Playing Reporter at NPR

National Public Radio wins plenty of criticism but the complaints usually have a vague tone. Grumbling without content. I listen to the news regularly, on WNYC in New York and WSHU in Connecticut. I usually shrug off the criticism; if you want any news on the radio, this is the place.

On Sunday I heard two stories on All Things Considered that got my antennae, as a former journalist, quivering. I never talk about to NPR but this time the marshmallow-style reporting sounded so blatant and skewed that I decided to share some thoughts.

Both stories dealt with issues that need attention. One focused on the difficulties faced by renters in a market with high demand and static supply. As a renter myself, my ears pricked up when I heard the story. The second was on a program in Los Angeles about a program to help young dads — as in mid-teens to mid-20s — cope with all the new pressures they face as fathers.

Let’s look at the new-dad story first. With the headline on the NPR site of “From Resumes to Romance, Giving Young Dads the Skills to Succeed,” it detailed a program that tried to meet the economic and social needs of new fathers.

Parenthood is often unexpected for these men. They weren’t planning to be dads, Blaney says. “They just get a lot of criticism and a lot of judgement from everybody in their family. So they basically just go from having a larger social support circle to none.” Most of the men who attend are between the ages of 15 and 25, though fathers as young as 14 have made their way through the program. Blaney says the men come from different backgrounds, but most of them are black or Latino and the majority of them are low-income.

Males in the program learn how to be good fathers, how to control their anger, and overcome their own lack of male role models. The piece scrupulously avoids certain words that, I imagine, might be seen as “judgmental” and hurtful to these youngsters. Those words are “marriage” and “birth control.” The NPR reporter positions the program as one answer for the problems, but never wants to explore the impact of a committed marital relationship. As a former reporter myself, I’d have raised questions that may has disrupted the sweetly hopeful tone of the piece:

  • How many of the males have married or plan to marry the girls they impregnated?
  • How many impregnated multiple girls and are now fathers several times over?
  • Do any face statutory rape charges?
  • What’s their understanding of birth control and do they practice safe sex?
  • What are they doing to prevent additional pregnancies?
  • How many of them are currently interacting with the criminal justice system? Why?

These questions may be rude, but they get to the heart of these programs. Unless you think teenage pregnancies is an unalloyed social good, then you want to prevent them or at least limit their negative impact on the parents, the babies and the public treasury. I get no sense that NPR wanted to address any issues other than guys dealing with their feelings and being better fathers. But husbands? Socially responsibility? Those topics must be either judgmental or beyond the realm of imagining for this population. Or maybe the reporter just lacked time to squeeze in some microaggressive topics.

The program on renting, also set in Los Angeles, which has the highest percentage of renters of any major city, was titled “Home, Food or Health Care: A Choice Many Renters Can’t Afford.” More renters are crowding into the city due to the foreclosure wave, but building apartment complexes is difficult thanks to antiquated and expensive zoning laws. As a result, those apartments being built serve the high-end market, where owners can recoup their costs.

So far, so good, NPR acknowledges economic reality. The story focuses on the Alvarez family scraping to get by in the working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The story says,

Ymelda Alvarez, her husband and their two daughters live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment just east of downtown Los Angeles in a neighborhood called Boyle Heights. It’s not a fancy or trendy area; it’s a poor part of town with a lot of crime, and most of the schools are struggling.

Their apartment consists of a front living room converted to a bedroom, a small kitchen and a little room in the back with bunk beds for the kids. Other amenities include sagging ceilings, leaky faucets, doors that don’t lock and pests like cockroaches and rats.

For this they pay $1,000 a month.

But it’s currently their only option. Antonio, her husband, can’t land a full-time job and only makes about $1,200 a month from stringing together part-time work at a school nearby.

Mrs. Alvarez only speaks Spanish; what’s the story about her husband not being able to find full-time work? So the obvious question to me is, what’s their immigration status? While the article makes a reference to them waiting to get tax refunds, the story resolutely avoids the issue that leads to crowding in areas like Boyle Heights. In this era of accelerating border-crossings without much in the way of enforcement, those questions have to be asked. Competition for scarce job and housing resources, the criminal justice system, wage depression, education, clashes with other ethnic groups at the lower end of the economic and social bell curve, the degradation of the concept of citizenship, “white privilege” — all are questions that must be raised and the ones I’d ask if I were the reporter doing this story.

Call me a neocon or clueless or heartless, but those are the questions NPR avoid.

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