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NPR’s Ombudsman Demolishes Reckless NPR Series; NPR News Stands by It

From October 25 – October 27, 2011, NPR’s investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan and NPR West producer Amy Walters made sensational charges against the state of South Dakota on NPR’s two largest news shows. They claimed that the state forcibly removed American Indian children from their families and placed them in white families for the purpose of receiving additional revenue from the U.S. government.

The series soon came under withering scrutiny by John Hinderaker at Power Line (see links below to his 6-part 2011 examination). Unbeknownst to Hinderaker and about everyone else, NPR’s independent ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos began his own inquiry into the series about the same time. He spent 22 months examining the reporting of the series and actually went back and re-reported what Sullivan and Walters had reported. The result is a stinging 80-page rebuke of Sullivan, Walters and their editors August 9, in which he characterized the series as “an injustice.” Here is an extended excerpt of Schumacher-Matos’ report summary (emphasis mine):

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.

So, too, is a real-world concern. All sides agree that the preferred alternative is to put Native children in Native foster homes, but unreported is that there is an acute shortage of these homes in the state and nationally. Relatedly, South Dakota courts and social workers often skip the foster care system altogether and use a companion welfare program in which Indian children are indeed put in Indian homes. As many children are put in Native homes under the welfare program as are put in white homes under foster care, according to state records. There is no mention of any of this in the series.

What we hear instead are innuendo and loaded half-truths. Sullivan, for example, says on-air that because of a special needs "bonus" in federal aid, Indian children "are worth more financially to the state than other children." As I show more fully in Chapter 2, the tone and unsupported implication is that the Indians are mere chattel to state social workers. In another part, Sullivan clearly implies that the social workers willfully go on to reservations and "drive off with an Indian child," as she put it on-air. The unmistakable suggestion is that they do so regularly and without a court order. But no proof was presented; the state denies the charge.

[…] [the] series falls so far short in proving its allegations and implications of widespread state abuse that the series, as presented, is itself an injustice.

Even the heartbreaking anecdotal story that provides the narrative arc tying together the series is unsubstantiated. It is based largely on hearsay from the grandmother of the children involved, and not on information from the parents, who were the ones who actually dealt with social workers and the courts. The state Department of Social Services (DSS) strongly disputes that there was any wrongdoing in the case, but this response was not reported. Indeed, we never hear from any parents in the entire series. Nor did the reporters get the parents to agree to make their files public so that we wouldn't have to rely on hearsay. This particular case, moreover, was handled by a tribal judge, not a state one, but nothing was made of this in the story.

The idea that the abuses are systematic or widespread is communicated by the reporter's language and quotes and by the very fact that a three part series is being dedicated to the subject. Host Melissa Block introduces the series with a seemingly stunning statistic from Sullivan and Walters that, unexplored, is left to stand as prima facie proof of large-scale violations. Block correctly notes that Indians make up 15 percent of the child population in South Dakota "but account for more than half the children in foster care." This represents a disproportion of nearly 3.5-to-one.

What the series does not say is that in 2010, the year Block refers to, the disproportion among children who leave their homes — for whatever reason — was great or greater still. In one measurable sample, the Indian-white imbalance was five-to-one for Indian children found to be living with kin receiving welfare. Given that this group of children alone was eight times larger than all those in foster care, Indians themselves seem to be setting a trend of removing children from families.

The high demographic disproportion of Indians in foster care, in other words, proves little about abuse. I show this more fully in Chapter 2. What the disproportions and the large number of Indian children living with kin do suggest, however, is that many Native American families in South Dakota are internally hemorrhaging. We don't know how and why, however. The series doesn't explore it.

Rather than bothering to refute Schumacher-Matos’ findings, NPR News stood by the series and arrogantly merely issued a same-day brief statement critical of Schumacher-Matos’ work, which reads in part (emphasis mine):

NPR stands by the stories.

[…]

In this instance, however, we find [Schumacher-Matos’] unprecedented effort to "re-report" parts of the story to be deeply flawed. Despite the report's sweeping claims, the only source that figures in any significant way in the ombudsman's account is a state official whose department activities were the subject of the series. Additionally, the ombudsman's interaction with state officials over the past 22 months has impeded NPR's ability to engage those officials in follow-up reporting. Overall, the process surrounding the ombudsman's inquiry was unorthodox, the sourcing selective, the fact-gathering uneven and many of the conclusions, in our judgment, subjective or without foundation. For that reason, we've concluded there is little to be gained from a point-by-point response to his claims.

That does not mean the series was without flaws:

[…]

Nevertheless, in re-examining the series, we found the reporting to be sound. The patterns the series identified were well-documented. And they raise very real questions about South Dakota's compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is under review by several federal agencies including the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and by the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Kinsey Wilson, EVP &Chief Content Officer

Margaret Low Smith, SVP News

On August 10, John Hinderaker responded favorably to Schumacher-Matos’ report, saying, “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.” Hinderaker’s excerpted take on the report (emphasis mine):

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 1Slandering the Red States, Part II: An Astonishing OmissionSlandering the Red States, Part III: She Was Promised There Would Be No MathSlandering the Red States, Part IV: The Lieutenant GovernorSlandering 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:

[…]

Theone 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-Presidentand Chief Content Officer, and Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s Senior Vice President for News, say that “NPR stands by the stories.” Which suggests that at NPR, commitment to leftistideology trumps any fealty to the facts.

The charges made by Sullivan and Walters against the state of South Dakota were very serious. The fact that other major left-leaning news outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and even PBS have never touched their story affirms Schumacher-Matos’ conclusion that the case for the charges against South Dakota was weak.

Schumacher-Matos should be commended for not backing down in his long effort. He may have had to face substantial hostility from within, given the curt response of NPR News to his report. Notably silent on the dispute between Schumacher-Matos and NPR News is NPR CEO Gary Knell and NPR’s Board of Directors.

H/T to @TomKattman for pointing out John Hinderaker’s in-depth and early scrutiny of the issue.