Sunday, March 13, 2011

NPR: Where dysfunction runs freely

If you missed it, NPR is yet again under attack. They've lost two Schillers in one week over the fact that they had an anti-Semitic employee who engaged in party politics on top of everything else while representing a non-partisan news organization. Because of all of that, we're not supposed to be critical of NPR right now.

"Right now."

"Could you hold off, right now?"


The Danger Prone Daphne of broadcast outlets is forever shooting itself in the foot and having never pledged a vow of silence, we're not going to sit around play The Quiet Game while we pointlessly await the day NPR gets its act together.

Besides, unlike so many of our NPR friends, we actually listen and to listen is to eye roll. So, while those who think Page 6 is where news begins and ends focused on the sting and firing of last week, we were more concerned about the actual work.

James Kitfield: So, you know, what is interesting to me is that if you spend time in war zones or if you spend time with the military, is that there's a sense that the United States is not at war. The US mmilitary is at war. And you get that -- You go to a base like Fort Hood -- which I was at not that long ago -- and there were blood drives going on. And there's Gold Star Mothers, who, you know, have lost a son. There are people on crutches all over the place. And you leave the gate to that base and you would not know that America is at war. And this is very -- this sense that it's the military at war, not the country, is one that is striking to the people who are fighting this war. I think it does create kind of a disconnect in their mind that, you know, they come back from war zones where they've lost friends and buddies and seen the horrors of war, and America is tripping along and doesn't seem to be too engaged in these conflicts.

Diane Rehm: And, Joseph Collins, no demonstrations throughout the country.

Joseph Collins: Absolutely, I think since the beginning of the global war on terrorism, back to 2001. I don't think there's been a solid, major anti-war or critical demonstrations across the whole country.

That was Monday's Diane Rehm Show. People, we were told over and over, just don't get that there are wars going on. Stupid Americans, apparently. And there was Diane riding her high horse on Monday.

But thing is, the week? It's not just one day.

The work week isn't even one day.

The work week is considered to be Monday through Friday.

So we listened to Diane's two hour show Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and, yes, Friday, to see if Diane would ever bring up the Iraq War? Hadn't the whole point of Monday's broadcast, one hour dubbed "Costs of the Wars: Sacrifice by Few," been about how "Americans" are ignoring the wars? With ten hours (plus weekend repeats) to fill each week, certainly Diane could cover the Iraq War, right?


And what's really sad is that it was even absent from Friday's second hour, the 'international' news roundup. An hour on international news and Diane and her panelists had no time for the Iraq War.

It's been over four weeks, in fact, since Diane's made time to dole out three to seven minutes on Iraq during her Friday news roundup. (Diane and three guests discuss the domestic news of the week on the first Friday hour and then, on the second hour, Diane's joined by a different three guests and they discuss international news.)

If Americans not living on bases don't realize the Iraq War continues or it's not front and center in their minds, that goes to the media and quit lying and pretending otherwise.

Diane wanted to talk tsunami and earthquake because . . . Well, she didn't have an expert on the topics but it's "hot topics." Yes, boys and girls, her Friday roundtable has descended into an audio only version of ABC's The View.

It has been over four weeks since Diane's audience has heard (from her two hour daily show) a word about the Iraq War. And yet she wanted to mount a high horse last Monday?

Ticking off all the 'news' the media brings us these days ("Charlie Sheen . . . college sports scandals . . ."), Gary Daily (Terre Haute Tribune Star) used his column last week to cover the wars while noting the silence from other media outlets and surmising, "I guess the expiration date on interest in these costly wars (trillions and counting) and deadly (thousands and counting) has run out." Veteran journalist Helen Thomas (Falls Church News-Press) also noted the media's efforts to ignore the wars, "Some broadcasters do acknowledge the wars thousands of miles away, but they also say these wars are rarely the lead story, on grounds that people are not that interested. But the truth is the Obama Administration is happy to keep the popular pressure off as the fighting goes on."

