In October 2011, NPR aired one of its most memorably great pieces. The three-part, 38-minute series, by reporter Laura Sullivan and producer Amy Walters, tackled the startlingly high number of American Indian children living in white foster homes in South Dakota — and the potential perverse financial incentive for the state in placing the children there.
The story earned recognition from commentators and congressmen, and even netted a Peabody Award. So it came as some surprise when, on a Friday evening 22 months later, NPR’s ombudsman released an 80-page report contending the story should never have been aired in the first place. NPR editors responded by largely brushing off his conclusions.
The saga has made few waves, which is what you’d expect for a long, dry report — published on a weekend — responsible for an intramural feud in public radio. But the few outside observers (right-wing watchdogs and high-minded media scolds) who have picked up on the story have gleaned all the wrong lessons from it. In their eyes, the report signals NPR’s acknowledgement of its liberal bias, or its news division’s inability to stand up to withering, necessary criticism.
But taken together, what the report and NPR’s response to it really demonstrate is that producing an unassailable piece of investigative work is nigh impossible these days.
The original All Things Considered series packed an emotional wallop. Sullivan and Walters ventured into some of the nation’s poorest territory, on Indian reservations throughout South Dakota. They talked to grandparents who told stories of children taken away by the state’s department of social services and dropped into white homes — all in seeming violation of the 1978 federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which mandates that states exhaust every possible option for placing Indian children in Indian foster homes before placing them in white homes.
In one case the reporters recounted, social services took a woman’s children because she had merely been accused of drug use by a family nemesis. It’s a triumph when the children return at the story’s end.
And former state officials corroborated the heartbreak of that anecdote by conceding the larger narrative behind it: The state did take lots of Indian children from their homes, and the state social services department did expand in the process, thanks to the federal funding that poured in to support each child in foster care. Indian children, as the reporters learned, earned higher federal reimbursement rates for the state.
To the average listener, one without prior knowledge of the issue, the story surely represented the best of NPR’s affecting, seamless style. Sullivan and Walters produced civic-minded journalism, and they did it well. Hence the Peabody, Sullivan’s third.
But that average listener also surely recognized the obvious counter-narrative (which appeared in parts of the story, although without equal time): That the abject poverty and related social ills on South Dakota’s reservations limit the number of suitable Indian foster homes and necessitate greater-than-usual placement of Indian children in foster care. And that the federal money the state receives does aid the economy, but also funds a necessary program. The money — the supposed perverse incentive — is just a byproduct.
As for those Indian parents and grandparents who have watched as local children were whisked away: Do custody battles — or, for that matter, disputes between state and tribal governments — ever concern indisputable facts?
The average listener, if at all sparked by the story, could have found exhaustive accounts supporting either side. The South Dakota governor’s office rebutted NPR’s report before it aired. On the other side, the Lakota People’s Law Project investigated and publicized South Dakota’s ICWA noncompliance (and the perverse incentive) for years.
The listener’s ultimate reaction depends on political philosophy. Either the listener believes that the disastrous legacy of white attempts to sanction American Indian culture (often for profit) means that South Dakota should take its hands off, or the listener believes that South Dakota has every right to step in and save the children, because they’re in such danger.
Nonetheless, NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, proceeded with his report as though NPR’s audience consisted solely of apolitical lemmings easily charmed by evocative audio clips. Schumacher-Matos listed five central “sins”:
1. The reporters didn’t prove their central allegation of wrongdoing.
2. They deployed an unfair tone.
3. They slipped up with some of their numbers.
4. They did not provide enough context.
5. They did not get responses from South Dakota on some of their claims.
In its response, NPR’s news division admitted to sins No. 3 and 5, said its proverbial Hail Marys, and moved on.
They were right to do so. What Schumacher-Matos wanted, apparently, was a relentlessly even-handed version of the story, one in which an economic wrinkle (that the state, rather than a tribe, receives federal money for Indian foster care and medical expenses) would go unmentioned without explicit proof of the state’s systematic abuse — think damning memos, and the like. This hole, he reasoned, was sin No. 1. But the reporters never claimed methodical abuse; they suggested merely that the state had too much power, and that federal financial incentives had tipped the scales too far. The conclusion is less scandalous, but no less valid. And yet the ombudsman frowned upon it.
He wanted a story where the voice of entrenched power (the South Dakota state government) would trade carefully counted lines with poor groups historically mistreated by white Americans. He wanted a piece of journalism that would gaze upon a social problem and would only raise its arms, shrug, and sigh, Well, time will tell. That voice-of-God approach would only weaken NPR’s story.
Save that tone for recaps of the fourth at Santa Anita; it doesn’t belong here. Perhaps that’s because every claim now has an easily discovered and often compelling online antagonist, perhaps it’s because postmodern fiction convinced the world that authoritativeness is just a pose, perhaps it’s because “fair and balanced” has come to mean the precise opposite of that, and balance has little to do with fairness besides.
Who knows? The more pressing question: When will the readers’ supposed representatives catch up with them?