Green Room

NPR Should Consider Suspending Alicia Shepard Too

posted at 8:30 am on March 11, 2011 by

NPR’s Ombudswoman, Alicia Shepard, was caught making a demonstrably false claim on Twitter the other night. Okay, we all make mistakes. That’s what ombudmen are for, right?

Only when Patterico pointed out to her that she’d gotten it wrong, Alicia tap danced and eventually revealed that she’d never even looked at the source (James O’Keefe’s unedited NPR sting video). Even after Patterico sent her a link and the exact moment in the clip that would prove she was wrong, she refused to look. Go to Patterico’s site for the full story. In the end, after a long wrestling match, she finally got it sort of right, though she never admitted making an error in the first place. No doubt she, and the people who were quoting her, would never have know about any of this if Patterico hadn’t stepped in and ombudsed the ombudsman.

But this isn’t the first time Alicia has made a serious mistake when it comes to checking her sources. Frankly, I still think this other recent instance was a lot worse, though I’m admittedly biased since I was the one who stepped in that time. Here’s the short version: In the aftermath of the Juan Williams firing, Shepard could have picked any of the hundreds of e-mails and letters she received to make a point on her official NPR blog about Juan’s (supposedly) offensive comments. She chose to highlight a letter from a man with a long written trail on the web. This individual had elsewhere written that Israel was a “rouge terrorist apartheid state” and referred to our Constitutional system as the “three branches of AIPAC.” To call him biased would be to put it very, very mildly.

This seems like pretty basic stuff. You don’t ask David Duke to review the new Denzel Washington film and you don’t ask a Muslim activist and author of anti-Semitic screeds if he was offended by Juan Williams’ comments. In both cases, the outcome is probably pretty easy to guess and isn’t worth printing unless it runs completely counter to expectations. In this case, it didn’t.

My point isn’t to suggest that Alicia Shepard agreed with this individual’s point of view or that she acted maliciously in either case. Never attribute to ill will what can more easily be chalked up to incompetence. I think what the record shows is that she is simply incapable of performing her job with the level of care it demands. She’s blown it twice now when getting it right mattered. It makes one wonder how many other blunders like this have gone unnoticed.

I don’t know how many mulligans you get at NPR. In the case of Vivian Schiller the answer seems to have been two. Alicia Shepard has now reached that threshold. Maybe that should be enough.

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Alicia’s been at the journalism critique thing for almost two decades, dating back to her time at the American Journalism Review. But most of the situations she’s dealt with are cases of ethical quandaries/violations within stories being covered, and which tend to not put the focus on the media’s default liberal ideology (as in, say, criticizing NPR for screwing up the Gabby Giffords story at the outset by rushing to announce she was dead, while ignoring the later bias in trying to tie her shooting to right-wing pols and talk show hosts).

Situations like the Juan Williams firing or the NPR stings take her out of her comfort zone, because you can’t avoid the ideological implications — or at the very least, you have to twist yourself into a pretzel and employ willful blindness in order to downplay the ideology involved. It’s almost like a rabid sports fan trying to come up with an excuse for their team’s loss to their most hated rival, other than the rival being better than they are.

Shepherd tries to parce out an explanation by ignoring the fact that O’Keefe posted the full Schiller-Liley video on his website in order to give herself (and in turn, NPR’s top brass) some sort of out or moral high ground in the whole kerfuffle. It’s why ombudspersons should never be too sympathetic to their subjects (and why a lot of big media outlets really hate ombudspersons who are truly independent).

jon1979 on March 11, 2011 at 10:04 AM

She lied… another steller example of an NPR employee and reason 1,264,896 to DEFUND NPR NOW (and then I won’t care any more about them, ever again)…

Khun Joe on March 12, 2011 at 8:56 AM