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Better Late Than Never: NPR Admits It Slandered South Dakota

In October 2011, NPR aired a three-part series of programs on its investigation of foster care for Native American children in South Dakota. The series, reported by Laura Sullivan, made the sensational claim that South Dakota welfare agencies take (the word “kidnap” was used more than once) Indian children from their homes, and place them in foster care with white families so that they can collect money from the federal government. Using, among other sources, information that I received from South Dakota officials that was suppressed by NPR, I wrote a series of posts on NPR’s journalistic malfeasance: Slandering the Red States, Part 1; Slandering the Red States, Part II: An Astonishing Omission; Slandering the Red States, Part III: She Was Promised There Would Be No Math; Slandering the Red States, Part IV: The Lieutenant Governor; Slandering the Red States, Part V: Why Won’t NPR Tell the Real Story? Help Me Ask!; and Slandering the Red States, Part VI: Laura Sullivan Responds. I asked Ms. Sullivan a series of questions about her reporting via email. When she failed to respond, I asked our readers to email her, politely requesting that she respond to my questions. That worked: within a matter of hours, Ms. Sullivan sent me a set of thoroughly unsatisfactory answers, as I recorded in Part VI. I also forwarded that post to NPR’s ombudsman.

It turns out that the ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, has been working on an analysis of the NPR series ever since. His conclusions, explained at length, were published yesterday. They are remarkable, in my view, for their candor and fairness:

My finding is that the series was deeply flawed and should not have been aired as it was.

The series committed five sins that violate NPR’s code of standards and ethics. They were:

1. No proof for its main allegations of wrongdoing;

2. Unfair tone in communicating these unproven allegations;

3. Factual errors, shaky anecdotes and misleading use of data by quietly switching what was being measured;

4. Incomplete reporting and lack of critical context;

5. No response from the state on many key points.

No doubt the investigative team was driven by the history of injustices suffered by Native Americans. There is much to be outraged about. But good intentions are not enough. Specifically, there is no whistleblower, no document — no smoking gun even — to support the unmistakable allegation that for nearly the last 15 years, state social workers have been so evil as to take Indian children from their families as a way to reap federal funds for the state government. The charge is so shocking and such a potential insult to many dedicated social workers that the burden of proof should have been especially high.

There is more that is wrong, too. The reported federal reimbursement numbers are badly inflated. That is a factual flaw. Perhaps more upsetting to many of us is a moral one: concern for the centrally relevant matter of child neglect is simply dismissed. That many of the foster decisions, meanwhile, are in fact made by the tribes’ own independent judges goes unreported altogether. The crucial context of social ills and a crisis of Indian family breakdowns on the state’s reservations are also all but missing.

There is much, much more, but you get the drift. I don’t believe I have ever seen a representative of a media outlet take apart his own outlet’s story with the care and thoroughness displayed by Mr. Schumacher-Matos. The one thing he doesn’t do is address the motivations of those who reported and produced the false and misleading series, but it is easy to fill in that blank. The reporter and editors spoke from the liberal perspective that is taken for granted by pretty much everyone at NPR. They had a narrative that they wanted to push for political reasons.

And they are sticking by their story, even though it has been thoroughly demolished, by me and by Mr. Schumacher-Matos. In a brief statement, Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s Executive Vice-President and Chief Content Officer, and Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s Senior Vice President for News, say that “NPR stands by the stories.” Which means that at NPR, commitment to leftist ideology trumps any fealty to the facts.

I may have more to say about this in the days to come, but that is enough for the moment.

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