Over the past few weeks, I've told you about Joe Olivo, the owner of a New Jersey printing company who, inexplicably, can be found spouting right-wing views on TV and radio on a regular basis -- or maybe not so inexplicably, because he's affiliated with the Koch-connected National Federation of Independent Business. When the Supreme Court ruled on the health care law, there was Joe Olivo on NBC and NPR within a 24-hour period; his NFIB ties went unmentioned. A couple of weeks later, he was on NPR again, talking about the horrors of the minimum wage -- and again not identified as an NFIB guy.
Well, Steve Benen (who spread the word about Olivo) e-mailed me this week to point out that Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR's ombudsman, has posted a response to the criticism NPR received after Olivo's recent appearances. I'm pleased that Schumacher-Matos responded -- but you'll see that he's mostly doing so to defend the stories:
...First, some perspective: No one that I know of is saying that the stories quoting Olivo are wrong. Olivo represents just one point of view in them, and his is a legitimate viewpoint. There is no overall right-wing slant in these stories, or a left-wing slant, for that matter.And Schumacher-Matos awfully willing to give Olivo and NFIB the benefit of the doubt:
... Anyone who doesn't think that a substantial number of small business owners -- possibly a majority -- aren't like him in opposing the health care act or raising the minimum wage hasn't talked to many small business people lately....
So, what of how Olivo should be identified? This is a gray area that is a judgment call. Olivo is an active member and a favorite recommendation of the NFIB for interviews, but he is neither an official nor a spokesperson of the organization.Really? The guy is affiliated with NFIB, and NFIB frequently refers journalists to him, but we're supposed to believe that his opinions are strictly his own?
As Kevan Chapman, a real NFIB spokesperson, explained: "Joe is a member of the NFIB Leadership Council in New Jersey, which is a volunteer panel of small business owners who meet regularly to discuss issues affecting their business and report to the state office their concerns. And vice-versa, the state office will brief them on legislative issues. The Leadership Council has absolutely no authority over setting NFIB policy positions, budget, personnel, or any other official activity – it is strictly a voluntary advisory panel operating outside of NFIB's official capacity.
"The NFIB frequently refers members of our organization to media outlets for interviews, but it has always been our policy that they speak for themselves and not the organization. We have many members who are passionate and unafraid of speaking publicly about issues affecting their business, but when we refer one of our members to a journalist it is under the mutual understanding that the views they express are their own."
Accepting Chapman's description -- and I have no reason not to -- there is usually no reason for NPR or the news media to cite the NFIB relationship in such cases. The person is speaking for himself, even if he is put forward by an interest group as representative of that group's viewpoint.
I don't accept that for a minute. I understand it as a legal fiction, but on a real-world level it doesn't pass the smell test. Yet Schumacher-Matos buys it -- and expects us to buy it.
Scuumacher-Matos does write that Olivo
is quoted so much as a typical small businessperson that it rightly raises the sorts of suspicions and questions it has about why. Those questions undermine otherwise good reporting. Turning too often to the same source, moreover, makes a story look old and tired, and hardly reflects well on a reporter's initiative.But that seems to be the only thing he finds wrong with the story. We're admonished not to "turn holier than thou" with "concerns about right wing biases or hidden manipulation by powerful interests or groups."
I'll grant that the stories presented liberal as well as conservative points of view. I won't yield on my suspicion of "manipulation by powerful interests." NFIB has a slick operation. NPR got played.