NPR Ombud: NPR Was Big on Ted Kennedy Stories, But Not on Chappaquiddick

National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia Shepard isn’t afraid to raise questions of liberal bias occasionally. Her latest column is titled "Too Much Kennedy." She reports NPR offered 53 stories on Ted Kennedy’s death in the first five days (August 26-30), "But on that first day, in the 23 on-air stories, only one mentioned the name Mary Jo Kopechne and 5 mentioned Chappaquiddick." When they did, it was passed over gently as an obstacle to the White House:

NPR's Brian Naylor did tell the Chappaquiddick story during a 9-minute obit for Morning Edition. But the focus was on how Chappaquiddick and the death of Kopechne derailed Kennedy's presidential ambitions.

"An effort to draft the youngest Kennedy for the White House was short lived at the Democratic convention of 1968, and his presidential aspirations were dealt a blow a year later when in July of 1969, his car went off a small bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick," said Naylor.

"Kennedy swam to safety, leaving behind the young woman who was a passenger in his car. The woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker, drowned. Kennedy later called his actions indefensible. He was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, but his sentence was suspended and he remained popular in Massachusetts, where he was reelected to the Senate the next year."

As with many media summaries of Chappaquiddick, they didn't obsess over negative details, like how Kennedy went back to his hotel and failed to report the accident to police.

Shepard’s Kennedy numbers include not just the morning newscast (Morning Edition) and the evening newscast (All Things Considered), but other shows like the afternoon programs Talk of the Nation and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. NPR was well-stocked with Kennedy appreciations, said the NPR brass:

Before Kennedy even died, NPR had 7 in-depth stories already prepared, according to David Sweeney, NPR's managing editor. "From shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, we worked up a list of stories both for the air and online," said Sweeney. "We also worked to produce a couple of obits that would reflect his life, in all its aspects....Chappaquiddick was mentioned in stories where appropriate and we made a consistent effort to reflect in show two-ways and subsequent pieces the flaws and failings in the Senator's life and career," said Sweeney.

Compare that to the death of Sen. Jesse Helms on July 4, 2008. A quick Nexis scan shows in the first five days after the conservative senator's passing, you can count only four stories -- less than NPR had produced for Kennedy in advance. (Five other segments mention Helms in passing.) Then consider the parade for Teddy:

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, Morning Edition ran 6 stories on Kennedy -- covering 34 minutes. To put that in perspective, Morning Edition produces 1 hour and 14-minutes of editorial content each day after newscasts, breaks and funders are taken out. Tell Me More devoted 19 minutes to Kennedy. Talk of the Nation devoted 48 minutes to an NPR special on remembering Kennedy. By late that afternoon, half the stories (45 minutes) on All Things Considered related to Kennedy's passing. Total programming time across two hours of ATC, excluding newscasts, breaks, funders, is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes.

NPR also pulled together an hour-long special that went out to stations Wednesday evening. And that's just on-air coverage. More was written on npr.org.

Liberals who might be upset with Shepard's Chappaquiddick math should know that when the ombudsmen says the scandal was "mentioned," it was sometimes barely mentioned. Take this introduction by All Things Considered anchor Melissa Block:

We've been hearing much about the life of Senator Kennedy today, his decades of public service, lawmaking finesse, his famous family, also his well-known personal flaws and controversies as a younger man. The shadow of Chappaquiddick, for example, dogged him throughout his career. But his many friends and his critics agree on one thing: one of his greatest and most memorable gifts was his oratory. He spoke powerfully and passionately. People in his audiences were moved  -- propelled, really, toward political action.

The rest of that segment was a big fat snippet of the conclusion of Kennedy's 2004 convention address in favor of John Kerry and attacking George Bush: "Our struggle is not with some monarch named George who inherited the crown -- although it often seems that way." An interesting passage from the so-called "royal family" of American politics.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis