NPR ombudsman: Beware First Amendment ‘fundamentalists’

Edward Schumacher Matos’ last day as the listeners’ representative at NPR gave him one last opportunity to poke his bosses in the eyes, and he did so taking on a couple of sacred cows: the assertion of bias and the reach of the First Amendment.

In his final post last week before vacating the job, Schumacher-Matos warned of “fundamentalism,” but not the kind involving religion — the kind involving journalists and ethics.

And he acknowledged that NPR has a bias. But not the one you might think.

As a public media that receives some 11 percent of its funding indirectly from the government, it cannot be partisan or have a declared bias. With multiple streams of other income—foundations, corporations and individuals—it also is not under the same pressure as the commercial news media to do so.

But let’s be honest: NPR has a bias of sorts. It is the bias of its college-educated audience—you and me—to pick and frame stories in ways that represent our interests. This is not a liberal basis, as the far right likes to claim. It is a center-right to center-left bias interested in fact-based analysis and policy on matters such as the environment, health care, gay rights and fiscal issues, as opposed to ideology or belief.

Over my four years I received more complaints from the left than the right, and not because Republicans aren’t listening. Audience polls show a pretty even Republican-Democrat breakdown, with even more listeners self-identifying as “independent.” It is that the political debate today and coverage is between the centrists and the far right; the far left feels ignored.

You will decide for yourself whether this is a good bias for NPR to have. I like it. As the news media fractures along narrow, advocacy lines, I think the NPR breadth and framing is valuable for the nation. With its strong storytelling voice, moreover, NPR is a peculiar institution in a way that perhaps only radio and podcasts can be. It is intimate with us, and has become part of our lives.

Schumacher-Matos also criticized “fundamentalism” among journalists who insist on “broad” First Amendment protections.

The French news media may have their ethical standards, but they are not American or sacred universal ones, and they shouldn’t be French ones either. The United States has never had absolute freedom of the press. And the framers of the Constitution — I once held the James Madison Visiting Professor Chair on First Amendment Issues at Columbia University — never intended it to. You wouldn’t know this, however, from listening to the First Amendment fundamentalists piping up from Washington to Silicon Valley.

It’s an odd thing for a journalist to write, attorney Eugene Volokh writes today on his Washington Post blog…

To be sure, his disdain for broad views of the First Amendment isn’t limited to blasphemy and supposed “hate speech.” “National security is similarly another area of misguided media fundamentalism…. The new digital media is the loudest in demanding that journalists be blind to the security concerns of their government or their country…. These are the modern Puritans, in the rabid service of a universal ideal, and here the humanitarian left finds company with the libertarian right and that curious hybrid we might call Silicon Man.”

Here, he seems to be talking more about editorial ethics and not calling for speech restrictions — but labeling supporters of broad speech protection “fundamentalis[ts],” “Puritans,” and “rabid” strikes me as telling as well.

I hope NPR’s new ombudsman will more strongly support the free speech protections that ultimately help make even mainstream outlets like NPR possible.

Schumacher-Matos applauded the decision of NPR not to post Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the shootings in Paris. It was consistent, he reasoned, with what the Founding Fathers wanted.

No it’s not, Charles Cook writes at the National Review.

If we are to take Schumacher-Matos’s complaint seriously – “it is one thing to lampoon popes, imams, rabbis and other temporal religious leaders of this world,” he writes, but “it is quite another to make fun, in often nasty ways, of their prophets and gods” — then we will have to account for the facts that a) there has never been a single blasphemy law on the federal books, that b) the vast majority of the censorship laws that exist at the state level were written either long before or long after the founding generation was considering such questions, and that c) there is a difference between “the founders” and “America at the time of the founding.”

At it stands, it seems to me that Schumacher-Matos is merely projecting his own sensibilities into the past — holding, perhaps, that the Founders intended to prevent the mocking of Gods but that they never bothered to get around to it. Or, maybe, that our early sensitivity to a rambunctious press has now been lost.

It is often forgotten that the Founders were violent, often radical, revolutionaries, and that for the most part they were considerably more liberal than those who had come before them. Having cranked out cartoon after cartoon, pamphlet after pamphlet and copy after copy of Paine’s Common Sense, they largely understood that they had benefited immensely from the free press that they believed to be their birthright.

The dust-up might well be Elizabeth Jensen’s to sort out. She took over Schumacher-Matos’ job this month.

Related NPR: NPR making changes to voice of underwriting credits (