NPR admits error in anthrax report that outraged conservatives
Originally published in Current, March 11, 2002
By Dan Odenwald
An NPR story that appeared to connect a conservative Christian group to the FBI anthrax investigation caused an uproar on Capitol Hill last month when several Republican legislators accused the network of irresponsible journalism and liberal bias.
The story by NPR science reporter David Kestenbaum, broadcast on Morning Edition Jan. 22 , examined similarities between the search for the anthrax mailers and the Unabomber.
NPR later aired a correction, and network President Kevin Klose admitted its mistake and said he would try to settle the matter. [NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin later said the network's "editing process seems to have failed to do its job."] The group mentioned in the report, the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), is considering a libel suit.
"NPR has a lot to answer for," says Andrea Lafferty, TVC's executive director. "They can't buy our silence."
Kestenbaum and NPR news officials declined to comment.
Lafferty says Kestenbaum phoned her Jan. 3 and asked her if she had been contacted by the FBI. Lafferty said she had not and asked why the reporter would call TVC.
When Kestenbaum explained that he was calling because of the anthrax sent to two members of Congress, she exploded, she says, and rebuked the reporter for trying to involve TVC. "His tone was very clear that he believed that we would do it," she says. "It was very insulting."
The next day, TVC issued a press release accusing NPR of "a baseless and factless attempt to smear conservative Christians" and zinged NPR for having its scripts written by the Democratic National Committee.
Kestenbaum's story, which aired more than two weeks later, said the Unabomber case had taught the FBI to look for commonalities in the lives of victims. He added: "Two of the anthrax letters were sent to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, both Democrats. One group who had a gripe with Daschle and Leahy is the Traditional Values Coalition, which, before the attacks, had issued a press release criticizing the senators for trying to remove the phrase 'so help me God' from the oath [that witnesses must take before testifying in the Senate]."
The reporter continued: "The Traditional Values Coalition, however, told me the FBI had not contacted them and then issued a press release saying NPR was in the pocket of the Democrats and trying to frame them. But investigators are thinking along these lines."
It was not clear whether "these lines" meant that the FBI was merely examining victims' lives or zeroing in on the TVC.
TVC denounced NPR again and demanded an apology. "National Public Radio has a longstanding reputation for liberal bias, but this incident exceeds simple bias," wrote the coalition's chairman, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, in a letter to the network. "It is a malicious act designed to destroy the good reputation of the Traditional Values Coalition ...."
A week later, NPR issued a correction, which it broadcast and published on its website, saying in part: "Reporter David Kestenbaum contacted [TVC] to ask if it had been contacted by the FBI. The TVC said it had not, since there is no evidence that it was or should be investigated. The TVC said it was inappropriate for it to be named on the air. The NPR editors agree."
NPR also removed the story from its website. Typically, when stories require corrections, they are allowed to remain online, but NPR "felt that the error in judgment ... was so serious that it outweighed whatever value there might be in leaving the language there," says a network spokeswoman.
Lafferty calls the correction pathetic. "It's a non-apology and a non-retraction," she says, adding that NPR has abused the public trust, and she endorses a petition to end taxpayer support for the network. "This is NPR's Mapplethorpe," she says, referring to the photographer whose federally subsidized exhibit offended many conservatives.
Of course, NPR isn't funded directly or predominantly by the federal government. Its member stations do receive federal money through CPB and then pay dues to NPR for its programming. The network also did receive two direct grants from CPB recently — a $1 million grant to develop its satellite radio channel and $1.4 million to plan the Tavis Smiley Show, according to CPB President Bob Coonrod.
On Feb. 28, Republican legislators used CPB's budget hearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee as an opportunity to chide NPR.
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees CPB funding bills, called the story "disrespectful of public support," adding that it erodes the credibility of CPB's funding requests.
Coonrod replied that NPR had recognized its mistake and corrected it. "The reporter was wrong, and it was unfortunate that it happened," he said.
The next day, several Republicans members made speeches on the House floor denouncing NPR.
"NPR's conduct is outrageous and ignores their basic responsibilities as journalists: presenting the facts to the public accurately and without bias," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
Said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.): "NPR broke their contract with the American people by reporting hearsay as fact. They did their fellow journalists and their listeners a grave disservice."
From Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.): "[W]hile the people of the Traditional Values Coalition practice the American ideals of charity and compassion, NPR continues to practice their traditional values: shameful pettiness and slanderous lies."
Klose responded in a letter to the legislators on March 6. "NPR holds itself to the highest standards of journalism, but unfortunately, from time to time, we make mistakes, and did so in this case," he wrote. He said he's tried to contact TVC four times to settle the matter in a mutually agreeable way, but the organization has not responded.
To Current's home page Later story: Coalition accepts second on-air apology by NPR.
Web page posted March 13, 2002, updated Feb. 10, 2003
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