NPR Ombudsman Slams NewsBusters, National Review: 'Certainly No Liberal Bias' on Murdoch

The ombudsman at a media outlet is supposed to be an advocate for the audience, a watchdog to keep the media outlet honest. But several new ombudsmen are following a more comfortable rut: kissing the hand that feeds them, and defending the media outlet from "baseless" public criticism. Patrick Pexton is doing that at The Washington Post, and Edward Schumacher-Matos is doing the same at NPR.

Late Monday, the NPR ombudsman slammed NewsBusters and National Review Online. The pull quote summarized: "I want to learn from the advocacy groups. But not much of their criticism holds up." He even suggested there was "certainly no liberal bias" as NPR flooded the zone of the London phone-hacking story that leftists thought could be Rupert Murdoch’s undoing:

NPR has rightly given a lot of coverage to the scandal, but not more so than other major news organizations or even The Wall Street Journal itself. With the glaring exception of one online headline, NPR's coverage has been professional, sound and calm. There has been no underlying tone of smacking lips, and certainly no liberal bias.

At the height of the coverage, the 15 days between July 7 and July 22, when new revelations and events rolled out almost daily, NPR aired 49 stories, not counting hourly Newscast briefs.

Is that just on All Things Considered and Morning Edition, or on other NPR shows? And compared to what? A peek at the Nexis data-retrieval system shows NPR – on all the shows it has loaded into the transcripts, not just their morning and evening shows, mustered only 16 items in the first weeks of scandal in 2004 on Dan Rather disgracing himself with phony documents alleging George Bush was dodging military service. That was a big American media scandal, not a British one. (Obviously, a British Murdoch scandal is much more exciting to liberals than a British press scandal involving socialist scribes.)

Even then, as NPR noted Rather’s painfully slow decision to confess he didn’t have the goods, those stories were loaded with the establishment media – Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, Poynter Institute experts, and old CBS hands like Marvin Kalb and Daniel Schorr. Bush defenders? Not so much, although Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit appeared in one.

More importantly, NPR didn't exactly give its own Juan Williams or Schiller-sting-video fiascoes 49 stories in two weeks. They covered them, but obviously with a lot of wagon-circling defensiveness. The pull-quote writer even seemed to go beyond the ombudsman's claims with this bizarre summary: "Juan Williams failed to make his case that NPR is muzzling conservative dissent." The man got summarily fired for appearing on O'Reilly, but there's no muzzling?

Schumacher-Matos pulled the Sgt. Schultz "I know nothing" line: "Williams had been whittled back to a part-time NPR contributor and his firing was a long time coming because of tensions between him and management. Who was right or wrong in those tensions is not for me to say."

It’s strange that Schumacher-Matos would categorically find "certainly no liberal bias," and then concede that there certainly was, at least at the NPR website:

Usually this column responds to listeners' views, but I follow the professional advocates, too, out of respect for their influence and in search for what they may see in NPR's reporting that I don't. I also hope that we might forge a reasonable dialogue.

I agree with NewsBuster's Graham that the July 16 headline, "News Corp. Dynasty Crumbles From The Top Down," was badly off. He neglected to mention, however, that the headline was for the online version of an interview on Weekend Edition Saturday and never appeared on air.

But can’t the NewsBusters reader assume that if I write about a "headline" on NPR, I can’t mean on the radio?? The ombudsman conceded: "Still, while the radio programs have by far the larger audience with roughly 27 million listeners each week. NPR.org is visited each month by 18 million unique users. Its quality standards are equal to radio's. The web producer who wrote the headline is on vacation and could not be reached for comment, but NPR.org editors agreed the headline was poorly written. It has not been changed or corrected, however, and should be."

But then he added: "I must say, however, that not much of the rest of Graham's criticism holds up."

He cites the story underneath the offending headline as further proof that NPR is "liberal" and "relishing" Murdoch's predicament. The story was a July 16 interview by Scott Simon with Financial Times columnist Clive Crook. Neither Simon nor Crook ever said anything about crumbling dynasties, and Crook is hardly leftist. His British-based paper is a conservative business paper (and also a competitor to Murdoch's Journal). In the interview, Crook noted that liberal British Labor Party leaders enjoyed close relationships with Murdoch as much as conservative Tory ones did.

Schumacher-Matos claims nobody "said anything about crumbling dynasties," when it’s quite clear I quoted Scott Simon talking about Murdoch having to unload properties: "How big a dent that they represent in his holdings and his influence?...Can you foresee them having to make incisions in their holdings?" Crook said it was quite a "catalog of disasters" with closing down News of the World and now accepting resignations from top News Corp./NOTW executives like Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks.

