“Big Uneasy” over NPR’s response to Shearer film

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Was NPR’s decision not to devote more airtime to Harry Shearer’s documentary on New Orleans–even if it was paid for as underwriting–a case of censorship, quibbling over credit language, or fainthearted journalistic commitment to covering problems with the levy system constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers? All three theories played out over the blogosphere after Shearer wrote for the Huffington Post about his difficulties in getting NPR’s newsmagazines to report on his documentary The Big Uneasy and in placing underwriting spots promoting its Aug. 30 debut. “NPR has decided its initials stand for nothing,” Shearer wrote, taking a jab at the network’s recent decision to abbreviate its name on-air. “What the network itself stands for at this moment sounds a lot like censorship.”

NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard looked into Shearer’s complaints last week and found that his desire to promote himself from a guest on Talk of the Nation to Morning Edition or All Things Considered, the NPR shows with the biggest audiences, were misguided–and complaining about it in the Huffington Post was disingenuous. “But NPR has devoted extensive coverage over the past five years to Katrina and the aftermath. And NPR did cover Shearer’s new film – just not in the way he wanted it,” Shepard wrote [emphasis in original]. His beef with NPR’s legal team could have been avoided, she wrote, “if both sides had been willing to compromise.”

But another public radio journalist/blogger, Molly Peterson of Southern California Public Radio’s KPCC, says Shepard was too quick to defend NPR’s post-Katrina coverage of New Orleans. Peterson ought to know–she’s reported extensively on the failures of the levy system in the award-winning series Pumps Under Pressure. Like Shearer, she offered her investigative story to NPR and was rebuffed. “It is not generally speaking the custom of the station-based public radio reporter to out their inner workings with freelance pitches, particularly to NPR,” Peterson writes in response to the “silly flap” over Shearer’s censorship complaints. “I’ll make an exception to say that NPR was offered these pieces, or segments thereof, or a conversation about them. The message I received was that they had their own coverage plans, and anyway, there had been enough about Katrina around that ‘versary.”

Bob Collins, author of MPR’s News Cut blog, also has been following the controversy and generating lots of comments. Collins admitted last week that his initial blog post was too quick to dismiss Shearer’s complaints about NPR, and he challenged Shepard to reengage in the online discussion.

  • “Katrina and the aftermath”: there’s the nub of the problem right there. The conventional media narrative, which npr adopted, never asked the question considered in my film: why did the disaster happen? The fact that the answer two separate forensic engineering investigations came up with–that this was “the great man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl” was not deemed newsworthy by NPR. That’s the nub of the controversy, since we offered John Goodman as an alternative guest when the dreaded “dibs list” was brought up as a rationale for not booking me on the newsmags. And, as for the controversy over the underwriting announcements, it’s clear from both the emails and from my rep’s conversations with NPR Legal that their objection, despite sand they tried to throw in the ombudsman’s eyes, was to the language “documentary about why New Orleans flooded.” Your readers can speculate on the reasons for this behavior at their leisure.

  • Your link to the original MPR post does not work.
    Here is a workable link:

    From what I’ve seen following every second of this NPR denial of The Big Uneasy, it has been a complete full court PR Press to paint Mr Shearer as inaccurate, replete with this character “sanpete” running astroturf ambiguity for the Ombudsman –as they are here again. They were all over the original MPR post to which you have badly linked.

    NPR has failed to address their corporate funding in regards to this censorship of promoting a documentary of Fact, and the influence that has obviously bought in their editorial policies.
    NPR failed to offer Mr Shearer (and us all) the same promotional opportunities as those they give regularly to huge corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, Chevron and BP etc.

  • The flooding of New Orleans prompted a nationwide levee inventory project, recommendations for a national levee safety program, nationwide re-certification of levees and flood zones, changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, and passage of reform measures to the Army Corps.

    If New Orleans was flooded simply by a hurricane, why would all these nationwide changes have been implemented? The answer: The flooding of New Orleans was the worst civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States. The levees were misdesigned and badly constructed.

  • Steve

    A trifle late, perhaps, but the word is spelled “levee,” not “levy”.

    A “levy” is a tax. A “levee” is an embankment.