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What the Rabbi Heard — Or Thought He Heard

by Alicia C. Shepard
Nov 24, 2009

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Radio is a peculiar medium. Many people listen to NPR when they are driving, getting ready for work or making dinner. Few people regularly sit down to concentrate on the radio the way they sometimes do with TV, magazines or newspapers.

As a result, at least half the emails I get refer to something someone thought they heard on NPR. Often it turns out that what they "heard" was different from what was said. But now that NPR provides transcripts a day after a story airs, it is easy to check.

I wish that Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who is executive editor for the Intermountain Jewish News, had done that before writing his Nov. 12 column on "Why I Will Never Give a Penny to NPR." The 96-year-old weekly has been in Goldberg's family since 1943.

Of course, it's Rabbi Goldberg's prerogative to not give money to his public radio station. As for giving to NPR, well, it's not easy to donate (though still possible) directly to NPR because NPR prefers listeners donate to their local station.

But whether Goldberg donates isn't as important as that he gets the facts straight. It's not my job to shill for NPR, but I do mind when someone distorts what an NPR journalist says to make his or her point.

In this case, Goldberg — a regular public radio listener — told me he's "been so upset with the way you report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if they there are two equal sides. I don't think the facts bear that out. I don't know of a single Jewish suicide bomber."

Not approving of NPR's coverage is not a license to distort the facts.

Here's what happened in this case:

A concerned listener sent me Goldberg's column to give me a head's up because he said that the Intermountain Jewish News is widely read in Denver and distributed in Jewish communities throughout the west. Bob Rennick of Colorado Springs questioned Goldberg's claim that NPR was biased in the case of Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people at Ft. Hood.

This is what Goldberg wrote in his Nov. 12 column:

"Last week, the day after the murders at Ft. Hood, an NPR reporter offered this nugget, after informing the listeners that the murderer was a 'devout Muslim' and had increased his devotion to Islam over the years: 'Not that that, of course, can be relevant to this case.'

Exactly how did NPR know that? The day after the shooting, details were very sketchy. Doesn't matter. NPR knew that being a 'devout Muslim' was irrelevant to the shooting."

Goldberg was referring to NPR reporter Tom Gjelten who, along with reporter Daniel Zwerdling, spoke with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep the morning after the Nov. 5 shooting.

The first thing I did was pull a copy of the transcript to see exactly what Gjelten said.

Inskeep asked Gjelten, who began reporting on the story minutes after the news broke, to tell listeners about Hasan. After providing many details, Gjelten said: "We know he was a devout Muslim, took his faith very seriously. We can't say, of course, that that was relevant here."

Gjelten's statement and Goldberg's version of that statement are not the same, and they convey substantially different meanings.

Gjelten did not say, nor did he imply, that Hasan's faith was irrelevant. He just said, as of that moment, less than 24 hours after the shooting, it was not known if Hasan's faith was relevant to the event. I think the rabbi took unfair liberty in the way he rephrased Gjelten's words to make his point that NPR was biased.

Goldberg asked for a copy of the Gjelten transcript. Later, he apologized for not quoting Gjelten correctly but said he still didn't get it wrong. "I did quote his meaning exactly," wrote Goldberg in an email. "I am prepared to indicate that I did not change his meaning at all, and therefore my critique is to be evaluated on its substance."

I disagree. It's easy from this point of view —or even a week after the shooting — to see that it appears that religion was a factor. But it wasn't clear 12 hours after the shooting and Gjelten was correct to say that it wasn't known —at that moment in time —if Hasan's religion was relevant. And Goldberg has it wrong when he maintains Gjelten said Hasan's religion could not have been a factor in the shooting.

Goldberg also took issue in his column with NPR using the term "alleged shooting." It's another example where the transcript could have cleared things up. In three instances where that term was used it was prefaced by Hasan, such as "his alleged shooting" or "the officer's alleged shooting." In this case, it refers to Hasan allegedly shooting 13 people. I will agree with Goldberg that the shooting occurred, and using "his alleged shooting" is awkward at best.

I understand that listeners may incorrectly hear something on the air. I've done it too. But as of August, NPR now provides transcripts for free and makes them available within 24 hours after the story aired, if not before.

So, if you think you heard something that bugged you on NPR, it's easy to check. Go to www.npr.org and search under the show or for a specific story on the website. A link to listen and a link to the transcript will both appear.

Do these two sentences mean the same thing to you?

What was said on NPR: "We can't say, of course, that that was relevant here."

Goldberg's interpretation: "Not that that, of course, can be relevant to this case."

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