Don’t get me wrong. I love NPR. I listen to it for at least four hours a day. But lately I’ve found the network’s embrace of “he said, she said” journalism a little too difficult to swallow. This morning’s report on censorship of a scientific report commissioned by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality isn’t perhaps the most egregious example, but it does concern climate change, so it’s worth examining.
For those unfamiliar with this lazy and cowardly form of reporting, check out new media maven Jay Rosen’s take. Basically, the problem is NPR is afraid to let its reporters come right out and call a spade a spade, lest someone in Washington should accuse the network of ideological bias.
This is understandable, given how much undeserved grief NPR has received recently from the right wing. Loosing federal funding would be a serious blow. But ultimately, if NPR news programming continues to shy away from actually describing what’s going on, instead of just allowing “both sides” to have their say, even when one side is lying, then it won’t really matter what happens with the money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
That’s the context. Here’s the example that has gotten me riled up. A couple of weeks ago, it came to light that political appointees running the Texas CEQ had edited out all references to sea level rise in a chapter of its latest State of the Bay, a regular report on the Galveston Bay Estuary Program. The commission had asked the Houston Advanced Research Center to write the report, and the chapter’s author, John Anderson, an oceanographer at Rice University in Houston, summarized the latest science regarding what what happening with sea level — they’re rising faster than they used to because of global warming. But the CEQ, evidently following the lead of the state’s climate-change-denying governor, one Rick Perry, decided the facts weren’t what they were really interested in after all.
You can see the chapter, with all the edits tracked, is here. It leaves no doubt about what happened.
A worthy story, broken by the Houston Chronicle, and picked up here and there, but not by NPR, until today.
Here’s the headline from some other media outlets that paid attention when it was first news:
Texas officials censored climate change report
— New Scientist
Perry Officials Censored Climate Change Report
— Mother Jones
And here’s NPR’s headline:
Scientists Say Texas Agency Edits Out Climate Change
See the difference? Subtle, but significant. The story itself, by John Burnett, begins with an intro that talks about “alleged scientists censorship.” and “scientists and conservationists have accused the state environmental agency of editing out references to climate change.”
To be fair, Burnett states unequivocally that the CEQ did make some edits, and later notes that scientists know sea level rise, caused by anthropogenic global warming is occuring. He contrasts that with a CEQ spokesperson’s argument that the anthropogenic part of the science is “unsettled.” But he also lets the CEQ defend itself as not being about censorship, and the overall impression left by the story is the old “one the one hand scientists say this, but on the other, the government says that.”
Burnett let Anderson make “claims” about the “alleged” censorship instead of stating it simply himself. This is standard NPR practice, let the people’s voices tell the story, instead of having the reporter make the case. But that’s simply not being honest with the audience, who should be told what’s really going on. What NPR, the Morning Edition host and Burnett should have done is state in no uncertain terms that the Texas CEQ censored a scientific report to ensure it didn’t clash with a political position that has no basis in fact.
Again, one can glean that all from Burnett’s story. But it took me two listens to make sure it was all in there. Radio listeners shouldn’t have to do that. It should be more straightforward.
Here’s Rosen talking about exactly the same sort of thing in an exchange with the NPR ombudsman about an NPR story about new, obviously unreasonable abortion-clinic regulations in Kansas.
I think in many ways NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. For example:
We forwarded Rosen’s criticism to the reporter, Kathy Lohr, who responded:
“I’ve covered the abortion issue for 20 years. My goal is to be fair and accurate.
“It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I’m covering. So, I don’t do that, with abortion or other issues.”
Take a position on the issue? No, Kathy. This is not what I’m saying: at all….
Me: Why does NPR throw up its hands and tell its listeners: we have no idea who’s right? Is that really the best reporting you can do? Is that the excellence for which NPR is known?
Kathy Lohr: You want me to take a position on a public controversy. You want me to editorialize. To pick a side. What you don’t understand is: That’s not my job!
I do understand how you define your job. What I’m asking for is more reporting, not editorializing or picking a side.
Exactly. That’s what I expect for the cash I give my local NPR stations each year. Nothing more, nothing less.