What if a big restaurant chain announced that it was hiring a chief inspector -- and filled the job with the person who'd been in charge of the company's kitchens? We might roll our eyes if the incoming inspector proclaimed from the outset that the meals on the menu were delicious and nutritious.
National Public Radio has hired an ombudsman -- "to receive, independently investigate and respond to queries from the public regarding editorial standards in its programming." Jeffrey Dvorkin, the NPR vice president for news and information since 1997, is moving into the new position. A press release quotes him as saying that the creation of the ombudsman post "keeps NPR at the forefront of editorial excellence."
In this context, NPR's first ombudsman in two decades is not off to an auspicious start. The boosterism should make us wary. But Dvorkin seems committed to dialogue. "I'm the agent for the listener, and I'm there to help raise issues to the editorial staff that are of concern to the public," he told me in a recent interview.
Describing his ombudsman role as "a kind of partnership with the listener," Dvorkin spoke of "putting the public into National Public Radio." That would really be quite a change.
John Hockenberry, who worked as a correspondent and program host for many years at the network, was being candid when he told Mother Jones magazine last spring: "By the time I left NPR in 1992, it was an audience-driven, revenue-driven entity, not unlike corporate media outlets. The programming strategy was dominated by the ideal that we had to grow our audience in the same way that the commercial media grows its audience."
As for "the idea that NPR is more in-depth, or is saving the world," Hockenberry added, it's "laughable."
NPR certainly provides lengthy news programs. But lots of words don't necessarily mean depth. Especially in policy-related coverage of economics, national politics and foreign affairs, NPR News excels at stenography for the powerful. Most reports from Washington -- and from capitals overseas -- rely on the same official sources that glut the rest of America's media market.
Looking ahead, the NPR ombudsman will report directly to the network's president and CEO, Kevin Klose. A little more than a year ago, Klose came to NPR from his job as director of the U.S. International Broadcast Bureau, which runs such government media projects as Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Apparently, it was a smooth transition.
These days, NPR has appreciable clout, airing on 625 radio stations in the United States. The network says its audience tripled during the 1990s and now amounts to 15 million Americans per week. If you're among them, maybe you have some thoughts to share with Dvorkin (who's reachable at email@example.com).
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To help get the ball rolling, here are a few questions:
* Why does NPR News feature an hourly "Business Update" but no hourly or daily or weekly "Labor Update"?
* Is NPR proud of the increasingly long "underwriter credits," which sound more and more like flat-out commercials, bracketing numerous NPR program segments on stations across the nation?
* Why do NPR economics reporters frequently air the views of analysts at Wall Street firms and corporate-funded think tanks, while rarely including the voices of economists who work for labor unions or public-interest groups?
* Why do NPR's national political correspondents routinely sound like note-takers for officialdom instead of independent journalists? And why are they as willing and able to devote endless minutes to "horseracing" elections as reporters on any other network?
* When the United States engages in warfare, whether bombing Iraq or bombing Yugoslavia, why does "NPR" seem to stand for "National Pentagon Radio"?
* Why is it so unusual for progressive foes of corporate power to get more than a few words in edgewise on NPR's main news programs? Why is the repeated spectrum of opinions limited to the sort of perspectives heard along Pennsylvania Avenue?
On NPR's big drive-time shows, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," the reliance on official sources is so dense that there's often a heavy smell of propaganda in the air. Correspondents make a habit of echoing the assumptions that hold sway in Congress, the White House and top federal agencies.
In mainstream media, what passes for news is apt to be more like newspeak. Too bad NPR News is no exception.