Do errors in NPR piece merit an 80-page report?


NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ massive report on an investigative series NPR broadcast in 2011 “sets up an unfair challenge to NPR,” Poynter’s Kelly McBride tells NPR’s David Folkenflik.

“Because, if he wants to do a column about why they chose this story instead of that story, then he should do that column. But he essentially does both in this very long report.”

NPR’s top news management “recused themselves from the preparation of this article about the dispute between the network and the ombudsman over the investigative series,” Folkenflik writes. The reporters and editors behind the series “declined to respond on the record to most of the points” in Schumacher-Matos’ report, he wrote. “NPR stands by the stories,” Kinsey Wilson (who is on Poynter’s board of trustees) and Margaret Low Smith wrote in an editors’ note.

“It’s very possible, in an investigative story, to get certain facts wrong but still have the overall truth be quite accurate,” McBride tells Folkenflik. “And I’m not saying that’s an excuse because when that happens it’s incredibly unfortunate and even irresponsible on the part of journalists.”

McBride contrasted the ombudsman’s six-chapter critique, logging in excess of 30,000 words with the treatment given to Jayson Blair, one of journalism’s most notorious fabricators. She says Schumacher-Matos’ six-chapter report “was pretty significant” in comparison.

“That, I think, is more than everything that The New York Times wrote about Jayson Blair,” McBride says. “And if you look at what Jayson Blair did, that was obviously much more egregious.”

Smith “says the network took a hard look at its stories and simply reached a different conclusion than Schumacher-Matos did,” Folkenflik’s report says.

I wrote yesterday that I thought NPR should have engaged fully with Schumacher-Matos’ report. Here’s some other reaction from Twitter:

I included a storify. Here’s embed code in case it’s dropped out:

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  • Kenneth Freed

    Re Dan Nguyen’s comment: I do know Ed Schumacher. We’ve been friends and colleagues for more than 30 years, so I have a fair idea about his motives. He was hired to do a job; to represent the reader/listener and to inquire after suspect reporting. Thirty words or 30,000, it doesn’t make any difference. The original NPR story cried out for sceptical examination. Ed’s motivation was to do his job. Too bad the NPR powers-that-be won’t do theirs.

  • Dan Nguyen

    Kelly McBride’s position is so bizarrely nonsensical that I wonder if she wasn’t selectively misquoted? While Schumacher-Matos’ does pine for a story that tackles the bigger picture of Native American society, of which the fostering of children is a symptom, the central thesis of his report is that NPR’s original investigation was based on misinformation and innuendo…and that’s why he wishes NPR would’ve taken a “bigger picture” look. Because by focusing on the “follow the money trail” and “the white government is mistreating Native Americans, again” angles, Schumacher-Matos hypothesizes that the NPR reporters had to rely on non-existent facts.

    So McBride seems to be saying it’s unfair for Schumacher-Matos to dictate NPR’s story choice and angle, thus his report his flawed from the start. Um, well, the ombudsman is alleging that the story angle that *was* chosen appears to not be based on reality or documentable facts…so I can see why he would also argue, as a corollary, that the project should’ve picked a different angle.

    And it’s strange that McBride seems to throw doubt on Schumacher-Matos’ report because it seems unnecessarily long to her. Maybe the question she should be asking is, why did an ombudsman feel the need to pursue this critique for 22 months and at such great length? That’s a long time for anyone to work on anything, nevermind something that ultimately undermines his own company and colleagues’ work. Not knowing Schumacher-Matos at all, it’s hard to guess at his motives. But the two most obvious possibilities are: 1) someone on the investigative team ran over his dog. Or 2) His earlier attempts to get answers to questions of factual inaccuracies were dismissed, so he felt he had to go above and beyond to get a proper response.