Q&A with NPR Ombudswoman Alicia Shepard (UPDATED)

"This is really the first time in NPR's grown-up history that it's been under siege."

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.

I just got an e-mail from somebody yesterday saying, “I’m a conservative Christian, I love NPR, I don’t like what my party is trying to do.” So the people who are the most vocal are critics on the right, but that just means that they’re louder than others. What I always say is this: who calls their cable company to tell them how much they love the job they’re doing? But the minute there’s a problem with the reception or with the bill, I’m on the phone.

I also got a call last week from Ralph Nader. He was saying how NPR is really just a corporate toady, and that they don’t have enough progressive voices on, and I hear that quite a bit. I hear that more from people who actually listen to NPR. I have taken to asking, when someone is calling, do you listen to public radio? And what station do you listen to? Because sometimes they’re motivated by blogs: somebody might say, here’s a way to contact the ombudsman.

I take it all very seriously. I’m always interested in hearing the diverse opinions about the coverage. Sometimes listeners have great insight and notice things that I don’t or are correct about something being wrong.

People responding to your writings and your appearances seem to think you’re something of an official spokesperson for NPR. People don’t seem to understand your position very well. I was wondering if you could explain exactly your relationship with NPR and what your role is there.

It definitely is an unusual job. NPR pays me, I have an office at NPR, but I also have a term limit job. That means that it’s difficult to fire me and that allows me to be free about whatever I write and not feel that I’m trying to curry favor with management to keep the job. If you notice, I only speak about NPR in the third person. I don’t feel any “we-ness.” Sometimes it’s very uncomfortable working here in the job that I have because people who work at NPR perceive me as internal affairs and people outside of NPR perceive me as a shill for NPR. And all I can do is let the work speak for itself. So I make it clear that I see the job as being an advocate for NPR’s audience.

Your columns in response to both the O’Keefe incident and the Juan Williams firing were not particularly flattering to NPR. Were they difficult to write, or did they put you in an awkward position?

No. In some ways the quote-unquote “missteps” that NPR has taken in the last six months have been almost black and white in their egregiousness. Often, in writing about the journalism of NPR, I am dealing in nuances and gray areas and trying to explain the decision-making process and where it fell short and how it could have been better. But with the firing of Juan Williams and the hidden video of the chief fundraiser, there really weren’t gray areas. There was no way to justify the way NPR fired Juan Williams. I certainly made the point that I understood why they did it; I felt that it had become an untenable situation, but they had really poorly handled it.

With the Ron Schiller video, first and foremost, I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t being Shirley Sherrod-ed. And then I was just shaking my head about people saying and doing things and not realizing the consequences of their actions.

You were one of the first people to point to The Blaze’s analysis of the O’Keefe video. Do you think in some senses Schiller was “Shirley Sherrod-ed”?

I don’t. I do think that NPR has been unfairly portrayed as reacting to that eleven-minute video when in fact they found out about the video at 7 a.m. that morning. And there was a two-hour version and they immediately had someone start transcribing it. They looked at the full version.

From what I’ve read, and I’ve read almost everything about this, most people said NPR acted hastily. There are two things. First of all, Ron Schiller said “I did say those things.” He said to me, quote, “I said some stupid and sweeping things.” He instantly acknowledged that he had behaved unprofessionally. What didn’t get reported was that he did speak passionately about NPR and how the funding works and explained that you can’t be buying coverage and if they took this money it in no way means that you can call the shots on how a story will be produced. But if you’re the chief fundraiser at a major operation you just don’t get out there and talk about what you think and what you believe.

We argued at the time that the Board should have stood up for themselves and the journalism NPR produces and not have “ousted” Vivian Schiller. You wrote that Schiller had been a distraction. Why did you think it was necessary to accept Schiller’s resignation?

I think it was an unfortunate situation for her, because she wasn’t directly involved with the sting video. But I also see how things have quieted down now and she became a target—unfortunately, because I think there are lots of good things she did for NPR. One of the board members said that between good luck and bad luck, she had no luck.

It’s a shame, though, that NPR is having to react to these attacks, which have little to do with the actual journalism.

It’s crazy. My job is to make sure that NPR lives up its ethics code and to focus on the journalism. It’s also to be a liaison to the public and the public radio stations. Here I’ve been writing a lot about mistakes that management has made and the way that our listening audience has responded to it.

Which controversy was harder work for you?

Definitely the Juan Williams incident. If you think about it, NPR’s show All Things Considered is turning forty in May, and for much of NPR’s career they have been in a love vacuum. “I love NPR,” people say. This is really the first time in their grown-up history that they’ve been loudly, and in some cases deservedly, criticized and attacked and been under siege.

As somebody who’s been here for four years, I can say I was taken aback when I first started, and I would say, “I’m the NPR ombudsman,” and someone would say, ‘Oh my God, I love NPR, I’m gonna go get my wife….” Then just last week I was with this colleague—with whom I do mentoring of high school journalism students—and were we getting sandwiches and we started talking to somebody. They asked, “Where do you work?” I said, “NPR.” And they said, “Oh, I’m sorry for you.” That to me capped the change.

Some people in management say what has happened are missteps that any news organization makes, but that these mistakes have been exploited by the right. They’ve turned it into something political.

The Juan Williams firing was so shocking as to almost be like a death. Not a death in the sense that Juan Williams died, but just that everything else receded and it just became these endless e-mails, and phone calls—it became this dominant focus that seemed to go on for weeks. Then there was Ellen Weiss being fired, and the Giffords mistake, and then Ron Schiller—the video the phone call, and then a third phone call. You heard people say inside here, “What else can they do?”

Are you expecting to face more of these scandals?

Who knows.

Is there anything you would change in terms of how you responded to the Williams firing and the O’Keefe tape ?

It’s been pretty intense. Since I started in 2007, there was a consistent drumbeat of criticism from listeners about Juan Williams, and often about things that he said on Fox. That raised the question to me: is it what they said or where they said it? Some of the things that Juan said would get attention outside of NPR and then brought to my attention. I wrote about some of them. I brought them up. Now I think, should I have been pushing them harder on coming to some conclusion about the relationship with Juan. It seems the line was constantly being moved in terms of changing his title, saying that when he was on Bill O’Reilly Fox couldn’t call him an NPR analyst, but they could when he was on Chris Wallace. Obviously, it was a very uncomfortable relationship that NPR had with Juan Williams.

I saw the value of Juan Williams to NPR, but it just seemed that there was never a clear understanding of what his role was. By October of 2010, I felt that it really had become an untenable situation and difficult for him to straddle the role of being more of a provocateur on Fox and a straight news analyst on NPR.

UPDATE: I exchanged e-mails with Shepard Monday about California NPR member station KPCC’s decision last Friday to pull Planned Parenthood spots from the air while the organization’s funding was being discussed in federal budget negotiations. Nation blogger Jon Wiener had criticized the move, suggesting KPCC had acted too quickly, removing the spots simply because Republicans were going after PP. Wiener asked, “Was the station responding to Republican pressure on KPCC to drop its Planned Parenthood spots? Or were they responding to something they imagined might happen?” Shepard wrote to me via e-mail:

NPR gave no directive to any station to pull down Planned Parenthood spots. The stations are managed locally and make their own decisions about funding spots. Having looked into this, I see that KPCC did what any reputable news organization would do—pull ads about topics that are in the news and that the station is reporting on. That makes sense to me. You want to avoid the appearance of a conflict. It would have been better if the KPCC’s second memo responding to the flap and explaining their decisionmaking had gone w/ the first.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,