Sunday, June 1, 2008

At NPR: The ultimate “Blackout”


As far as I'm concerned, the two finest writers in broadcast journalism today are Byron Pitts of CBS News and NPR's Scott Simon. So of course it was good to hear Simon devote one of his weekly commentaries on NPR's Weekend Edition to a case in which a child was wrongfully placed in foster care.

Of course, it also was the only variety of such case that ever seems to interest NPR: The extremely rare example of the long arm of child protective services extending into the upper middle class. It was the case of the child of two University of Michigan professors, taken from his father when he accidentally gave the boy Mike's Hard Lemonade at a baseball game.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad the story made it onto NPR. In fact, part of the reason this story got so much attention, starting with this excellent column in the Detroit Free Press, is that the family's lawyer asked NCCPR for advice on calling attention to it. But the other part is simply because this was one of those very rare times when the system harmed somebody journalists at NPR, and elsewhere, can identify with. Read about this case and it's going to send a chill up the spine of middle class professionals as they think: "This could happen to my child."

But terrible as the ordeal was for this little boy, it is nowhere near as bad as what is endured by the overwhelming majority of the 300,000 children taken from their parents every year (something the parents in this case themselves have taken pains to acknowledge). But, of course, that overwhelming majority is overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minority. And readers of this Blog know exactly what NPR thinks of the parents in those kinds of cases. An NPR editor, Andrea DeLeon, callously dismissed them as "these people," saying: "I don't believe these people are key stakeholders in a story about whether the [child welfare] system is functioning well today." (In other words, in NPR's world view, poor parents who lose their children must be scum, so why would they care if the system is hurting their children? Only middle-class parents who lose their children could possibly be innocent.) For details see the earlier post on this Blog: NPR: It still stands for No Parent Response.

The same bias could be seen in a segment of NPR’s series This I Believe, (a series so drenched in pretentiousness that the producer calls himself a “curator.”) A middle-class adoptive mother spends the entire commentary telling the world how wonderful she is because she adopted a boy from China – and implies that in all of China not one Chinese ever loved the boy.

But perhaps the ultimate example of NPR’s astounding myopia came last week, when a report was released calling for modifications to a federal law on transracial adoption. The report is pretty good, and, if there’s time, I’ll write about it in a future post. But for now, I want to focus on how NPR covered it.

Transracial adoption is a hot-button issue for two groups: African-Americans, especially impoverished African-Americans, and childless upper middle class white couples. Guess which group the people at NPR identify with? We know this first of all because the network really pulled out all the stops, something it almost never does on child welfare issues. Four separate NPR programs devoted time to this study, including what looks to have been a full hour on Talk of the Nation. And in every single one of those segments everyone interviewed was someone like myself - middle class and white. In all of these segments about transracial adoption, even the one on Tell Me More, a program geared to minority audiences, NPR could not find even one real live Black person to talk to.

The report deals with the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, a federal law which essentially demands a Stephen Colbert-style “I don’t see color” approach to transracial adoption. Under MEPA, if a Grand Wizard of the KKK wanted to adopt a Black child, it would be illegal to disqualify him. The new report, from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and endorsed by several other pillars of the child welfare establishment, says this goes too far. The report found that MEPA compromises the quality of transracial placements without increasing their quantity.

Of course, it makes sense to have the director of the Donaldson Institute on as a guest in segments about the report, which NPR did. It also makes sense to have on one of the nation’s leading family-bashing extremists to defend leaving MEPA exactly as is. NPR did that as well. And it makes sense to interview white parents who adopted Black children. But that’s where NPR stopped. The problem isn’t who NPR included, it’s who NPR excluded – the same people NPR almost always excludes when the topic is child welfare.

Someone in the office of NPR’s ombudsman challenged me on my description of everyone in these stories as middle class. After promising to read the transcripts, she rather snidely added: “I'd be interested in reading about how they were described as middle class.” Well, yes, there was no such overt description – and I didn’t check their tax returns either. But when the parent being interviewed has nine children, six of them adopted, moves from “a white suburb” to downtown Minneapolis, doesn’t complain even once in the entire segment about financial problems, and tells the interviewer that, “I'm not the latte-drinking MBA in Woodberry, which is a fancy suburb, anymore” it’s a pretty reasonable inference. (And, as I asked the ombudsman’s office staffer: If it turns out that they weren’t all middle-class but were only exclusively white, does that make it o.k.?)

The Talk of the Nation program also reflects a problem analogous to a common, and valid, criticism from the Left concerning coverage of issues that are more overtly ideological. The spectrum of permissible opinion ranges from the center to the right, with a serious Left perspective excluded. The Talk of The Nation program reflected the same bias: There was the centrist position, that MEPA goes a tad too far and needs some tinkering, and the extremist position that it should remain untouched. The possibility that MEPA needs more than a little tinkering – a possibility most likely to be raised by an actual African-American, was excluded.

The problem is most pronounced in child welfare coverage, but it can turn up elsewhere as well. Shortly after a transit strike ended in New York City in 2006, NPR’s Robert Smith reported on a rally of transit workers – who, in New York City, are largely minorities. Every soundbite from the leader of these workers, who spend their workdays on crowded busses and rat-infested subway tunnels, was followed by a snide comment from Smith – whose job entails no physical labor more strenuous than pushing the “record” and “play” buttons of his tape recorder at the same time. And when a motorist was insufficiently outraged at being inconvenienced by the rally itself, Smith even fed him his lines. You can listen to the story here. And then I hope you’ll consider doing what I did when I first heard it: Taking the money you might normally give to your public radio station this year and sending it to the New York City Transport Workers Union instead.

NPR’s ombudsman has said they might actually hold a brown bag lunch on the topic of class bias – but with NPR personnel only. They won’t be inviting any of “these people” – actual birth parents who lost children to the system. No, it’ll just be a gathering of NPR people – you know, a bunch of Volvo-driving-latte-sipping-Whole-Foods-Shopping aging Yuppies. Oh, wait, was that unfair? Completely. And as soon as NPR actually lets “these people” become a regular part of its child welfare coverage, I’ll apologize. Meanwhile, however, when it comes to stereotyping, if you’re going to dish it out, you ought to be prepared to take it.