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Ombudsman Mailbag: On Staffing, Missing Information, And Religious Viewpoints


Listeners have questions about NPR staffing, some vital missing information in two reports, and a voice that was lacking in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. Herewith, some answers.

First, a year ago, NPR canceled the weekday talk show Tell Me More, which was hosted by Michel Martin and dedicated to covering issues of race, identity, faith, gender, and family. The decision, which cited budget reasons and was effective Aug. 1, 2014, drew protests from hundreds of listeners who worried about NPR's commitment to diverse programming, as my predecessor Edward Schumacher-Matos discussed in a column.

In the wake of that decision, I regularly get letters such as this one from Jennifer Steverson, who wrote in mid-June:

As an African-American listener I miss the perspective of Michel Martin. I am saddened that NPR chose to diminish her presence by canceling Tell Me More. In the wake of seemingly accelerated attacks on communities of color NPR needs to foster civil dialogue in this country by providing a platform for diverse journalists.

And this one came to NPR from Hyacinth Mason of Albany, N.Y:

We really need to hear more from Michel Martin. It almost seems that Tell Me More was cancelled at precisely the wrong time. Her team's nuanced view and discussions on topics has been sorely missed. Please consider bringing her voice to the fore more often - daily would be wonderful!

It's not a daily presence, but fans of Martin are getting their wish: Martin, as it was announced Thursday, will begin anchoring the Saturday and Sunday editions of All Things Considered beginning in September. She replaces Arun Rath, who will return to Boston, where he was previously based.

The weekday All Things Considered is also getting two new hosts, Ari Shapiro and Kelly McEvers, who join veterans Robert Siegel and Audie Cornish. (NPR previously announced that Melissa Block, who has co-hosted for 12 years, would become a special correspondent at NPR.) Shapiro is returning from London, where he has been a correspondent; he previously covered the White House and the Justice Department. McEvers, a national desk correspondent who previously reported from the Middle East, will be based at the NPR West studios, in Culver City, Calif.

Both shows are also getting new executive producers. Carline Watson, former executive producer of Tell Me More, will lead the weekday program, while Kenya Young, a current acting supervising editor for Morning Edition, will lead the weekend ATC broadcast. The changes mean two of NPR's major newsmagazines will be led by African-American women.

I asked Michael Oreskes, NPR's senior vice president of news and editorial director, about the changes. He wrote by email:

All Things Considered is a remarkable achievement. It has been on the air 44 years, longer than any other radio news program. It has maintained the loyalty of its audiences and the quality of its journalism by repeatedly reinventing its offerings. We are doing that again with new hosts from diverse backgrounds and new executive leaders who understand how different our world is from the world of 44 years ago. We expect them to bring new relevancy and vibrancy to ATC. This is only the beginning of the sorts of changes we are looking to bring to NPR to better serve all of our present and potential audiences.

Before the changes were announced, I got a letter from Jervay Wright, of Washington, D.C., praising NPR but wishing for the addition of an African-American or Latino male host to the daily lineup. In response, Oreskes said only, "There is still work to be done."

So, Who Did It?

A Twitter user who goes by the handle @Airbagmomentsasked a reasonable question this week: In two moving pieces, one for Morning Edition and one for All Things Considered, Shapiro and London-based producer Rich Preston talked to first responders, survivors and others who lived through the 2005 London subway and bus bombings, described by All Things Considered as "the worst terrorist attack on British soil." But strangely, the Twitter user pointed out, neither show told listeners who perpetrated the bombings, which killed 52 people plus four suicide bombers and injured more than 700.

Many other listeners noticed, too, and in comments on the pieces at NPR.org questioned whether the lapse was deliberate. Here's the answer from Kevin Beesley, senior editor for Europe: "It was an oversight."

The NPR reports, which ran on the 10th anniversary of the attack, were in the survivors' own words, with no narration. Beesley, by email, wrote: "The pieces were entirely about specific individuals' experience of grieving, remembering and getting over a terrorist attack, rather than a description of the specific events themselves. Therefore we did not think it was necessary to mention the perpetrators – just like NPR rarely mentions the perpetrators when reporting commemorations of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S."

