen advocates?

DVORKIN: Well, that's the question that was asked around the meeting in London and there was no real answer. We asked the CPB ombudsmen to whom are they answerable, and they said that they are, in general, answerable to interest groups, to Congress and to listeners and viewers. But in essence, they don't play the same role, it was determined, as an ombudsman would at a newspaper or at another broadcaster.

CONAN: They have--they just came on and, in fact, as far as I understand it, they have only done--responded or published one critique thus far.

DVORKIN: That's right. They reviewed a report on NPR by Ivan Watson from northern Iraq and they agreed that it was a fine report.

CONAN: Was that in response to any complaint?

DVORKIN: No. As I understand it, it was not. And in the couple of discussions I've had with one of the ombudsmen to try to determine whether their application for membership was appropriate or not, I didn't have a clear idea that they knew precisely how their job was going to operate, but they felt that it would evolve over the course of time.

CONAN: Now let's get back to the central question here in terms of what NPR News does and, of course, that's what you're concerned with--and, well, you listeners, too, you should be concerned about that--and that is this question of bias that keeps coming up. Is this something that you get in the e-mails that come into your box?

DVORKIN: It's constant. And I brought just two of the thousands that I get about bias. One from a Mr. Kevin Maher who said, `I see NPR's receiving complaints, either from listeners, other media or Ken Tomlinson, about a supposed lack of balance. I listen to NPR every day. I do not expect balance in your reporting; I expect accuracy.' It's an interesting idea. I think one could expect both, as you were just mentioning.

And then another one from a Mr. David Lilley, who said, `I admit I am encouraged by the recent actions of Congress to pull funding for public programming. I feel this way because NPR is not programming for the public; it is programming for the liberal public.' I get a lot of this.

But I also get a lot of e-mails from people who feel that NPR has become very much a middle-of-the-road exemplar of mainstream media and that, in fact, NPR is sounding more conservative than it used to.

CONAN: So is there any way to quantify these? Is there any conclusion that you can come to?

DVORKIN: There's a lot that's been written about bias in the media, and this is the realm of sociology. I don't think there's a petri dish that we can find and determine whether a news organization is biased or not. I've had a couple of observations. One is that the accusations of bias are usually leveled against news organizations that are involved in fact-based reporting, and the accusations often come from journalistic organizations whose stock in trade is more in the realm of opinion. There's nothing wrong with opinion, but I think in the case of an organization like NPR or The New York Times or The Washington Post, our primary job is news gathering and only secondarily commentary and analysis.

CONAN: Do you find that these are general complaints or praise, either way, is biased, isn't biased or do you feel that they come in relation to a particular story?

DVORKIN: They tend to come in relationship to a particular story or a particular time of year or season. Sometimes even a full moon might do it, too. But it is also possible that during the election, there were--people sensed that they were not hearing their own opinions reflected back to them. And I think that this is a problem that all media have to undertake at this point, which is: `To what extent do we simply reflect back the opinions of our readers, viewers and listeners, and to what extent are we here to provide a range of ideas and opinions?'

CONAN: Obviously, we want you listeners involved in this program. (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Our guest is NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. And let's talk to David. David's with us on the line from San Antonio in Texas.

DAVID (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

DAVID: A year ago, I would not listen to your radio programming. It was very liberal and it was very biased. But over the past year, I almost exclusively listen to NPR. I think it's come very much towards the middle of the road and I find it much more balanced. I think some of your reporters are still very liberal and show that bias, but nonetheless, I think your programming has come more towards the middle. (Technical difficulties) conservative in my own (technical difficulties) but I don't like to consider myself either party because I think neither fulfill their role. But I do find a very strong bias still with the homosexual and the gay area. Your commentaries a lot of times seem to label those of us who do not believe in the gay movement as either uneducated or unenlightened, and that is the one area of criticism I would have.

CONAN: Jeffrey, is that--does David have a lot of company in your e-mail box?

DVORKIN: He has some company, indeed. And I think that one of the issues for NPR is to what extent do they report on social change without appearing to be an advocate for that social change. There are certainly instances where--in the issue of gay marriage, there was a lot of discussion on NPR about how gay marriage is another form of an expression of civil rights in this country and it should be seen in that way. And other people see it more as a religious expression.

