[From the National Public Radio Ombudsman, Edward Shumacher-Matos:] Following Gov. Mitt Romney recently to an American Legion convention in Indianapolis, correspondent Ari Shapiro worked the audience with his recorder as he waited for Romney to speak. It was, he would say in his report, "not an Obama-friendly crowd."
He aired comments from Bobbie Lucie, a veteran's wife, as illustration.
"I just—I don't like him," Lucie said of the president. "Can't stand to look at him. I don't like his wife. She's far from the first lady. It's about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady."
Alarm bells went off in NPR's listening audience. Many wrote to complain that Lucie's interview should not have been aired, but for different reasons, each of them compelling.
"I find this quote highly offensive, likely racist and clearly outside the range of acceptable dialogue and exchange regarding politics and the upcoming election," wrote Jonathan Hertz from Allentown, Pa., representative of one group of listeners.
Val Larsen of Bridgewater, Va., and others said that the comment went beyond offense to African Americans and the first couple to offend veterans.
"By using just that one quote to characterize the views of the conference attendees, you implied that these racist views are typical of veterans," he wrote. "To slander them by implying racist views and political motives is a gross breach of our social contract with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines."
And Tom Kenny, of Gilbert, Ariz., said it was unfair, and maybe slanderous, on a third front that at first might seem surprising: to Bobbie Lucie herself.
"The report left me and possibly others with the impression that the speaker is a racist. In fact, the report failed to establish that," wrote Kenny. "Assuming this was not a case of editing, Mr. Shapiro should have followed up with the simple question, 'What should a president and first lady look like?' The report may have left the audience with a totally wrong impression about the individual."
I asked Shapiro about his decision to include Lucie's comment and whether it was NPR's responsibility to keep racist opinions off the air. He wrote:
"I leave it to listeners to interpret her comment as they wish, but I have to disagree that if a comment reflects racism we should refrain from airing it unless a story is explicitly about racism.
"Over the course of the campaign I've put hundreds of voters' views on the air. Imagine for a moment that some percentage of those voters told me, "I won't vote for President Obama simply because he's black." If I excluded that sentiment from any stories that weren't explicitly about racism, I think I'd be presenting a distorted portrait of the electorate. Lots of people tell me "I'm voting for Romney because of his business experience," and I'd never think to restrict those voices to stories that are explicitly about business.
"No one voice will ever be wholly representative of Americans' views on anything, which is to say that listeners should not hear a particular quote as representing a universal view. But my goal is to paint a complete picture over the course of the campaign using a pointillistic approach, where each voter's voice is a dot of color that, viewed together from a distance, reflects the 2012 electorate in its entirety.
"Her comment may make people uncomfortable. But I don't consider that to be an argument against including her in the story."
Shapiro separately tweeted about the matter of a follow-up question: "Lots of ppl asking if I followed-up w the woman in my @MorningEdition piece. No. Romney's speech was starting so I had to run & tape him."
I'm a great fan of Shapiro's work, and I think that he is right that a story need not be about racism to include a racist comment by someone. But I think that he and his editors were wrong to let Lucie's interview run without clarifying what she meant.
If she indeed was being racist, then I would have to question how representative she was of the audience. To viscerally not like President Obama and Michelle Obama is one thing. Many Democrats felt the same about President George W. Bush. To not like the Obamas because they are black is another thing altogether. This is hate speech that offends a whole class of Americans (and many, if not most, of the rest of us).
We as citizens need to know how many among us share such views, and it should be reported so that an informed citizenry can choose how to react. But if a racist comment is presented as just a gratuitous interview without useful context, then we as journalists have behaved irresponsibly, inflaming the country and lending legitimacy to hate.
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