MOSCOW, Idaho – Covering Hurricane Katrina gave a timid American press corps the chance to “find its footing again” and challenge the government, National Public Radio’s watchdog said Thursday.
“After 9-11 it seems like there was a self-censorship that went on at many levels, including NPR,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s ombudsman since 2000.
But in covering Katrina, Dvorkin said, many journalists were reconnected with vital functions of their role, from asking tough questions to getting out of the office and off the phone with insider sources. That has spilled over into other coverage, as well, from Supreme Court nominations to the CIA leak investigation.
“I think Hurricane Katrina was both a reason and an excuse for the American media to look more closely at the Bush administration,” he said.
Dvorkin spoke to a crowd Thursday night at Washington State University, brought in by Northwest Public Radio. He was interviewed for this story earlier in the day at the University of Idaho, where he also met with students.
As ombudsman, Dvorkin’s job is to critique NPR’s journalism and investigate criticisms. He publishes an online column at www.npr.org and does radio reports on journalism as well.
In an Oct. 26 column about New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to divulge her source in the leak of a CIA agent’s name, Dvorkin wrote that he detected “a strong lather of sexism” in national coverage of the case.
Miller has been a lightning rod in political and journalistic circles for several years. She has been criticized harshly in some quarters for credulous reporting of the administration’s assertions about Iraq’s weapons before the war, and over her account of how she learned the name of a CIA employee.
Dvorkin said that his reference to sexism dealt with a kind of old-boy’s network sensibility that still pervades much of journalism. But he said that Miller committed serious journalistic lapses, as well.
“I think her journalism was flawed and maybe even ideologically driven,” he said.
But the larger problem, he said, was “there didn’t seem to be an editor anywhere on that story” at the Times.
Dvorkin said the explosion of media voices on the radio, cable TV and blogs have forced traditional journalists into defending themselves on the grounds of liberal bias, when it’s really a question of journalistic approach.
“The rise of the conservative voice in media has been louder and in some ways more entertaining than the rest of the media, which believes in presenting a story fairly,” he said.
He said too few American media outlets have ombudsmen, which serve an important watchdog role. Newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post hire ombudsmen to take and investigate complaints, and report back to readers. Whitworth College professor Gordon Jackson writes a periodic ombudsman column for The Spokesman-Review, but not in a full-time role.
“The role of an ombudsman is an indispensable part of how a newspaper or broadcaster operates in an open society,” Dvorkin said. “One of our worst qualities as journalists is our defensiveness.”