DAVID: Well, if I might interject. Over the past two weeks, I have had--you've had two commentators and I don't--I prefer not to mention who they are. They basically were talking to either gay activists or the gay marriage activists and, in fact, encouraging them to continue their fight and encouraged them to ascribe more--to do more for their goal. I'll hang up and and listen to your commentary. Thank you.

CONAN: OK, David. Thanks very much.

DVORKIN: I'm not sure who that was. I'm not sure that any journalist on NPR is in a position to use his or her job as a bully pulpit for personal opinions. I must say I hadn't heard that, and if someone at NPR had made that statement, I would have been flooded, I'm sure.

CONAN: He did say commentators, but it's also not a commentator's role on NPR to say, `Those of you who agree with me, do this.'

DVORKIN: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. Anyway, let's get another caller on the line. This is Todd. Todd's calling from Camus(ph), Washington. Am I getting that correct?

TODD (Caller): It's actually Camas, but close enough.

CONAN: Camas. I saw it spelled like the French author. I couldn't help myself. But go ahead.

TODD: Well, I guess my comment was, it seems like the commentators on NPR generally do a very good job of being, you know, thought-provoking and specific. And I'm, you know, talking specifically about, say, like a Daniel Schorr. A lot of those commentaries, when he does come on line, I find very interesting, but there seems to be a definite, you know, liberal slant to every story. And I guess I'm wondering what sort of self-policing or is there any review of these commentaries before they go on the air to--where somebody looks at it and says, `Well, that seems to be a little bit too liberal or too conservative,' or whatever before it's actually aired? And I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Thanks, Todd.

TODD: Thank you.

CONAN: I'm sure this is not the first query in that line.

DVORKIN: Right. And I think that people have used a kind of interchangeability of certain terms: reporter, commentator, analyst. Those may be inside baseball for those of us in the business, but they're kind of used interchangeably in the public's mind. I guess we should make a few definitions here. A reporter is someone who is on the air who reports events and using the facts and presenting them in as neutral a manner as possible. That is, I think, primarily what NPR does and should do. And then commentators are people who give their opinions about the events of the day. And then there are analysts--and Dan Schorr actually falls into that last category--where Dan and others look at events and explain why they happen and what they might portend.

CONAN: But do you get a lot of complaints that Dan Schorr and others--I guess Cokie Roberts would be the other news analyst we have--that they're liberal?

DVORKIN: I actually get a lot of comments about Cokie saying how conservative she is, and I do get a lot of comments saying how liberal Dan Schorr is. But I think what they both bring is a sense of tremendous experience. Dan Schorr's first assignment was to cover the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.

CONAN: Jeffrey Dvorkin is NPR's ombudsman. If you have questions for him or complaints, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org. Back after the break.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Our guest is NPR's ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. We've dragged him out of his overstuffed e-mail box and in here to Studio 3A to talk with you today. If you have questions or comments about NPR's news coverage, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Here's an e-mail question from Ken Moyle(ph): `Isn't it time to admit that public radio is a business and not an altruistic enterprise? I tried to find out the salaries of individual executives and performers and was cut short. Why aren't publicly funded, tax-free organizations totally transparent? As Jesse Ventura said, "It would be interesting to see Garrison Keillor's W-2."'

DVORKIN: Well, they are posted. The top five or six salaries are posted on the Web site of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Other salaries, I think, are mostly union salaries, so they fall within a specific range. But the top salaries are not hidden at all.

CONAN: So the CPB Web site has information on the top five, and you're required to disclose them as a consequence of getting government funding.

DVORKIN: Exactly.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Roger. Roger's with us from San Francisco.

ROGER (Caller): Yes. I can't thank you enough for this opportunity.

CONAN: Sure.

ROGER: Jeffrey, we spoke in San Francisco a few days ago.

DVORKIN: Yes.

ROGER: You know, there's nothing wrong in being a liberal. Some of our finest presidents were liberal. Roosevelt, Wilson, Kennedy, were all classified as liberal presidents. So I don't know why would--anyone would demonize the name. I am a liberal. The conservatives in Congress want to take away the funding of NPR, and they're probably going to succeed within two years. But this question is really directed at Neal Conan there. I mentioned when I was talking to you, Jeffrey, that--about--before the Gulf War started, I made a plea to the president of the United States not to do it. It was a mistake, that there were so many reasons not to do it. There were still inspectors on the ground. We could have investigated all those things that they were worried about.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROGER: And after that call, Neal, it seems like I was not allowed to speak on your show from then on. Some of your producers were even sad about it, but they couldn't seem to get by you on this issue. I always try to be factual, truthful and I never try to be insulting to anyone. And I speak on a lot of radio. I mean, like, conservative radio and liberal radio.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROGER: And I couldn't understand why NPR would exclude me. What--I mean, I didn't do anything to be censored off your program.

DVORKIN: Well, if I may, Roger, mention again what I was talking about, is that often phone-in programs, call-in shows, are very difficult programs to produce. And the idea is to keep the topics going and to have a range of ideas and opinions and to explore in some intellectually affirmative way the issues at stake. And I don't think you should take this personally. I think it's more--and I've seen a--I've seen and I've managed quite a few of these programs. It's a very difficult choice, and none of this should be taken personally.

ROGER: Neal, could you just answer...

CONAN: I'll answer. Roger, as far as I know, your name is not on any list anywhere. We do try to--if we know people are calling and that they've been on the air, we would let them rest or lie fallow for a while, if you will, in order to get other people an opportunity to be on the air. But...

ROGER: It's almost three years, Neal.

CONAN: Well, you know, I can't explain. We get a lot of phone calls, Roger.

DVORKIN: And you're on today.

ROGER: You know--and I appreciate that. It's probably because your advocate is on today. If you want a division of opinion, I can assure you I can give the liberal opinion, the Democratic opinion. You don't have to censor me off. I've tried to be always truthful and I try to be honest at everything I do when I talk on radio. I can't afford to lie because if I do, I assure you conservatives will jump all over me.

CONAN: Well, you're certainly not kept off the air. You're not censored. We have plenty of liberals and Democrats on the radio, Roger. So we'll welcome you back when next time you call.

ROGER: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: All right. Appreciate the phone call.

Here's another e-mail, this from John Goldsmith(ph): `Have you ever done an objective or maybe an anonymous polling of the journalists'--I assume at NPR News--`as to their political leanings?'

DVORKIN: I think it's actually illegal to ask that. There may be--I believe there are laws that people may not be discriminated against by virtue of their political affiliation.

I think what's more important here is that it's the product that's on the air that counts, not the personal opinions of the people who work inside here. And I think that NPR is a pretty mature news organization with a lot of editorial checks and balances, and it actually does, I think, for the most part, with some exceptions, a good job in making sure that the personal opinions of journalists do not become part of the story.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and we'll go to Karen. Karen's with us from Cleveland.

KAREN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

KAREN: We're talking about money and funding here, and the other source of funding is we, the members.

CONAN: I would call that the major source of funding, but go ahead.

KAREN: All right. And we the members decide by whether we make a contribution whether we like the liberal or conservative bent. So if NPR has been successful by supposedly being liberal, it would seem to me that the market out here is asking for that. In fact, it might be the conservatives' worst nightmare to defund through the public sources and allow the members to truly express what kind of radio they want by the market means.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, Jeffrey, this has been a suggestion that's come up. I don't know if it's come up in your mailbox specifically, but I've seen--certainly read comments of saying maybe public radio and television would be better off to divorce themselves from government funding altogether.

DVORKIN: Well, I mean, there are risks and advantages to being an entirely privately operated public radio organization and there are risks and advantages to being entirely funded by Congress. I think in this environment, one extreme or the other is probably not going to happen.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DVORKIN: And if we were to be completely funded by listeners, corporations and foundations, I'm sure that you and I both would hear from the listeners expressing their concern about the unnecessary presence of corporate funding in public radio.

CONAN: You hear that anyway, don't you?

DVORKIN: Well, indeed. But we'd hear more of it if we went entirely in that direction.