Cute how that works out, isn't it? Media just happens to lose interest when the administration most needs a compliant public. Who says the media doesn't serve the interests . . . of the rulers?

And who is NPR to mount a high horse this month to begin with? Not only did we have to endure the high horse riding Monday of The Diane Rehm Show, Tuesday we had to endure Ted Koppel clucking over NPR airwaves, "As it is, the U.S. public pays little enough attention to what's happening to U.S. troops in Iraq now." We'll get back to Koppel, but how would the US public know what's going on in Iraq? What US broadcast network remains in Iraq to provide coverage? What US dailies continue to keep staff in Iraq? None on broadcast TV, a handful on newspaper dailies: Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Christian Science Monitor, you can also include the wire service AP -- McClatchy, though they have Iraqi correspondents, is no longer interested in publishing from Iraq and Hannah Allem is not in Iraq though her byline does often pop up on the rare Iraqi stories that are filed. And Allem's lack of being in Iraq may explain her surprise to discover that journalists were again beat up by Iraqi security forces on Friday (not that she bothered to file on that when informed of it).

National Public Radio tries to keep one correspondent in Iraq (plus a small Iraqi staff). Kelly McEvers left Iraq March 1st and was replaced with Mike Shuster who apparently exhausted himself before arriving as he attempted to finish his memoir entitled Mugabe: You Say Dictator, I Say Mad Prankster. That would explain his inability to pin down the story and get the facts correct.


If facts were flexible, Shuster might qualify as a reporter. But facts don't budge. Here's Shuster on Tuesday's Talk of the Nation 'explaining' Iraq to listeners:

Don't forget, it was a year ago that the last elections for the current government were held. And for the better part of 2010, the Iraqis - the Iraqi leaders were unable to put together a coalition and a real government. That didn't happen until Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, put together a workable or semi-workable coalition at the end of December.

These are his opening remarks after the nice-to-be-here chit-chat. They didn't put together a government until the end of December? A government?

November 11th is when the power-sharing coalition came together and Jalal Talabani was named president of Iraq and Osama al-Nujaifi was named Speaker of Parliament. Seems to us, that's a government, right? Nouri was unofficially named prime minister-designate. He's officially named prime minister-designate November 25th (Talabani delayed the official proclamation to give Nouri more time to name a cabinet). Nouri did name his Cabinet December 21st (part of it anyway) and move from prime minister-designate to prime minister. Is that what Shuster meant? Because he says "semi-workable coalition" and, for most reporters, the coalition was formed November 11th. Do we need to quote 8,000 outlets to back that up?

He repeatedly stumbled over the most basic of details. Another example, "Furthermore, we're now almost three months into 2011, and no [. . .]" He said that. Shuster said that. March 8th, he said it.

"We're now almost three months into 2011 . . ." March is what? Third month, isn't it? So, for example, on most calendars, March is the third month of the year. In fact, we're having trouble finding a calendar that doesn't see that but maybe Mike Shuster's using some sort of solar-lunar-wind turbine medley calendar?

Shuster followed that . . . interesting appearance with another on All Things Considered Friday. There he wanted to 'report' that Nouri al-Maliki had softened his approach to protesters. Listening to Shuster, we were pretty sure something went soft but it wasn't Nouri's attitude towards protesters.

Dar Addustour reported that the al-Sadr bloc heard this speech and have demanded that Nouri apologize to Iraqis. They were offended by his labeling groups Ba'athists or supporters of Saddam. They note he had little to offer other than demonization. It was a snide speech with Nouri at his most belicose as he declared the government of Iraq would not change except by elections. Al Mada noted that MP Sabah al-Saadi was not impressed by Nouri's bellowing and declares the measures Nouri has proposed do not get to the root of the problems, that instead of offering "frank talk," Nouri's plan proposes cover ups of the corruption. In one of the most telling reactions to Nouri's speech, Aswat al-Iraq reports MP Safiya al-Suhail, of Nouri's State Of Law slate, "quit Iraqi prime minister's bloc". And if Nouri's attitude wasn't clear to Shuster on Friday, he probably didn't pick up on reality the following day; however, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Lara Jakes (AP) report Nouri took to state television where he verbally attacked the protesters, "Those who call for regime change are limited in number; they are weak and voices of discord. [. . .] Do they want the return of a dictatorship? Or the Revolutionary Command Council? Or a regime that marginalizes groups? We say clearly that who ask for the change of this regime are out of line with the will of the nation."


