National Public Radio is the only broadcast service in the United States with an ombudsman, sort of a human complaint/suggestion box-cum-P.R. person. Ombudsmen have been a feature of news organizations in other countries for some time, and with scandals like the Jayson Blair affair, they're becoming more widespread in the U.S.
NRP's man is Jeffrey Dvorkin, a journalist with dozens of stamps on his passport, stints at Canadian TV and CBS, and some heavy paper on his wall: a B.A. from the University of Alberta in European history and French literature, a master's in history from the University of Toronto, and a master's in philosophy from the London School of Economics. The big suit and all that--plus a nice guy.
He showed up last Wednesday at WUNC-FM's studios to do a show and a working lunch afterward, the event wrangled by Jerry Markatos, a Chapel Hill photographer and activist who got hooked on public radio decades ago. "I spent hours in darkrooms, and it was something you could do in the dark," he says.
Markatos assembled a diverse group of writers, academics, retirees and activists, who, as it turned out, stuck NPR's feet in the fire while lingering over a lovely chicken Rustica, courtesy of Crook's Corner.
One had to admire Dvorkin; it was a tough crowd. He is perfect for the job--charming and well-spoken yet quite ready to get properly "bowed up" up when the time comes. It didn't take long. The early volleys were on a widespread perception in the room that NPR had altered its focus, becoming softer and less critical.
Mark Marcoplos, a columnist for the Chapel Hill News, spoke of Internet sources that had fueled his and others' conviction that the WMD story was fabricated. "If you looked at the sources, the L.A. Times, Le Monde, Guardian, and put it all together, I mean, all the pieces... I would have bet my life on it before the war that this was all based on a hoax."
"We can't go on the radio unless we have some proof," Dvorkin responded. That was the theme, the lack of context and history, and NPR not getting the story. Issue after issue, the panel seemed to be able to synthesize a larger picture in a way that Dvorkin did not seem to be able to address. The door wouldn't open.
"There's a lot of information now," Dvorkin said. "The Internet has made our job easier and more complicated at the same time."
"So your evidence is coming from Washington?" someone asked.
"It wasn't evidence," Dvorkin said, "it was Scott Ritter saying, 'I haven't seen any weapons of mass destruction.' We reported that. We had Colin Powell saying, 'We have weapons of mass destruction,'... we reported that."
"Where are the journalists?" wondered Michelle Cotton Laws of the Carrboro NAACP. "I turn to NPR for information that has been developed and is based on enterprising, intelligent journalism and not simply information that is reprinted based on what someone put on a press release." The amen corner talked about NPR's colleagues at the BBC, particularly wunderkind Greg Palast.
"I agree with you that NPR does not do investigative journalism," Dvorkin said. "When you say there are not enough facts in our reporting... that's why we try to be careful about expressing our opinions and conclusions. We let the listeners come to the conclusions; we don't need to make their conclusions for them." Dvorkin paused, then conceded, "There is a lot of press-release journalism."
Further salvos continued in the same cranky vein, and WUNC-FM General Manager Joan Siefert Rose eventually jumped in to provide some, well, relief to Dvorkin, who, after a while, was getting fairly bristly over Laws cracking that "as singularly supportive as [NPR has been] of the Bush Administration, perhaps [Bush] should buy something for you."
"Madam," Dvorkin growled, "I resent that."
Now it was down to the mud wrestling--funding.
Ed King, of the N.C. Editorial Forum, spoke of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company's underwriting of WUNC and the ongoing labor-based boycott of the company.
King said the boycott "represented the poorest of the poor and the hardest working of the hard-working... It is the central--not only farm worker issue in the state--but probably the central labor issue in the state." He finally asked, "So how much coverage of have you done of the Mt. Olive Pickle boycott in five years?"
Rose took the helm. "That is not true... I am sorry this perception has gone on for so long. Let me talk about the Mt. Olive Pickle sponsorship. And also there has been a statement going around that we are keeping opposition voices off the air, and that is not true. The Mt. Olive Pickle Company contributes about $1,100 annually to WUNC.
"Underwriting is a complicated thing for a lot of listeners. I get complaints because we accept money from NARAL and the ACLU, saying you're clearly political in accepting money from these organizations. I don't think we are. I think we'll take money from appropriate organizations that are committed to supporting public broadcasting. And there is no influence, we make sure there is no influence, editorially." Pause. "You're smiling; I know you don't believe me."