KAREN: Well, I'm saying that I believe that the public is saying what it wants from NPR by the way that it supports it.

DVORKIN: Sure. And I think that what's also interesting to note is that in an audience survey, in a series of audience surveys, NPR listeners self-identify as about a third liberal, a third moderate and a third conservative and 10 percent `mind your own beeswax.'

CONAN: Karen, thanks very much for the phone call.

KAREN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Martin Danner(ph): `To whom does Jeffrey report, and how much authority does he have to affect what NPR broadcasts?'

DVORKIN: I report to the president of NPR, Kevin Klose, and to the board of NPR, which meets every three months. And I do a report to them on what I've been hearing. But mostly, I report to you, the listeners, in the column that I write on a weekly basis.

I have no managerial authority, thank goodness. My authority is, I guess, a kind of--being in a position of scold and reminder and nudge basically, so that if I find something that is--I think is out of whack or that the listeners think is out of whack and I write about it in the column, then it's up to management to either say, `Yes, this is something we should address,' or they can ignore me. But I think that for the most part, I've found management to be tremendously responsive.

CONAN: But that idea of the ombudsman as conscience or scold, much goes to the origin of that acronym your organization uses.

DVORKIN: ONO.

CONAN: Oh, no, here comes the ombudsman.

DVORKIN: Right. Well, fortunately, I think--my sense is, is that we've been--people have been pretty positive about the role of an ombudsman of NPR. I think it took a little while. I think the first year was a little bit difficult, and people had some suspicions that I was really just a manager in sheep's clothing. But I think that for the most part, I think most people at NPR have been pretty positive about answering my questions and doing it in a timely manner.

CONAN: Yeah, we have to say that sheep's clothing didn't survive the first July. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Bob. Bob's calling from Wilmington, Delaware.

BOB (Caller): Hi. How you doing?

CONAN: All right.

BOB: I was just calling to say that I think that--depending on the topic that the idea of balance could be, you know, overrated or not appropriate. And the example that I gave your screener was that I would not want my child, for example, to go to school and in the interest of balance to have to learn about intelligent design or creationism just, you know, for the sake of hearing all viewpoints. And maybe an example on the radio would be--something that springs to mind was the build-up to the Iraq War. There was a lot of attempt to tie Iraq and Saddam Hussein to September 11th, and no matter how many people believed or how often it was said, it doesn't make it true. And just because a whole lot of people believe in something, it's not necessarily something appropriate to air or should be refuted if possible.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DVORKIN: Well, I think Bob's absolutely right, that--I think fairness and balance are means to an end, and the end is to tell the truth. And I think that journalism--as impossible as that may sound or seem on a daily basis, journalism has an obligation to tell the truth.

CONAN: Bob, thank you.

BOB: You're welcome.

CONAN: Here's another e-mail from Jay York in Wichita, Kansas. `Just wondering: Does FOX News employ an ombudsman?'

DVORKIN: No, FOX News does not.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line: Donna. Donna's with us from Sumter, South Carolina.

DONNA (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

DONNA: I consider myself moderate. My last voting ticket was Republican, Libertarian, Democrat--all over the board. I don't listen to public radio to have someone say exactly what I think. I listen to public radio to be challenged. Sometimes I'm seething, I'm yelling at the radio; `I can't believe that liberal person is saying that!' But at least it made me think.

DVORKIN: Well, Donna, I think that's not a bad attitude to have. I think that--as I've said, I think even on this program, I don't think NPR's in the informational comfort-food business. We're not here to aggravate you or give you ulcers, but we're here to give a sense of what the issues of the day are and how they might be approached.

DONNA: And I don't think that public radio should become not public; it should remain with government funding. It should get funding because we don't--as was mentioned earlier, then we'd be stuck with whatever the corporations that are supporting public radio said, `We have to say, we have to say.'

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Do...

DONNA: It should be public radio by the public, for the public, all of the public, whether moderate, liberal or conservative.

CONAN: Donna, thank you very much. I don't think anybody here could have said it better.

