Did I Hear What I Thought I Heard?
Occasionally listeners think they heard something on NPR programming that was never said. This was not one of those times.
On Saturday, Jan. 19, ESPN's Howard Bryant appeared on NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon to talk about sports. The broadcast was taped live. Simon asked about Lance Armstrong's famous interview with Oprah Winfrey, and Bryant referred back to a tweet he read:
I mean, I think the big problem that I had with listening to Lance over the last couple of days was how controlled – how much he was trying to control this confession. That someone had put out a very funny tweet in my timeline that other day that said, "With this much remorse he could be the next spokesperson for the NRA." I mean, it was really that controlling. And I'm listening to this, and I'm thinking, he's not sorry at all about this.
Simon didn't respond to the NRA comment, but kept the conversation focused on sports.
Listener Charles Brown of Franklin, Mich. immediately took to the Web. Before the audio or transcript had been posted online, Brown wrote on the show's site, "I am looking forward to seeing the transcript of this segment, featuring Howard Bryant's tone-deaf comparison between the remorse, or lack thereof, on the part of Lance Armstrong, and 'the NRA.'"
The transcript Brown eagerly awaited eventually arrived, but the reference to the gun association wasn't there – either in the audio file or written transcript. The response by Bryant now existed in both as the following:
I mean, I think the big problem that I had with listening to Lance over the last couple of days was how controlled - how much he was trying to control this confession. And I'm listening to this, and I'm thinking, he's not sorry at all about this.
Brown contacted our office suspicious of a conspiracy."There is no explanation for the post-broadcast edit. Is this instance a representative one, for NPR editing and posting policy(ies)?"
Well, in some ways, yes, as I myself discovered when I went to ask.
Weekend Edition, like Morning Edition, is a two-hour program, but it is fed to various stations in different time zones. It generally airs on stations from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. ET and from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. PST. Over that time, a story is often edited and changed. What visitors to NPR.org find is the final version.
Stuart Seidel, managing editor of standards and practices, explained the editing process:
The newsmagazine shows update as warranted so long as they have feeds on the air. Many times, updates fix technical errors, clarify some point in a story or interview, or make a correction. At times, significant changes are made as news develops and new stories or interviews are substituted into the second or third feed of a show.
Only the last feed of each show is archived and transcribed. As a result, there are times when a listener may have heard something on a first or second feed of a show and then find that the transcript does not reflect what was aired on an early feed.
We correct errors as quickly as possible when we learn of them. Significant errors are noted on the air in ensuing feeds of a show. When appropriate, corrections posted online note whether the error occurred in an early or final feed of a show.
The edit in the Bryant segment was not seen as the correction of a mistake, and therefore no note was added to the transcript online that a change had been made. As Sarah Oliver, a supervising producer on Weekend Edition, explained:
One of the most basic — and most critical — decisions we make as show editors and producers is what to cut from an interview and why. Simply put, we make edits in interviews for content, clarity, accuracy and fairness. When we edit a previously live interview for a later feed, we are guided by the same principles that we apply to a pre-taped interview.
When we edit an interview for a later feed, we inform member stations of the change. We also relay the information to NPR's online production team so they can post the latest audio and correct the text if necessary.
In this particular case, Howard Bryant, one of our regular sports commentators, made an offhand comment that didn't make sense in the context of the live interview. Scott didn't ask for clarification or challenge the characterization Howard appeared to be making, and we cut the comment for later feeds. Howard and Scott have "talked sports" every other week for many years, most often without issue – other than Scott's blatant preference for the Chicago Cubs.
After my inquiry, the Weekend Edition team contacted Bryant about the NRA comment:
The comment I made was in response to Scott asking me how I thought Lance Armstrong came off to the public following his interview with Oprah Winfrey. I responded, if I remember correctly, that he did not seem particularly contrite or convincing, adding that a viewer sent me a message on Twitter that Armstrong was so unsympathetic toward the lives he ruined with his lawsuits that he could be the "next spokesman for the NRA," which was in reference to that organization's lack of sympathy or contrition toward the Newtown tragedy. Had Scott asked me to explain, I would've said exactly that. Off-air, I received two messages from listeners who took offense to my criticizing the NRA. I responded to those two listeners who took offense with the same explanation. It was my opinion and mine alone.
Bryant is paid to contribute to NPR and give his opinions about sports. His is a position analogous to a sports columnist in a newspaper. How far he and they can go in giving their opinions on other issues is a fuzzy area. Not far, is the standard 20th century American rule, which I still support. Many of these rules are breaking down under the assault of the Internet and a slide towards more opinion in journalism, but the editors were still right to excise his unsupported, unexplored, non-sports comment, as clever as it might have been.
Some purists might argue that any change to a story should be noted, whether a factual error or not. I understand why the discovery of an un-noted change can raise questions, but this vulnerability to doubts is outweighed by the practical considerations of it being both costly and a nightmare to track and list every change. Newspapers never did between editions and still don't. Ditto books.
As Mark Stencel, managing editor of digital news, wrote to me about what happens in the NPR site itself:
The updating process Stu [Seidel] described is much like the updating process throughout the print run at many newspapers and their digital editions. And our process of updating the text version of stories is much like the audio process.
In some of our blogs, particularly our breaking news blog, The Two-Way, we are pretty methodical about noting significant updates when it comes to emerging facts and the details of unfolding events. Those news posts almost require that we do that because they are stories we expect interested followers to revisit over the course of a day, so we want to signal clearly what's changed.
But those incremental details are different from the errors we actually correct (with links from our Corrections page and explanations added up top).
The real achievement, then, is that reporters and editors keep updating to give later listeners and readers the latest and best news.
But in the interest of historical accuracy and scholarship, I did wonder whether online transcripts and audio files could have some sort of a routine date-time stamp for when they were broadcast by NPR. Stencel told me that NPR's systems do not have a way to do that now, but that he would look into the idea. It wouldn't satisfy conspiracy theorists, and wouldn't tell you whether you actually heard that version on your local radio station at that time. Member stations sometimes record what they receive from NPR and mix and match it in their own broadcasts. But, it would create an official baseline of sorts. Oh, the complications.
Assistant Lori Grisham contributed to this report.