When Alicia Shepard became NPR’s ombudswoman in October 2007, she knew there would be challenges—public broadcasters are always going to draw out their share of malcontents. But she had little idea that just three years later she would become perhaps the most in-demand complaints manager in the country. In the days after NPR’s mishandled firing of Juan Williams, for instance, Shepard’s office received 8,000 e-mails and she found herself defending and censuring her employer in her own writings and in appearances across the country. It hasn’t stopped since. Next came the firing of news executive Ellen Weiss, the false report of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s death, and, last month, the undercover video operation that saw NPR’s chief fundraiser and its CEO both ousted.
Shepard, who before becoming ombudswoman was a reporter, teacher, and author of three books including Woodward & Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, will leave NPR in June. On Friday, she spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about her rough-and-tumble tenure, what exactly an ombudswoman does, and dealing with the perennial complaint that NPR is too liberal, too conservative, and not enough of either.
Before Juan Williams was fired, what was the biggest fire you had to put out as NPR’s ombudswoman?
The biggest issue is whether or not NPR is biased. And that can manifest itself in queries about NPR’s political coverage or NPR’s coverage of the Middle East. There are hundreds of specific stories, but just in general, if I was to say what the constant concern was, it would be the accusation that NPR is biased.
During the 2008 election, I found that if people supported John McCain, then the way they listened to NPR stories, there would be accusations that NPR was pro-Obama. And vice versa. Same thing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A lot of how people listen is influenced by their core values and the issues that they really care about.
Okay. But do you get more complaints from one end of the political spectrum than the other?
No, not necessarily. I will often have an intern put together research projects. We looked at the coverage and counted the number of stories on each of the vice presidential candidates. It was around September 2008. That’s when Sarah Palin was announced as a candidate—so, naturally, there were many more stories on the Republican side because she was news. That’s one of the difficulties that I have with counting. The actual news influences the coverage.
The more quantitative I can be, the better it is. Another study that I took on was counting the number of female sources used on NPR programming. It was in April 2010. It was something like 76 percent to 24 percent in terms of male-female sources.
Do you think there are actual foolproof ways of calculating whether a news organization is biased?
Absolutely not. There are several sociological, psychological theories that seem to connect to how people perceive the news. If someone is convinced that NPR is to the right or to the left—and believe me, I get quite a lot of complaints that NPR is too far to the right—that is how they will hear NPR programming. I could hire a social scientist of impeccable degree who would come up with some measurement and markers that are easily replicable and have them analyze NPR’s content, and I don’t think that that would allay anyone’s concerns. It seems to me that when people have very strong feelings they are very resistant to something that contradicts what they feel. I know that sounds very defensive, but it’s just being realistic.
So in some ways there are no ways of allaying a person’s complaints.
Well, there are different levels of listeners. There are people who love and adore NPR. Then there are people who just accept NPR. Then there are people who are new to NPR. And then there is just a group that is totally resistant and will never like the programming.
Would I be right in assuming that the last group is mostly from the right, given recent events?
I don’t think it’s that clear cut. If you look at audience research—or see the piece that Steve Inskeep did in The Wall Street Journal—it seems to break it down into thirds. A third to the left, a third in the middle, and a third to the right.