More on NPR and manufactured quotes

Why lobbyist-provided rent-a-quotes subvert the news

NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos (who teaches here at Columbia) takes a look at the network’s poor showing with manufacturing sources over the last few weeks.

I wrote about this last Tuesday, noting how a couple of small businessmen, including a New Jersey printer named Joe Olivo, show up frequently in news stories that don’t disclose their ties to lobbying groups.


(Joe) Olivo shouldn’t have been interviewed at all.

He is quoted so much as a typical small businessperson that it rightly raises the sorts of suspicions and questions it has about why. Those questions undermine otherwise good reporting. Turning too often to the same source, moreover, makes a story look old and tired, and hardly reflects well on a reporter’s initiative.

That much we agree on, and it’s good to see that someone at NPR does too, including one of the reporters and its managing editor. But I don’t agree with Schumacher-Matos that NPR shouldn’t have identified Olivo’s connection to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a right-wing group that lobbies against stuff like unions, environmental regulation, and raising the minimum wage.

First, he’s presented as a random businessman off the street, when he’s not. It’s not like he’s even some random member of NFIB—one among hundreds of thousands of dues payers. Olivo was vice chairman of the powerful lobby’s New Jersey Leadership Council, appeared in promo videos for the national group, and worked hand in hand with lobbyists to advocate political issues before legislatures and Congress. That crosses over into political activism—even a “voluntary advisory panel”—and it needs to be disclosed.

Put another way: Let’s say a local resident who is opposing a new factory because of pollution concerns is as active in Greenpeace as Olivo is in the NFIB. Don’t mention it?

It’s true that the line can be fuzzy, but that’s why folks like Olivo are so valuable to groups like NFIB and why it’s worth leaning toward abstention from rent-a-quotes and at least disclosing their ties if those deadline and/or balance pressures are too much.

Let’s face it: Nobody trusts what some paid-to-say-it lobbyist thinks. The press knows it and the lobbyists for sure know it, which is why they seek to cloak their messages in the authenticity of the man on the street. The operating assumption should be that a lobby will only sends reporters to quote someone who’ll reliably say most of the same things it would say. You wouldn’t quote a spokesperson from an activist group without noting their affiliation. These lobbyist-supplied sources are proxy spokespeople.

It very well may be that these folks believe, on a personal level, the lobby-backed quotes they provide to the press or in testimony to Congress. But on a bigger level, lobbying groups are inserting their views into the news stream without accountability.

That’s insidious, and when it’s exposed as it has been in the last few weeks, listeners and readers have one more good reason to distrust how the news is made: Is this journalism? Or is it guerrilla marketing? These anecdotes are presented to listeners and readers as if they popped out of nowhere or were at least dug up by the reporters. False.

Without the NFIB, you can be quite sure that the same small businessman from New Jersey wouldn’t have appeared on NBC Nightly News, Fox News, and NPR in the span of eight days to discuss his views on Obama’s health care law. The silly thing about it is that there are plenty of small businesspeople out there who would be glad to tell you how Obamacare will affect their companies and who aren’t activists for the plaintiff in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court case that nearly overturned the landmark health-care law.

Next time, find them yourself.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , ,