Sunday, August 26, 2007

NPR: It still stands for No Parent Response

Back in January, 2006, shortly after Nixzmary Brown died and some news organizations were scapegoating efforts to keep families together, National Public Radio broadcast a report from “member station” WNYC which was just like so many others. The entire thrust of the report was that the death supposedly proved that the city was doing too much to keep families together. No birth parents were heard from, nor was anyone who represents them.

NCCPR and local advocates complained both to WNYC and to NPR. WNYC responded by proving that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism. The station did a follow-up story.

As we first noted on this Blog in April, 2006, for the follow-up story the reporter who did the original piece visited the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a group that helps parents advocate for themselves and for reform of the system. She spoke to one of those parents about her fear that, having lost her children to the system once, she might lose them again. The follow-up story aired on February 3.

And she didn’t stop there. The next month WNYC broadcast another story from the same reporter, this time about the special problems faced by immigrant families dealing with the child welfare system.

But NPR aired neither story.

And NPR had a very different response to our initial complaint, sent to the network’s ombudsman at the time, Jeffrey Dvorkin. Dvorkin passed on a response from Andrea de Leon, whom he described as the story’s editor. De Leon wrote in part:

“Ultimately, the piece was not about removal of children vs. prevention and support. There's broad agreement with Mr. Wexler's view that keeping families together is superior to foster care. This story was about whether NYC's system makes the best choices about whether families are healthy enough to keep their children and how well the city agency and the private contractors work together. …

“I do not think including families that have lost children and predict that this will again become a common result would have been appropriate. It seems like fear mongering. I don't believe these people are key stakeholders in a story about whether the system is functioning well today. I do think, as I mentioned on the phone, that journalists should investigate the claim of a spike in family separations in the wake of the Nixzmary Brown media coverage. I can't say whether that's something we'll put on the air nationally but I can tell you that we are looking into it.”

Even taking de Leon’s characterization at face value, the story still offered only one side of the question she posed, the side represented by all those people who felt the city’s Administration for Children’s Services was making poor choices “about whether families are healthy enough to keep their children.”

But it’s the second paragraph that ought to be shocking to anyone who expects NPR to present all sides of a story.

Fear mongering? People can disagree about whether the spike in child removals in New York City is good or bad, but no one disputes that it exists. How does reporting indisputable fact become “fear mongering”?

And the only way one can believe that birth parents are not “key stakeholders in a story about whether the system is functioning well today” is if you personally believe that all such parents are sadistic brutes who don’t care about their children. As soon as you concede the possibility that birth parents might love their children and care desperately about them, then their status as “stakeholders” becomes obvious.

So de Leon’s reply tells us an enormous amount about her personal biases and deep animosity toward any birth parent whose child is caught up in the system.

But de Leon does not even afford them the dignity of being called “birth parents.” Rather they are referred to as “these people” – a phrase with a particularly ugly resonance in a city like New York, where the children taken from their parents are almost entirely nonwhite.

But the ombudsman wrote us that, just like WNYC, NPR would return to the story:

“I think that NPR has a deep commitment to this story and I can assure you that there will be more on this subject.”

One year and eight months later, the ombudsman is gone. His replacement as ombudsman is gone, and NPR apparently has decided it’s too good to need an ombudsman.

The additional reporting has yet to materialize.

At one point, NPR was planning to do a multi-part series exploring these issues in some depth. A team of journalists was assigned and even had tentatively picked the state they would focus on. A reporter had begun extensive research. I’m not going to name her because she’s a very good reporter who probably would have done some fine stories, and I’m sure what happened next wasn’t her decision.

What happened next was – nothing. The project was first delayed and then, apparently, abandoned. The reporter has not responded to repeated queries about this.

The closest NPR came to a major child welfare project was a multi-part series on, what else, middle-class adoptive families. Meanwhile the reporter who would have done the foster-care stories was assigned to something else: A multi-part series on the admissions process at the nation’s elite colleges. I found it fascinating – as would any other upper middle class parent with a college-age child. And, of course, there were no comments from “these people” that might spoil a good “driveway moment.”