While covering for Nouri al-Maliki, installed thug of the occupation, Shuster forgot how to cover the news.

That's how he files a report for Friday's All Things Considered (which airs live on the East Coast in the evening hours) but missed the morning protest in Baghdad in which journalists and protesters were again beaten by Iraqi security forces. It's how he missed Brig Gen Numan Dakhil (commander of Baghdad's Rapid Response Team) getting caught by members of the Integregity Commission taking a $50,000 bribe and, realizing he's been caught, sicking the response team on those gathering the evidence, injuring nine of them with three requiring hospitalization. Now the good news is that some outlets did cover it and that forced Nouri to issue an arrest warrant for the man and, of course, he was arrested . . . after a shoot out in Baghdad. Sounds like a story, doesn't it?

Sounds like a new story.

Somehow Shuster can't find it. You sort of picture Shuster traipsing through the killing fields of Cambodia defending Pol Pot with a, "Is that all you got?," don't you?

What you just can't picture is: Mike Shuster journalist. Not from the 'work' he's doing in Iraq currently.

Daily news out of Iraq appears to be confined to Happy News based on what Shuster files and listening to him rave over thug Nouri will only lead many to recall Peter W. Galbraith discussing how the Iraq War was lost in 2008. [Disclosure, C.I. has known Peter Galbraith for many years.] His many observations included the Shi'ite government becoming an Iranian proxy. In 2008, a few saw that. As 2010 ended, many foreign policy observers were publicly stating that. Galbraith was the first to prominetly do so in 2008. His observations flies over Shuster. As does Galbraith's opening comments on Nouri al-Maliki:

Does Senator [John] McCain really believe that Nouri al-Maliki is a democrat? The prime minister of Iraq? This is a man who was an apparatchik of the Dawa Party -- Dawa is the oldet of the Shi'ite Islamic parties. It was actually on the [US] terrorism list until 2002, participated in the bombing of the -- the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Kuwait. He has in every regard behaved as prime minister of Iraq as a sectarian politician.

Though there's no indication that Shuster has ever heard that assement, he was present when Galbraith made it. In fact, he was sitting next to Galbraith, shuffling his feet, twiddling his thumbs, shifting back and forth in his seat and nervously playing with his collar at the Fifth Street Los Angeles Public Library on the night of October 7, 2008 for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles' event. Even then, he couldn't fake full interest in Iraq. Click here for video of that segment and note the segment is four minutes and Shuster can't fake full attention for that brief period of time.

It's amazing that reality is so absent from NPR when opinion so clearly floods it. Not just in their decision to offer waves of Operation Happy Talk passed off as "news" about Iraq; but also in their decision to allow pro-war voices to speak unchallenged repeatedly.

Most recently, it was Ted Koppel on Tuesday's Talk of the Nation who, true, did explain the Iraq War doesn't end in 2011 -- it continues with a new agreement between Iraq and the US and the US military remains under the Defense Dept or it continues with the US military being switched to the umbrella of the State Dept. He also noted that the US was in Iraq, and would remain there, due to oil. These are factual issues.

What follows is not factual, even though Ted presents it as such and host Neal Conan refuses to challenge him:

Well, I mean certainly those who believe that we have no role, never did have a role in Iraq, I guess you'd have to agree with them. I would make the point, A) whatever your feelings are or were about the initial invasion of Iraq and whether that was justified or whether it is - it was smart ever to get in there in the first place, the fact of the matter is now that we have an enormous amount both in blood and treasure invested in that country, and were we to pull out now, at a time of greater instability in that region than we have seen in many, many years - we don't know what's going to happen next in Egypt, we don't know what's going to happen in Bahrain, we don't know what's going to happen in Yemen or in Libya, and for us just to precipitously pull out, before the Iraqis are capable of taking care of their own security, I think would be very unwise.

