This is not the first time in recent years the reporting of a major public radio investigation was questioned. In March of last year, the separately produced program This American Life retracted an entire episode on factory conditions in China after major fabrications were discovered in the underlying account of Mike Daisey, whose one-man play formed the basis of the episode. A report earlier this year from NPR’s Planet Money on issues with the Social Security Disability program (which also ran on This American Life) received strong criticism from left-wing groups and advocates for the disabled for what they saw as distortions in its portrayal of the program. While some phrasing in the story was later clarified and Planet Money ran a post collecting responses to the program, there was no formal report from the ombudsman. In his review on the South Dakota situation, the ombudsman cites several other reports from the investigative unit that required later clarification.
The central question that remains is whether or not the investigation, as aired, violated any internal standards at NPR. The ombudsman argues so, while management stands by the work. In the official response to the ombudsman’s review, NPR management correctly points out that the majority of the new information Schumacher-Matos used to question the original reporting came from the state—which had an obvious incentive to cooperate with the ombudsman. Additionally, the ombudsman’s review concedes at points that there are unresolvable uncertainties with the situation, and does not claim that the holes it finds in the original reporting absolve the state of abuses its workers may have committed. At stake in this controversy is more than just a Peabody: It’s the very reputation of both the investigative unit and the ombudsman.
Update, 4pm: According to the ombudsman’s office, All Things Considered interviewed Schumacher-Matos, and the office additionally plans to publish a followup piece on the controversy later this week.