DONNA: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

Here's another e-mail from Megan Hope(ph) in El Paso, Texas: `I wonder to what extent any form of media can really be unbiased, simply because of the everyday time constraints to make quick decisions about what stories to cover or run, which sources to talk to of those immediately available, how to headline, promote stories, etc. Given these demands, it seems only human to resort to one's personal biases, however subconsciously.'

DVORKIN: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. I mean, we come to work every day with the personalities and experiences that we have. We're not expected to be, you know, carte blanche as we walk through the door. And I think that, as this pace of media and the pace of information has increased, it's been more difficult for news organizations to be as balanced and as thoughtful as they might want to be. But that's always the balancing act that we're involved in.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And now let's go to Bree. Bree's calling from Owosso, Michigan.

BREE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hello.

BREE: This is my question. I'm in the non-profit sector, so I deal a lot with numbers in terms of fund raising, and funders always want very specific numbers. So my question to the ombudsman is: Do you have any scientists at your disposal that you can go to and say, `This many of our reports are this leaning,' or anything like that? Do you have any sort of hard facts that you can use in terms of fighting fire with fire if somebody says you're more liberal or you're more conservative, or that--more, you know, sort of touchy-feely?

CONAN: Yeah. Any objective metrics?

BREE: Yeah.

DVORKIN: Well, yes and no, to give you a good public-radio answer. During the election campaign, I kept a stopwatch on NPR's coverage, because I wanted to know whether NPR was being fair to both sides and to the third parties. And not only was it a stopwatch; I actually looked at all of the kinds of words that were used to describe politics and platforms, whether the words were--forgive the sociologies--directional, whether they implied something. Did the Democrats `storm into the building' or did the Republicans `trepidatiously'--you know, that sort of thing. And it ended up, in the study that I did on a weekly basis, that NPR was, in fact, pretty balanced. It basically gave the same split in air time to the two--to Kerry and Bush as they received in the popular vote. It was that close.

Now there was more attention paid to third-party candidates than they received in the popular vote. They got about 10 percent of the air time. But I think that, in fact, that is the role of public broadcasting, which is to tell the listeners, as citizens, what the ideas are that are out there and allow them a chance to explore those ideas and make up their own minds. So I think in that instance, NPR's journalistic instincts were pretty good.

There was one week where things were out of whack, and that was a week that Kerry took rather a lot of time off and did not campaign as rigorously as Bush did in that week, and so the numbers were wonky on one week, but they balanced out over the long run.

CONAN: Bree, thanks for the call.

BREE: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can squeeze Emily in. Emily's with us from San Jose, California.

EMILY (Caller): Hi. Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: I'm afraid we'll have to keep it quick.

EMILY: All right. I would just like to comment that I work at a publicly funded theater. One of the shows we did this year was featuring Sandra Tsing Loh, who...

CONAN: Right.

EMILY: ...was a commentator from NPR. And it just really brought up the question of--the government funds so many arts and communications organizations. I think NPR, you know, as a publicly funded means for communication and the dispensal of ideas, keeps the government small, which is actually more of a conservative platform. And so I just wanted to bring up the whole--the concept of the government funding and facilitating this sort of debate, and sort of what NPR sees as its function in society.

CONAN: Yep. Just very briefly, NPR gets a very tiny percentage of its income directly from CPB, about 1 percent. Its stations get about 15 to 16 percent, and they funnel a lot of that back to NPR when they buy our programs.

DVORKIN: That's exactly the way it works, so that the threat of a cutback or a cutoff of public funds would have a serious impact on NPR, but a more serious impact on the member stations.

CONAN: And a more serious impact on public television than on public radio.

DVORKIN: Absolutely.

CONAN: Emily, I'm afraid we didn't get to the heart of your question. I'm afraid we just ran out of time. But Jeffrey will be back, and please give us a call then.

EMILY: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Jeffrey Dvorkin is NPR's ombudsman. He joined us here in Studio 3A, as he does from time to time, about every three months or so. Jeffrey, always good to have you on the program, and we appreciate your time.

DVORKIN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, "Bats" is back on the big screen. We've got the comic author who first imagined the dark knight's dark new look. Frank Miller joins us after the break. If you have questions for him about Batman, Sin City or the comics in the movies, (800) 989-8255.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.