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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

At NPR, Ombudded With the Troops

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page C01

Jeffrey Dvorkin says National Public Radio reported the charges and countercharges about the Iraq war without verifying them.

He says NPR management mishandled the dismissal of popular morning host Bob Edwards, that interviewer Terry Gross was unfair to Bill O'Reilly and that NPR has relied too heavily on a few bright men as commentators.

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All of this is noteworthy because Dvorkin works for NPR -- as the network's ombudsman.

The in-house critic has become a familiar sight at some newspapers, the most prominent of whom are Daniel Okrent at the New York Times (the first in that paper's history) and Michael Getler at The Washington Post (who is about to complete his four-year tenure). But Dvorkin, 58, is the only staffer at an American broadcast network paid to publish regular criticism of his employer.

"Initially it was difficult," says Dvorkin, NPR's former vice president for news, who became the network's first ombudsman in 2000. "I had to appropriately beat up both journalists and management as I saw fit. Journalists are notoriously defensive, and criticism of them in public or private is not always a pleasant idea."

NPR President Kevin Klose, a former editor and reporter for The Washington Post, says he liked the idea of an ombudsman when the newspaper created the post 34 years ago. He says NPR needs such internal scrutiny even more now that its audience has grown from 13 million to 22 million during his five-year tenure.

"I'm not really worried about the popularity inside" the network, Klose says. "We need someone who can attempt to explain the mysteries of how we do what we do."

But Dvorkin's sometimes stinging critiques appear on the network's Web site, not on NPR, where they would draw a wider audience -- a subject he says he has raised with management. Klose says he hasn't had a chance to address the issue.

Dvorkin, who is also president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, says he got about 5,000 e-mails when he wrote in his column last year that "Fresh Air" host Gross was "unfair" to Fox's O'Reilly, that she came across as a "partisan" of O'Reilly tormentor Al Franken and that she used the "unethical technique" of asking a question after O'Reilly stormed out of the interview.

The ombudsman got 17,000 e-mails -- and counting -- about the Edwards demotion. Dvorkin accused management of being "less than candid" in explaining why "Morning Edition" dumped host Edwards, who later signed with XM Satellite Radio. "I think NPR handled it badly," Dvorkin says.

Sometimes Dvorkin defends NPR. He said the network's main news programs were largely balanced in covering the run-up to war in Iraq, although there was a tendency "to give slightly more airtime to antiwar, rather than pro-administration, points of view." He praised NPR for "putting more conservatives on the radio" but disputed suggestions it is tilting to the right. He sided with reporter Don Gonyea against charges of rudeness when Gonyea asked President Bush whether he had "failed as a communicator" to make his case on Iraq. He said "All Things Considered" co-host Michele Norris did the right thing by agreeing not to work on political stories while her husband was a senior adviser to John Kerry.

Dvorkin forwards some complaints to editors and reporters and asks them to respond to the listener. "Otherwise it would just be public relations," he says. And he says it's a "shame" that the television networks haven't hired ombudsmen of their own.

While Dvorkin is constantly peppered with charges of left-wing bias, he says, most of his e-mail is about a supposed shift to the right. "It's kind of a shock to the system of those who felt NPR is there to reinforce their own ideas about the world. That's not journalism. We're not in the informational comfort-food business."

Cutback City

Newsday's Washington bureau is about to get chopped in half -- and other papers owned by the Tribune Co. are getting nervous.

Tribune has ordered all of its newspapers to move their Washington operations into the former Woodies building downtown by the end of next year as part of a cost-cutting effort. Newsday has a second problem: It plans to cut 100 jobs, through a combination of buyouts and layoffs, following an investigation that found that the paper inflated its weekday circulation by 17 percent.

The result: The New York paper's bureau here will shrink from 14 staffers to six, with some of the displaced moving to the Long Island headquarters. Some staffers say the impact on morale will be severe.

While acknowledging the "painful situation," John Mancini, Newsday's new editor, says, "We can still put out an incisive report in the tradition of the high-impact journalism Newsday is known for if we focus on what our readers need and want out of Washington." That, he says, will include regular use of reports from other Tribune papers.

From a financial standpoint, it may make little sense for each Tribune paper to have its own White House reporter or Pentagon correspondent. In journalistic terms, though, each paper prides itself on covering national affairs and not just chasing regional or parochial issues.

"The purpose of the restructuring is to minimize repetition in editorial coverage, increase the communication and cooperation among our newspapers and reduce expenses," Tribune Publishing President Jack Fuller said in a statement.

The Baltimore Sun's bureau, once the home of Jack Germond (who retired) and Jules Witcover (who is on contract), is bracing for a cutback. Hartford Courant Editor Brian Toolan has told his staff he expects to shrink the Washington bureau as part of a newspaper-wide reduction. The Los Angeles Times's bureau will drop from 60 to 54 staffers, while the Tribune itself could lose a couple of its 20 Washington staffers.

Broder Scales Back

David Broder wants readers to know that he will keep on writing his syndicated Washington Post column.

But after 12 presidential campaigns and four decades at the paper, Broder, who spends huge amounts of time on the road, has decided to give up his daily reporting duties. "I'm 75 and I've been doing it a long time," he says. "It has nothing to do with being disillusioned with politics. I loved the last campaign."

Broder scoffed at the notion that he might cut back reporting for the column, in a cell-phone conversation before his flight took off for Los Angeles. "I am on the road now and will continue to be on the road," he says.

When You're Hot

Bob Garfield isn't sure how it happened, but the audience has doubled for his public radio show, "On the Media."

The Advertising Age columnist, who co-hosts the program with Brooke Gladstone, says the show (heard on Washington's WETA and now WAMU) is drawing 700,000 listeners, up from fewer than 300,000 when they took over four years ago.

"Most likely it's a reaction to an environment where people are ever more distrustful of the media and its relationship with the government and its cravenness and irresponsibility," he says. "Which is great for us. May things only get worse."

Garfield says he and Gladstone "took a very earnest and dry show" and "tried to add some personality and irony and entertainment," though the program, heard on 180 stations, got more serious after 9/11.

The commute, meanwhile, isn't bad: While the program is based at New York's WNYC, Garfield joins in from his home studio in Burke.

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