NPR’s first ombudsman: My year as a ‘porous membrane’

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On Jan. 22, 2000, NPR President Kevin Klose asked me to become NPR’s
first ombudsman for the listeners. I remember the date because Kevin’s
idea was — to me — shocking at first.

I had been a news manager for 17 years and for the last three, v.p.
of news at NPR. Give up the cut and thrust of management? Return to
being essentially a reporter (and a solitary one at that), and to report
on NPR? What an idea!

But I had been urging NPR News staffers to try new roles and new ideas,
so I had to start somewhere. I didn’t think it would hit so close to
home. It was put up or shut up time.

For months, Kevin and I had been discussing what was missing at NPR.
For all its strengths, NPR was still in some ways a unique, but occasionally
closed culture. The prospect and opportunity to be a gadfly and an observer
from the vantage point of an ombudsman was hard to resist.

But how do you create an ombudsman?

More than 65 newspapers in the United States now have ombudsmen–sometimes
known as “reader representatives.” Public broadcasting organizations
in Canada and Europe usually have ombudsmen, but not those in the United
States. Though broadcasting ombudsmen are a strictly foreign phenomenon,
their stated goal–to be representatives of the listeners and viewers
inside their own organizations–are easily translated into American
and public radio terms.

So the scope and mandate of the ombudsman was drawn up in consultation
with Kevin and with Neal Jackson, NPR’s general counsel. The initial
ground rules state, for instance, that the ombudsman does not get involved
in station matters unless invited to by station management. Stations
seem to be finding the role useful. So increasingly, I’m helping out.

The key to the operation of the Office of the Ombudsman has to be independence
–independence from the president and from the NPR Board–even while
I reported to them. The ombudsman cannot be seen to be management’s
blunt instrument in another guise. The ombudsman is certainly not part
of the NPR’s communications strategy (as some listeners suspected) and
has no connection to public relations.

An ombudsman is a hybrid who is not quite management and not entirely
labor. Most significantly, the ombudsman should have no managerial authority.
(The ombudsman’s contract also stipulates that I will not return to
the news division. The term is limited and ends on June 30, 2002.)

A major goal was to create an atmosphere and a culture of openness
and accountability to the listeners from inside National Public Radio
programs. This is not just a trendy pose. If NPR is to be truly “public,”
as its name states, then how do we make sure that the public is part
of the process?

So the device of “first reply” was born.

How the ombudsman works

At NPR, the ombudsman gets to decide which issues need to be looked

Not all questions or concerns from the listeners are equal: some require
information (“where do I find my nearest station?”). Others want to
vent (entirely reasonable). Very few (thankfully) are abusive or racist
(they don’t get answered).

But most are interested in a dialogue with the radio service that is
part of their lives. And since an astonishingly large percentage of
NPR listeners are thoughtful, educated and given to hair-splitting,
it makes for an intellectually demanding job most of the time.

But the key to the job is accountability: the ombudsman’s job is to
facilitate that communication between the listeners and the program
makers (at the BBC, the ombudsman is described as a “porous membrane”
between the BBC and the audience–not a very charming description .
. . ).

If, as the ombudsman, I decide that an issue needs to be addressed,
that issue is sent to the relevant news manager or senior editor.

That manager or editor must answer the listener in a timely manner.
That’s the “first reply.” I tell the listener that if the response is
unsatisfactory to write to me again, and I will look into the complaint
and make a decision.

That’s good in theory, but back in the late winter of 2000, the question
remained, how can listeners know that “this ombud’s for you…”? Two
things helped.

First, NPR initiated a bimonthly ombudsman’s column, “Media Matters,”
on its website (

Although there is no accurate measure, the column seemed to find an
audience. The public reaction was good and lively (and not always positive).
Listeners found it quickly and responded to the ideas and observations
about NPR and public radio. The website has become an important, even
essential, agent of communication for the listeners.

E-mail traffic became — and still is — strong. In the first
year, I received more than 7,000 e-mails, hundreds of posted letters
and hundreds more phone calls. My assistant Stacy Bond and I can handle
it most days. Some days it simply pours in. The listeners had found
a way into NPR and they are using it.

The second was linking up through the stations. The stations ran a
promo for the ombudsman, and they linked to the ombudsman site through
their own websites. I also suggested to the stations that I would be
happy to be on any local show they had or to pay a station visit.

In retrospect, the stations were critical to the success of the position.
With the help of promotion on their air, the ombudsman’s role became
known throughout the NPR member-station system.

But the website and the stations weren’t the only factors. There were
two major news stories that were very important to the evolution of
the ombudsman’s role: the U.S. Presidential election and the Middle

Election 2000

In August 2000, before the official start of the campaign but just
after the Republican and Democratic conventions, the complaining e-mails
began flooding in.

They weren’t a write-in campaign from disgruntled listeners (or nonlisteners–I
learned how to spot those early on); they were individual e-mails from
individual listeners. And they shared a common theme: why was NPR ignoring
third-party candidates?

This raised an interesting and important question as well about NPR’s
role as a public radio news service: should NPR as a “player” in the
media landscape concentrate on the major parties? Does NPR need to spend
any time on third parties that didn’t figure in any national polls?
Does public radio journalism require spending more (a.k.a. disproportionate)
time on third parties because mainstream journalism won’t?

My response to the listeners was to see if NPR’s coverage was indeed
ignoring everyone other than Democrats and Republicans. Not for the
first or last time, the listeners were right: NPR had virtually ignored
all third parties.

When I presented this idea to the programs, they responded by adding
weekly segments on the third parties, along with any breaking news.

