The NPR Outrage Story Continues: Corrections, Reversals, Etc


Last night, Nathan Lee, the critic at the center of this week’s media scandal of the moment, went on the indieWire website–the outlet which originally ran a story detailing a long and fraught negotiation between Lee and NPR over the latter’s decision to excise all the names from Lee’s review of the gay politico-outing doc Outrage–and left a comment. indieWire‘s account had been somewhat misleading; the report that we subsequently wrote here–and which then traveled some–amplified some of those distortions. Lee’s clarification:

    I feel obligated to correct a detail of this situation that has been widely misreported or misconstrued. I did not find out about the changes *after* NPR published the article. After my editor and myself had agreed on a final edit Thursday evening, NPR withheld the article from publication (without notifying me) on Friday while the matter was being debated. This timeline was related to indiewire – I was specific in my email to them that it had not been published until late Friday evening – but is imprecisely worded in their report and has been muddled as the story has been picked up on blogs.

Such as ours. indieWire had suggested that the harsher edits on the piece had come after publication, and were done without Lee’s knowledge. This was not the case. Nearly all the back and forth–from the belated decision to apply NPR’s discretionary policy regarding public figures to Lee’s response, which was to pull his byline and ask for a disclaimer to be appended to the piece–had occurred before the Outrage review went online. NPR had not informed Lee of their policy when they assigned the piece, nor did they do so in the first round of edits. But by the time the review went live, Lee had been told, and had reacted accordingly. The second half of Lee’s comment:

    On contacting my editor late Friday to inquire about the status of the review, I was told, after a very long discussion, that NPR categorically refused to print the relevant names as a matter of policy. (A policy since revealed to be selectively applied and subject to a double standard.) It was at this point that I insisted I would not sign my name to the review – which had been considerably re-written and censored – and that if it were published I would like a disclaimer amended to explain why. In addition to protesting NPR policy, my intention was that such a review would alert readers to an example of the same media complicity and double-standard addressed in the film. Unfortunately, the reason for the missing byline was misconstrued by readers, so I posted a comment to the site explaining the circumstances. This comment was removed at the insistence of an NPR editor. Both the re-writing/redacting of the review and removal of the comment were protested by my in the strongest possible terms.

The double standard Lee refers to above references a comment that remains on the site naming Ed Koch as the “former mayor of a major U.S. city” in Lee’s review, as well any number of other pieces in the NPR archives, such as a readily accessibly editorial that ran on their site last month speculating as to the sexual orientation of Adam Lambert, a contestant on American Idol.

NPR contacted SOTC yesterday to clarify many of the same details Lee sets straight above. Lee apparently had the option of killing the piece–an assertion of NPR’s Lee, a former critic at the Voice, confirmed on the phone with us yesterday–but chose not to, hoping instead, he said, to draw attention to a policy of NPR’s with which he disagreed. Where the two sides differ is in what happened next, after the article was published. NPR’s disclaimer, as Lee notes above, appeared to confuse readers. It reads: “Given the nature of this film’s media critique and the NPR editorial policy mentioned above, the writer has asked that his byline be removed from this review.” A sample commenter response: “wait a minute: the author of this piece is anonymous? or, to put it differently, in the closet. fail to see the big risk in attaching a name to this.”

Lee wrote a comment clarifying why he’d taken his name off. NPR deleted it. On the phone with us, NPR claimed this was because Lee had once again named the supposedly closeted politicians whose names NPR refused to print, which Lee confirms–see a screenshot of the comment here–although he added that NPR then forbid him from writing a second comment with no names in it. And Lee further pointed out that a comment naming Ed Koch remained below the piece–which it still does. When SOTC asked NPR’s publicity rep why the Koch comment remained on the site, she said, quote, “Our staff isn’t huge, so we’re not able to constantly monitor” every comment. Which, given that Koch’s name has been on their site since Monday, and remains there right now even after we personally pointed it out to them yesterday, seems at the very least to have been an evasive and not entirely true response.

(Update: NPR’s Anna Christopher called again to clarify why the Koch comment remains. Christopher was “misinformed” when we spoke yesterday. The reason Lee’s comment was deleted was because “NPR’s journalists and commentators and freelancers are expected to adhere to NPR’s ethical policies and guidelines, and the same standards for journalists don’t apply to people who want to make comments on our site”–e.g., the Koch commenter.)

Right, so with the distortions–ours very much included–out of the way, what to think about this whole thing? Most of the facts remain the same: NPR is leaning here on “a long-held policy of trying to respect the privacy of public figures and of not airing or publishing rumors, allegations and reports about their private lives unless there is a compelling reason to do so,” in the words of Dick Meyer, NPR’s executive director of Digital. (For what it’s worth, venerable news outlets such as the New York– and Los Angeles Times didn’t hesitate to print the words “Crist” and “Craig.”) NPR’s assertion, even if it weren’t easily disproved by any number of other pieces the organization has done, strongly implied that in the case of Lee’s Outrage review, there was no “compelling reason” to name names.

Given that the whole argument made in Outrage is that there is a compelling reason to do this–i.e., to expose the hypocrisy of elected officials who behave one way in private and then legislate against that exact same form of behavior in public, as well as to reveal the complicit role the media plays keeping these guys’ secrets–all NPR seems to be doing in spiking their own Outrage review is confirming the point made in Kirby Dick’s documentary. Which is that it’s not only the politicians, it turns out, who are hypocrites. We’d add words to that effect in the comment section of Lee’s redacted review on NPR’s site, but we can’t: “Discussions for this story are now closed.”

Update: NPR’s Anna Christopher clarifies. “Commenting is open on any story for five days,” then closes, she notes. Christopher refers people who would otherwise have commented on the piece to NPR’s ombudsman.

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