The point of my (brief) article was not to describe Crook as a leftist, but to notice that Crook said the passage of "campaign finance reform" in Britain led to a too-cozy relationship between the press and politicians. Then there was this charge of inadequate evidence:

Graham also saw the dispatch of reporter Folkenflik to cover the story in London as evidence that NPR was out to skewer Murdoch. I found it normal; Folkenflik covers the media, and this was the year's biggest story on his beat. Moreover, the regular London reporter, Reeves, was in the Arctic Circle on assignment. "Philip was in Greenland, which is just about as far away as you can get really," said Foreign Desk editor Kevin Beesley. Folkenflik's stories have remained solid and correct.

The point of my questioning about NPR and Folkenflik aggressively covering Murdoch is to point out the clear conflict of interest in the "public" network’s acceptance of funding from leftist George Soros, whose desire to get Murdoch is quite clear. Folkenflik rarely crosses oceans on the journalism beat. The trip to London was unusual. The trip itself doesn’t mean the coverage was flawed, it just demonstrates a passion to cover this story. Also, in the wake of the Juan Williams firing, which came in part because NPR listeners have made it clear they hate NPR appearances on Fox, NPR’s interest in Murdoch can also be seen as "serving its base" among liberal pledge-drive donors.

Schumacher-Matos somehow found it entirely above his pay grade to evaluate the Soros grant as a political appearance problem: "According to Dianne Grace, NPR's director of institutional giving, the gift amounts to roughly 1 percent of NPR's revenues this fiscal year. Whether NPR should have accepted the money is a management issue outside my purview. My concern is whether any Soros influence comes through in the reporting, in this case on Murdoch, and I find none."

He also brought up a different NewsBusters post:

Graham further criticized a Diane Rehm show as uncivil and leaning left. The show is not produced or controlled by NPR, as Graham mistakenly seems to think. Still, NPR distributes it, making it fair game. But Graham misfires. The very quotes he cites indicate that Rehm, her guests and listener emails presented conservative viewpoints as much as liberal ones. Fox's imitators on the left were as criticized as was Fox for lack of civility. 

If you actually reread this post, this is the weirdest passage in the ombudsman's response. Public broadcasters love to play this game of "It aired across the country on our network, but we don't produce it" stuff. They wouldn't distribute it nationwide if it made liberal NPR listeners scream. Rehm's show is produced at D.C. NPR station WAMU at American University and airs on more than a hundred NPR stations, and is further endorsed on NPR by being listed among "Programs" at NPR.org. The "seems to think" crack is an insult.

But how do the "very quotes he cites" demonstrate NPR "presented conservative viewpoints as much as liberal ones"? There were no conservatives on the Rehm panel. What I quoted was meant to demonstrate that Rehm wanted to bring the scandal home to Fox News, and note that Limbaugh-loathing Diane Rehm thinks Fox and the conservatives are the civility problem in American politics. The answers of Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, were what Rehm wanted. News was "straight down the middle" until Fox came along and turned everything "partisan." As if Dan Rather and Peter Jennings were centrists for decades.

Schumacher-Matos claimed "Graham minimized Fox's responsibility for the trend toward opinionated cable news, which is his right, but Fox's own executives don't agree. They see themselves as having been on the cutting edge of a trend." That's certainly building a straw man. Fox News executives wouldn't say "We were proud to create a new trend of incivility in American politics." They might say they tried to present a news channel that didn't parrot the same liberal line as every other national media outlet. NPR types sound as if the arrival of aggressive conservative opinion hosts like Sean Hannity equals incivility, never considering -- as Schumacher-Matos clearly skipped -- that liberals can smear conservatives, wish them dead, or want their "empires" to collapse.

The callers I quoted referring to Murdoch as a monster and akin to a killer were hardly demonstrating a balanced program. That's the NPR audience, and Murdoch-bashing is what they deeply desire. Rehm could have interviewed a Bozell or a Breitbart, but clearly she would rather dye her bouffant purple than "foul" the NPR airwaves with their incivility. I know: I appeared on her show one time in 2000 and she left the room in a huff when the show ended.

The other point was that Rehm gave the Murdoch scandal a whole hour as part of David Folkenflik's ongoing Murdoch campaign. It may not be produced by NPR, but it certainly displayed the NPR reporter on the story making his point that Murdoch has too much influence with the politicians in the UK. Rehm asked Folkenflik "Could this bring Murdoch down?" All that was missing was the "Could this please bring Murdoch down?"

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