That's not a point. It's an opinion. It's Ted's opinion (and the opinion of many other hawks) that the US is in Iraq so it must stay there. We've heard that opinion before, many times. When Barack Obama was running for the US Senate, the alleged 'anti-war' candidate offered that opinion to one of us (C.I.) and Elaine at a fundraiser. We heard it until Camp Casey from the likes of Rachel Maddow and Al Franken on the late and non-lamented Air America Radio. That is not a peace opinion, it's never been one and it's so damn amazing that eight years into the illegal war, Ted Koppel can go on NPR and argue that the US has to remain in Iraq and we still can't get guests on NPR who are opposed to the war. (Tavis Smiley was one of the few to book guests who were opposed to the Iraq War. Though Tavis continues to do radio, he ended his NPR partnership for obvious reasons some time ago.)

Eight years into the Iraq War and we still can't get the voices of peace on NPR. On Monday's Diane Rehm Show, she and her guests -- three guests -- complained about the lack of protests since the war started. Diane did allow, after a listener e-mailed, that she remembered protests but they didn't get a great deal of press coverage.

They didn't or they don't, Diane? It's been months since the closet thing to a peace scholar (Phyllis Bennis) has been allowed to be part of the invited conversation on Diane's program. Monday? Monday you had journalist James Kitfield. You had the Council on Foreign Relations (which supported the Iraq War in the lead-up to it) represented by Matt Pottinger, you had the National War College represented by Joseph Collins and you had the National Military Family Association represented by Michelle Joyner. NMFA is an organization that takes no position on war but does advocate for family members of the military. So a goodwill committee for military life was on the panel and two people representing supporters of war (CFR and the National War College) were given seats at the table. Everyone had a seat but the voices of peace.

Apparently to grind some personal axe the supposedly neutral James Kitfield (he's supporting the continued war and Diane damn well knows that) made a point to lie and state that peace activists spat on Vietnam veterans. Though the lie has long ago and repeatedly been disproved, Diane didn't bother to correct Kitfield, she just moved quickly on.

Neal, meanwhile, creates hurdles to keep voices of peace from speaking even as callers to his show. Taking calls to 'discuss' with Ted, Neal declared, "Given the state of Iraq's forces, the crises elsewhere in the region, should U.S. forces stay on in Iraq or withdraw as planned? We'd especially like to hear from those of you who served in Iraq: 800-989-8255 is the phone number." We'd especially like to hear from those of you who served in Iraq . . . Translation, everybody else don't call in. Were we listening to NPR or Voice of America Radio?

NPR is supposed to broadcast in a democracy where all voices are equal. That's not the message Neal sent out, now is it? It's hilarious that the show wanted to insist the US public is not paying attention to Iraq but, when taking calls, made clear that they weren't interested in the thoughts of the public, just military members who had served in Iraq.

If we'd had time, we would have contacted Alicia Shephard about all the above. Not that it would have done any good because Alicia doesn't touch the really hard issues (sorry, Alicia, you know it's true). And this piece really calls for an NPR response. For all the above, true, but also for Ted Koppel himself.

Neal Conan introduced Ted as an "NPR commentator." His NPR bio calls him that as well. However, when he was hired, NPR announced he "will join NPR as a senior news analyst" and a few months ago on Talk of the Nation, he was introduced as "NPR senior news analyst."

You may be scratching your head and saying, "Ava and C.I., you're splitting hairs! News analyst and commentator, it's all the same!" Really?

Because we aren't the ones who made the distinction, we aren't the ones who hid behind the distinction nor did we order the purging on the NPR website to protect ourselves (and NPR) from legal consequences. What are we talking about?

The division between commentator and "news analyst" was meaningless until October 2010 and most were introduced interchangeably. In October 2010, following public actions by NPR management, there was suddenly a need to create a division between the two roles. That's when NPR fired Juan Williams. Many were surprised by the purging of Juan's stories from NPR's website and by how quickly that took place. There was no reason to be surprised. They purged because Juan was introduced as both a commentator and a news analyst.

