It seemed that Mike H., a frequent visitor to CJR.org, had a point. He commented the other day on one of my posts, which had praised NPR for sending a reporter out on the street to talk to real people in Cincinnati. “How absolutely positively fortuitous that NPR managed to find the highly coveted ‘small business owner’ who agrees with their left of center take on current events,” he wrote.
Mike H. said that Dan Korman, whom he identified as a “restaurant owner” giving his opinion in Andrea Seabrook’s NPR piece, had once been quoted on a website of 350.org, “when it was running a pro Obama anti chamber hit piece.” “With the thousands of small businesses in Cincinnati,” he said, “the odds must be pretty damn high that both 350.org and NPR would find the EXACT same liberal businessman to tell them what they wanted to hear.” Another commenter charged that major media outlets “are notorious for going to the same ‘man in the street’ for pre-fabricated quotes that happen to be consistent with whatever talking points the Democrats are promoting.” Others on the site called Mike H.’s observation a “good catch.” Was it? Or was it coincidence?
I phoned Dan Korman, the owner of Park + Vine, a green general store that’s been in business for four and a half years and sells eco-friendly products like diapers, compost bins, and non-toxic paints. A food bar offers fresh juices, salads, and sandwiches, but Korman says his business is not a restaurant. I asked him about his comments to 350.org, an environmental advocacy group founded by the respected journalist Bill McKibben, who signaled early warnings about climate change. Korman said a friend who is the Ohio organizer for 350.org called him for a quote last summer that appeared in a press release titled “Small Business Owners Denounce US Chamber: Cry Foul over False Claim That Smog is Good for Business.”
The point of the release: some 1,000 small business owners disagreed with the position of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over smog regulations. Korman said “the US Chamber claimed to represent small business last week when it pushed Obama to let smog pollution slide.” On NPR he said it was more important that people had money in their pockets to spend at his store than for him to get a tax break. “It [the interview] was so casual. It felt good to talk to her [Seabrook],” Korman told me. “Apparently the interview resonated with a lot of people. I spoke from the heart. There’s no connection between the 350.org thing and NPR.”
He explained that he and a friend were sitting at an outdoor table at the Findlay Market eating lunch the Saturday after Thanksgiving when Seabrook approached him. “I had never met her or been interviewed by NPR before,” Korman told me. NPR also quoted his friend Matthew Cullinan, who said he was kind of glad the supercommittee failed because “it really wouldn’t have accomplished anything.”
Campaign Desk contacted Seabrook, who did not respond to our request for an interview. We also contacted NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, who said in an e-mail to me: “It sounds to me like you have gotten to the bottom of the story.” But he did not respond to our request to talk about how Seabrook chose her interviewees.
Sometimes journos do have trouble finding sources, especially since PR types have become super slick at controlling their messages. The people we do find are likely to be media-trained to tell reporters what the flacks have instructed them to say. NPR told listeners of its difficulties a few days after the Cincinnati piece aired. Reporters were having a hard time locating millionaires who would talk about the effect of the so-called millionaires surtax, discussed as a way to pay for the payroll tax holiday the president and other Democrats are pushing. NPR contacted Republican congressional offices and business groups lobbying against the tax. No luck. Finally a query on Facebook connected them with some millionaires who would talk.
Then there’s the opposite problem—the sources shoved at us by think tanks, foundations, and all kinds of advocacy groups eager to make journalists’ lives easier and further their agendas by steering us to pre-screened sources that won’t stray too far off whatever reservation these organizations live on. That means being wary of those anecdotes which come from story banks maintained by various advocacy groups. This is why man-on-the street interviews are so refreshing. Pre-screening people for man-on-the-street interviews, though, is a journalistic no-no. I speak to the first five, six, or seven people who agree to chat. The interviews are what they are—no pre-screening, no searching for a point of view, no political litmus test, no he said-she said balance.
Their comments inject ordinary voices into the mix of PR-molded news and advocacy spin and push back against the reportage du jour, described by the late Columbia University journalism professor James Carey as “a journalism that reports the continuing stream of expert opinion, but because there is no agreement among experts, it is more like observing talk-show gossip and petty manipulation than bearing witness to the truth.”
The questions that Mike H. and others had about the Dan Korman interview illustrate a larger point. Reporters do need to get out and talk to ordinary people—and they need to make sure that those people aren’t pre-selected. They can’t take the easy way out and talk to their friends, family, or colleagues and pass them off as men and women on the street. We hope that’s not what NPR did.Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: Andrea Seabrook, Cincinnati, interviews, journalism, men-on-the-street, NPR