At the end of the campaigns, I tallied the number of minutes devoted
to each party. The numbers reflected the outcome of the race: the two
major parties each got about 45 percent of the airtime. Ralph Nader
got 7 percent. The NPR airtime received by Pat Buchanan, Harry Browne
and John Hagelin was miniscule, much like their results in the popular

But should NPR’s election coverage reflect the campaign that closely,
or should NPR News honor its distinctive values and march to a different
set of standards for campaign coverage? And with midterm election coming
next year, this choice should be discussed by news managers.

The Middle East

The Middle East is an area of continuous contention for all American
news organizations. NPR is no exception.

The level of interest among some listeners is astonishingly high. So
is the listeners’ depth of knowledge of the region. They hotly debate
the minutiae of Israeli and Palestinian politics and society and present
what they contend is evidence of bias.

While the number of e-mails remained constant throughout the first
nine months of 2000 (mostly critical of NPR’s allegedly pro-Palestinian
coverage), it was only after the Palestinians began their Al-Aqsa Intifada
in October that the e-mail river became a torrent. By the end of October,
I wondered if NPR had been able to refrain from bias–no matter how
inadvertent. I looked at the spokespersons interviewed on NPR and which
camp they represented.

Overall, NPR newsmagazines had interviewed about the same number of
Israelis as Palestinians.

NPR’s main institutional critic on this issue is a Boston-based organization
called CAMERA (Campaign for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America).
CAMERA’s response to my study was that most of the Israelis interviewed
on NPR were left wing and that the opinions of the Settlers had been
ignored. But since the government of the day was the Labor Party, it
seemed only appropriate to interview people from the Israeli government.

My view of NPR’s coverage of the Middle East was that it was good on
the day-to-day reporting. It was less effective in giving listeners
a clearer sense of what internal Palestinian politics are like.

That’s a gap that I believe has since been addressed. Recently, the
criticisms about NPR’s Middle East coverage seem to be equally divided
between CAMERA and those listeners who accuse NPR of being a pro-Israel

Normally, I would reject the aphorism that if you are being attacked
by both sides, you must be doing something right. But, in the case of
the coverage of the Middle East, I’m not convinced there are any easy
approaches that can satisfy the claims of bias.

Journalism and advocacy often hold opposite values. While journalism
tries to explain a complex situation, advocacy is about (among other
things) simplicity. NPR, with its commitment to contextual reporting,
may never satisfy the partisans. It may be futile even to try.

More ominously, attacks on NPR and on other news organizations risk
creating a “chill” in the coverage. NPR has resisted, thanks to tough
and seasoned editors. Other news organizations have not. One person
at CBS who preferred not to be named told me that covering the Middle
East isn’t worth the aggravation from the lobby groups on both sides.
“We’ll be there when a bomb goes off,” he told me. “The rest of the
time we’ll ignore it. It’s easier that way.”

Public radio’s own funding

The other issue that galvanizes NPR listeners involves funding and
underwriting of public radio itself.

As much as listeners appreciate public radio, and recognize that its
service is expanding, there is an uneasy sense of loss and not a little
anger over the increase in station and network advertising (or underwriting,
as we know it).

Listeners were astonished to hear underwriting from the government
of Kuwait in February and March [Current, March 26]. It was due
in part to the volume of listeners’ e-mail that NPR changed its policy
on accepting money from sovereign governments.

NPR has, I believe, I strong and effective firewall between its news
department and the development office. Attempts to influence news coverage
occasionally happen, but they are never — in my experience —

The network’s cultural programming is less resistant. Programs like Car Talk allow their hosts to read the names and credits of sponsors.
News does not. Should there be one standard for all programming? Both
at the network and at the stations? I think there should be. So do many

The future of ombuds-ing

The future looks promising. There is even an Organization of News Ombudsmen
with more than 80 members–the majority are Americans. We’ve just received
an application from the first website ombudsman at MSNBC.Com.

So what’s next? How do I know when the ombudsman’s job is working?
When it’s not? When I’ve taken one too many calls from an outraged listener?

As mentioned before, I have no managerial authority to make a recommended
change. Far from being a frustration, I see that as liberating. I can
write as a please, which is an enormous privilege and responsibility.
So far, management and staff have been remarkably open to the criticisms
and suggestions from the listeners, and from me.

Most astonishing is the response from the listeners: for the most part
highly appreciative, if not a little wary, that NPR would create the
position. The NPR listeners say that the role was overdue. They, and
other media consumers, are for the most part deeply disillusioned with
what they perceive as media manipulation by governments, corporations
and by journalism in general. They are very nervous about media mergers
and co-ventures that make large media organizations even larger.

NPR listeners are hurt and angry if we don’t deliver on our promise
of intelligent information presented honestly, fairly and completely.

It’s a lot to live up to.

But I also have to remember that there is much that is right with NPR
and public radio. Far more of what it does is a gift to the listeners
than a disservice. I need to remember that I act as a sort of news pathologist.
I see some damaged tissue, but over all, the patient is pretty robust.
There have been a few injuries over the years, but none is life-threatening,
disfiguring or even permanent.

Being the ombudsman at NPR is like being on the front lines of the
First Amendment … not a dull place to be. This is, as I’ve told a
few people, the most interesting job one could have in broadcast journalism.

But don’t tell Kevin.

Jeffrey Dvorkin began work as NPR’s ombudsman in February 2000 and previously served as VP for news and information. Before joining the network in 1997, he was chief journalist and managing editor at CBC Radio News and Information, in charge of English-language network news.

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