"On the Media" Shreds the NPR Ethics Handbook

By Jerry Kammer, August 5, 2016

In 2004, Daniel Okrent, the public editor of The New York Times, flatly acknowledged that The Times is a liberal paper. "If you think The Times plays it down the middle" on its coverage of social issues, "you've been reading the paper with your eyes close," he wrote.

Well, if you listen to your NPR station's broadcast of the "On the Media" program and you think its work on immigration reporting lives up to standards for fairness, accuracy, and impartiality that are spelled out in the NPR Ethics Handbook, then you've been listening with your ears closed.

Consider last week's interview that On the Media co-host Brooke Gladstone conducted with Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey. By NPR's standards it was a miserable failure. (See also my earlier blog post on the interview.) As a former immigration reporter and someone who has long identified as a moderate liberal, I was embarrassed both for the profession and for the political orientation.

There are powerful arguments to be made on both sides of our national immigration debate. While they generally align on a left-right axis, sometimes they defy categorization, For example, liberal icon Paul Krugman has acknowledged in The New York Times that "many of the worst-off-native born Americans are hurt by immigration – especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans."

On the Media makes no room for such analysis of the labor market effects of immigration, which simply reflect the law of supply and demand. Gladstone reflects the liberal conviction that immigration is such an unquestionable good that its negative effects are negligible. Isolated in her New York cosmopolitan fantasyland, Gladstone seems to believe that to think otherwise is to be small of mind and mean of spirit.

Last week Gladstone asked the equally, unabashedly liberal Massey to enlighten NPR listeners about "red flags in coverage that people should be very wary of." It was a hanging curveball right in Massey's wheelhouse; he proceeded to club it into the cheap seats of far left field.

Admonishing listeners to consider the sources quoted in stories on immigration, Massey declared, "The Center for Immigration Studies, Numbers America, they're avowedly anti-immigrant. They take census data but then they twist it in ways that are really misleading."

Now, while it's true that there is an organization named Numbers America, it is a bookbinder based in Gardena, Calif., that has nothing to do with immigration. So a little preliminary cleanup is in order. The organization that Massey wanted to attack but couldn't accurately identify is NumbersUSA. The OTM transcript acknowledged as much with a parenthetical addition of the correct name to the program transcript.

But let's talk about substance. Massey provided no example of the alleged deception, and the cooperative Gladstone didn't ask for any. So I'll begin my rebuttal by quoting two reviews of The Case Against Immigration, a book authored by Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA.

Foreign Affairs magazine said that "as persuasively as anyone [Beck] states the case and marshals the evidence for restricting the high levels of legal immigration." Francis Fukuyama, the eminent political scientist, said Beck "fosters serious debate rather than name-calling." He also said Beck's arguments "are presented carefully and dispassionately and deserve serious answers." Gladstone and her team at On the Media disagree. They have their story, shrink-wrapped to their ears-closed specifications. And by God, they're sticking to it

As for the quality of CIS work on census data, I would ask Professor Massey to identify one mistake by our director of research, Dr. Steven Camarota. Camarota's quantification of the fiscal and labor market effects of mass immigration are based on meticulous research whose high quality is acknowledged by peer review and even by activists on the other side of the immigration debate. A friend of mine who directs an immigration-advocacy organization has told me that he asks his colleagues, "Where's our Camarota?" That is a question that Gladstone would have asked had she allowed her bias to be constrained by the NPR commitment to fairness.

The NPR Ethics Handbook, in its subsection on fairness, states: "We make every effort to gather responses from those who are the subjects of criticism, unfavorable allegations or other negative assertions in our stories." Every effort? Gladstone made no effort to contact Camarota.

Nor did she show any interest in the NPR standard for impartiality, which according to the handbook is based on the understanding that "the public deserves factual reporting and informed analysis without our opinions influencing what they hear or see."

And then there's the NPR standard of completeness, which calls for the inclusion of "diverse voices that reflect our society and divergent views that contribute to informed debate."

If a journalism board of ethics, or perhaps the NPR ombudsman, would ask Gladstone how she pleads to the charge of reckless disregard for these standards, I think a competent attorney would advise her to plead "no contest."