View my bio

Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Newsroom Goes To War

Michael Getler is the former ombudsman at the Washington Post who now does the same for PBS.

As a long time Post journalist, Getler has been a foreign correspondent and has worked the foreign desk. His thoughts on how the Post handled the post-9/11, pre-Iraq War coverage have recently been published in Democracy magazine. Pointedly, his article is entitled "Dereliction of Duty." It's essential reading on how the Post and by implication, other media, mishandled the story.

As I read it, I was stuck by some disturbing similarities with my former news organization. As NPR's ombudsman during this same time period, it occurred to me that in many ways, NPR's coverage mirrored the Post's. Some of this may be due to the fact that both news organizations are in the same city and under the same sorts of influences - even "group think." Political reporters for both the Post and NPR tend to mingle and compare notes. They assume similar audiences and similar approaches and attitudes about the news.

One aspect that deserves a closer examination is the unstated, pro-"big story" atmosphere in the NPR newsroom. It wasn't that senior editorial staff were openly pro-war. But there was a growing sense of being on the verge of the biggest story in years. And the opportunity to cover a war was an unstated and unseemly "vibe" I encountered in talking with reporters, editors and managers. Some quietly expressed reservations about NPR's coverage, but these usually came from more junior journalists and were quickly dismissed and overridden in the morning editorial meetings.

It was that attitude combined with an unhealthy deference to the Bush White house in that strange post-9/11 atmosphere that tended to downplay or ignore anti-war sentiment in the country.

News managers were also able to obtain extra funding for war coverage. Once that budget line was created, it was almost impossible to roll back the sense of excitement and eager anticipation that NPR was about to go cover a real live war.


  1. Mr. Dvorkin

    Thank you for the post and the link.

    I would be interested in more detailed coverage of the subject by you, as well as an assessment of your role and the current NPR ombudsman's role in the marginalizing of anti-war coverage.

    Thank you again.

  2. I can't and won't comment on Alicia Shepard's performance as ombuds at NPR. My role as Executive Director of ONO (Organization of News Ombudsmen) of which Ms. Shepard is a member, precludes me from doing that. I will say that she has had to handle some very tough situations and has done it well, from where I sit. As for my own role in assessing NPR's pre-war coverage, I wrote at the time that I felt that NPR had failed to acknowledge the breadth of the opposition. This was partly due to NPR's over-emphasis on Congress which as you may recall, went MIA (with some notable exceptions) in the lead-up to war. I know that NPR has acknowledged that was a serious oversight in retrospect. NPR wasn't the only media organization to drop that particular ball. It was a time when there was a great deal of pressure from the Bush White House on the media, especially in that fraught and anxious post 9/11 time. Looking back, I wish I had been more forceful in making my arguments. But I wrote it as I experienced it at the time.