However, he continued, "we should always try to help those members of the audience who might not be familiar with historic events, and it would not have been difficult to slip some words like 'carried out by Islamist extremists' into the intros."

I agree. Ten years is a long time, and Americans tend to pay less attention to events overseas than those at home. Those listeners who do not remember the event—such as those in their early 20s—should not have to go back and look it up.

Who Speaks For Christians On Same-Sex Marriage?

I've heard from some Christians who feel NPR's coverage of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage left the impression that all Christians oppose it. There's quite a bit of social media chatter on this, as well.

Arthur Shippee, of Hamden, Conn., wrote to my office on June 26, the day of the ruling:

In surveying reactions to the marriage equality decision, you have only one called "religious," and that one is a delusional prediction about jailing pastors, and your reaction summary includes "religious" as among the opponents. Yet this very week, the new constitution of Presbyterian Church, USA, came into effect, supporting marriage equality. How about offering a word about all the Christian support of marriage equality? Why are you so focused on one, noisy portion of religious folks? Why attribute their anger to me and my Christian sisters and brothers who have struggled for marriage equality and other GLBT issues for years? Please, look.

Mitch Gunderson, of West Saint Paul, Minn., wrote to NPR:

The faith community has been on the front lines of this fight for equality, too, but it seems that the only time it is mentioned on the air is to focus on some evangelical minister who is vocally opposed. I feel this gives a skewed view of the Christian community's feelings on this issue. Every local march I have seen has included ministers, denominations such as The Episcopalian, Lutheran ELCA, Unitarian Universalists and Congregationalists (to name a few) have been ordaining gay ministers for years and vocally speaking out about this issue from the pulpit. (My priest and our past bishop are lesbian women). Many of these faith leaders, denominations and their thousands of faithful have been fighting this fight for a long time and many ministers have risked (and in some cases endured) physical violence to fight along side those seeking rights as a Christian imperative. I think it would be awesome to see some of these courageous people highlighted as well, rather than giving your audience a one-sided perspective which furthers this idea of a false dichotomy which sets liberals on one side and people of faith on the other. Let's expand this narrative. The evangelicals should not be allowed to be the "voice of Christianity" for our whole nation.

Figures from the Pew Research Center show 62 percent of white mainline Protestants and 57 percent of Roman Catholics support same-sex marriage (as do a third of black Protestants and 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants.) Some denominations that officially oppose same-sex marriage have been vigorously debating the issue internally.

A search of NPR archives shows eight stories in the wake of the ruling that quoted evangelical pastors who were opposed to the ruling, and just one that referenced Christians who supported it (the latter in a story on how the relatively small Mennonite community is grappling with the issue.)

I asked Vickie Walton-James, NPR's national editor, about the listeners' concerns. She wrote in an email: "We certainly have not intended to leave the impression that all Christians oppose same sex marriage. In fact, when Episcopalians voted last week to allow same sex marriages, we ran news spots from Tom Gjelten [NPR's religion correspondent] and from Terry Gildea, of member station KUER" in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In addition to the recent Episcopalian vote, she wrote, "There are other Christian denominations that support same-sex marriage. And we know that still others are debating it." She added: "On the other hand, some people who oppose same-sex marriage offer non-religious arguments for doing so. There's a 'Seculars Against Same Sex Marriage' Facebook page. I say all this to say, speaking for the National Desk, we are not done covering same-sex marriage. There is much more to do. And I'm guessing other desks and shows at the network have plans for more coverage, as well."

Chris Turpin, vice president of news programming and operations, weighed in, as well. He said he's pleased with NPR's coverage of same-sex marriage overall, leading up to and following the Court decision: "On the whole I thought we did a very, very nuanced job."

That said, he added—with the caveat that live coverage and responding in the second is not always neat and clean— "We probably had a couple of pastor interviews too many. There were a couple places where it would have been great to have just a little bit more context of the overall breakdown of where American Christians stand on gay marriage."

NPR should also be careful not to "reduce this to a binary," Turpin added. "The amazing thing with this story is the sense of people wrestling with their consciences, trying to work out how they feel," he said, pointing in particular to Morning Edition host David Greene's series of reports, including this one, from North Dakota in April.

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

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.
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