But the reason given, if you've forgotten, for Juan being fired was that he was a "news analyst" and not a "commentator." And to back themselves up, they needed to 'tidy up' the website.

Currently, you can see that Ted's still billed as both. (And, sorry, NPR friends, we did do screen caps.) Which is it?

After Juan was fired, there was a big to do. Suddenly, there was a huge distinction between the two roles. Then NPR president (she was fired by the board last week), Vivian Schiller issued a memo on the firing October 21st:

First, a critical distinction has been lost in this debate. NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts.

Since Alicia Shepard has echoed that party line, she should probably explain what Ted Koppel is and why NPR is so confused by his role. But an ombudsperson who doesn't do the due diligence required to realize that Juan Williams was introduced -- on air -- as both a "news analyst" and a "commentator" over the years isn't much an ombudsperson is she? (We're giving her the benefit of the doubt that she wasn't aware of Juan's various on air introductions when appearing on NPR programs.)

NPR has established that you can no longer be both. To go back on that now would invite a multi-million dollar lawsuit from Juan Williams, now wouldn't it? So what is Ted? Since the press release NPR issued to the press announced he was "a senior news analyst" and since he's been billed as that repeatedly and recently, we'd argue he needs to be held to those allegedly stricter standards. Or do those standards only exist when it comes to Juan Williams?

If Ted is a "senior news analyst," Vivian Schiller laid down the NPR law: "News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation."

If that's the law, then follow it. If that's the law, then Ted Koppel deserves a disciplinary meeting over his remarks from last Tuesday:

Well, I mean certainly those who believe that we have no role, never did have a role in Iraq, I guess you'd have to agree with them. I would make the point, A) whatever your feelings are or were about the initial invasion of Iraq and whether that was justified or whether it is - it was smart ever to get in there in the first place, the fact of the matter is now that we have an enormous amount both in blood and treasure invested in that country, and were we to pull out now, at a time of greater instability in that region than we have seen in many, many years - we don't know what's going to happen next in Egypt, we don't know what's going to happen in Bahrain, we don't know what's going to happen in Yemen or in Libya, and for us just to precipitously pull out, before the Iraqis are capable of taking care of their own security, I think would be very unwise.

Pulling out, Ted declares, "I think would be very unwise." The law: "News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation."

Ted took the personal public position that the US military should remain in Iraq. That is "a controversial issue" and, according to NPR law, he shouldn't have taken it. From the August 27th snapshot:

Last week, Gallup and AP polls were released offering the findings that most Americans are opposed to the Iraq War and feel it should never have been started. Gallup found 53% judge it as a failure, 55% judged it a failure. AP's poll with GfK Roper Public Affairs found that 65% opposed the Iraq War. Now Brian Montopoli (CBS News) reports on CBS' poll (but doesn't explain why the New York Times took a pass) which finds "nearly six in ten say it was a mistake to start the battle in the first place, and most say their country did not accomplish its objectives in Iraq." The number saying it was a mistake is 59% which is in stark contrast to March 2003 when a majority, 69%, stated the US was correct to declare war on Iraq (the US-led invasion began in March 2003) and only 25% of respondents then (March 2003) said it was a mistake.
[. . .] Jim Michaels and Mimi Hall (USA Today) report on USA Today's poll which found 60% expressing the belief that the Iraq War was not worth it.

Ted Koppel's opinion is not just contrary to a small minority opinion of Americans, it's contrary to the overwhelming American majority opinion. So if what was done to Juan was fair and how NPR deals with these issues, Ted Koppel should be shown the door. (We know he won't be.) NPR shut out the majority opinion on Talk of the Nation and on Diane's show. The majority of Americans were not represented despite NPR standing for National Public Radio. A functioning ombudsperson would address that. But how can a dysfunctional radio outlet have a functioning ombudsperson?

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