NPR Ombudsman: Tea-Bag Cartoon is 'Mean-Spirited,' Lacks NPR's 'Core Values' of Civility

On Friday, NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard reported a flood of angry calls and e-mails from conservatives about the NPR website’s "How to Speak Tea Bag" cartoon. Shepard found "there are problems with the Tea Bag animation." For example:

Chief among them is it doesn't fit with NPR values, one of which is a belief in civility and civil discourse. [Cartoonist Mark] Fiore is talented, but this cartoon is just a mean-spirited attack on people who think differently than he does and doesn't broaden the debate. It engages in the same kind of name-calling the cartoon supposedly mocks.

And why is NPR running a cartoon from just one perspective?

After I complained, Shepard asked me to offer a conservative take on the cartoon, which she included. I told her:

The cartoon is a perfect caricature of what NPR looks like to conservatives: liberals snidely imagining conservatives to be monosyllabic clods who can't make an argument beyond name-calling. Conservatism is 'satirized' into a form of political retardation.

The rebuttal from NPR executives and the cartoonist is eye-opening. First, they claim they didn’t know that "teabagging" was oral-sex slang:

There was no sexual insult intended, said both Fiore and Ellen Silva, NPR's opinion editor who signed off on the cartoon after fact-checking it

"I take full responsibility for putting it up on the site," said Silva. "I confess to thinking the term 'tea bagger' was just a slang term for Tea Party supporters and had even heard conservatives referring to themselves that way. Any other connotation didn't occur to me until after the recent ruckus erupted.

Fiore said he "leaned" to the left, but sounds amazed that conservatives would think it suggests that tea-party protesters are idiots:

"I would call my political philosophy one of just going after things that annoy me or call out for satire," said Fiore, who lives in the San Francisco area. "For this particular animation, I wanted to take it to the extreme level I could to show how crazy these comments were. If people think they are being called idiots, that's their interpretation."

Today, the liberals at Raw Story are reporting that Fiore is receiving death threats, and he is now comparing conservatives to anti-conservative Islamic radicals in Denmark.

NPR News executive editor Dick Meyer, a former producer with hot-headed liberal CBS reporter Eric Engberg, is the man who hired Fiore in October. He told Shepard NPR's online opinion page is comparable to a newspaper's traditional Op-Ed page:

"Except there is no 'NPR perspective,' " he added, meaning that NPR does not post its own editorials (as most newspapers do) or deliberately slant the commentary in one direction.

To bring different viewpoints, NPR has partnered with the National Review, The Nation, the New Republic and Foreign Policy.

Meyer brought Fiore to NPR as an experiment. Fiore creates his cartoons and syndicates them. They appear on a variety of online sites including NPR, SFGate, CBS News and Slate. NPR does not suggest ideas to him, but retains the right to edit or reject any cartoons Fiore submits.

"Would it be nice if there were other Web-original cartoons from other perspectives to run with Fiore?" said Meyer. "Sure. We think there are and we've been looking for a while in fact. And I think criticism that we don't have a conservative cartoon is certainly legitimate and reasonable."

If anyone in the NewsBusters community knows of an animated conservative web cartoon, you should let NPR know. (Fiore’s cartoons also are featured on the website of the hard-left magazine Mother Jones.)

There will be no apology and Fiore's cartoon is staying up, said Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news. "Opinion and satire are going to sting some members of the audience and soothe others," she said, noting NPR has received some positive feedback. "This one satire is not the only coverage on the topic and while it offends some members of the audience, I see no reason to remove it."

PS: People writing the NPR Ombudsman to complain (or express joy) received a reply from Shepard urging them to read today’s post. It said in part:

The cartoon is a commentary, and reflects the animator’s perspective – and not NPR’s. However, NPR initially didn’t make that clear. NPR senior news management has since made sure that Fiore’s cartoons are labeled Opinion and that he’s identified as an independent syndicated columnist.

Ms. Shepard feels the cartoon is not in keeping with public radio’s Core Values. We appreciate your perspectives, and value your taking the time to contact us. Clearly you care about the quality of NPR’s coverage.

We are sorry if the cartoon offended you, but hope you will still donate to your local station. When you donate, it goes directly to your local station. Your station uses the money to buy a variety of programs that you may enjoy that have nothing to do with NPR – such as Prairie Home Companion, BBC, Marketplace or This American Life. We hope you will continue to support your local station.

As if these leftish shows are a better reason to give your private money – as opposed to the tax dollars just confiscated to underwrite this anti-conservative bias.

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