Mar 4 2008

Is Critical Journalism Incomprehensible to NPR?

Correspondent mocked Iraqi colleague who asked about immunity

A recent NPR news segment (Weekend Edition, 2/23/08) that dismissed an Iraqi journalist’s question about the pressing issue of U.S. immunity from prosecution suggests that critical journalism may be a foreign language to the public radio broadcaster.

On its website, NPR summarized the segment as a look at U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s Baghdad news conference, which featured questions from “enthusiastic and sometimes incomprehensible Iraqi reporters.”

The lead example NPR cited of such an “incomprehensible” question was actually a perfectly sensible one–posed, through a translator, by a journalist for Radio Sawa, a U.S. government-funded radio station in Iraq:

“A question from Radio Sawa: Yesterday the Iraqi government announced that the ability of prosecuting the Iraqi people, the ability of prosecuting the Iraqis–the American soldiers by the Iraqi people. Do you think your presence has to do with it now, and do you think…”

At this point NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro broke in, saying: “I’ll save you the whole thing. But suffice it to say, Attorney General Mukasey had a difficult time understanding exactly what the questioner was driving at. Mukasey diplomatically attributed the confusion to the translator rather than the journalist.”

While Shapiro’s comment suggested that NPR was “saving” listeners from the inconvenience of listening to the entirety of a long and confusing question, the question was actually only half a sentence longer than the edited version aired by NPR. (The question ended with, “…do you think these resolutions have been conducted with arrangements with the American administration?”)

Nor should this question have been difficult to understand for anyone following events in Iraq; the issue of whether Iraqis could prosecute Americans over killings of Iraqis is currently a major political controversy in that country. A few weeks before Mukasey’s visit, the New York Times (1/25/08) reported that the White House was pushing the Iraqi government to “guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law,” an idea that “faces a potential buzz saw of opposition from Iraq.” The immunity enjoyed by private contractors in Iraq has been debated throughout the past several years, and became more conspicuous after Blackwater employees shot and killed 17 Iraqis last September. Indeed, shortly after Mukasey’s press conference, the Associated Press reported (2/21/08) that Justice Department investigators were in Iraq to research the shooting.

It is, to say the least, convenient that Mukasey would claim to not understand what was being talked about. The NPR segment legitimized Mukasey’s suspect claim to not understand the question, with Shapiro saying, “On the second go-round it became clear that a good translation would not help this question.” In reality, though, two questions from journalists at the press conference followed up on the question of immunity, and Mukasey did finally respond.

Generally, the NPR reporter treated the press conference as a curiosity that showcased Iraqi reporters’ incomprehensibility. Shapiro offered a second question: “Another reporter at the press conference got off to a good start–give us your impressions of the Iraqi justice system–then started wandering afield.” After playing a brief excerpt of the wayward questioner, who was asking about slow prosecution of Iraqi government corruption, Shapiro kidded: “The reporter surfaced for air after for a minute, leaving Mukasey and Crocker wondering where exactly he’d been in the meantime.”

Actually, the question was not long at all, and the questioner–identified in one transcript as being with the Japanese News Agency–got a response from Mukasey, who said, “So far as prosecution of members of the former government, my understanding is that that is proceeding and that in due course.’

The report concluded with some perspective from NPR‘s former Baghdad bureau chief:

“The most important thing that people don’t realize is that Iraqis just have not had a free press for the longest time. So this is such a new thing for Iraqi journalists. The fact that not only can they come out and ask all sorts of questions, but they can come ask Americans questions.”

In an email to FAIR’s Isabel Macdonald, Shapiro defended the piece as a fair characterization of the kinds of questions asked at the press conference. If the network’s justice correspondent cannot fathom questions about the state of the Iraqi legal system posed by Iraqi journalists, maybe it’s not the peculiarity of Iraqi media that listeners should be most concerned about.


Ask the NPR Ombudsperson why NPR responded so dismissively and condescendingly to the questions Iraqi journalists posed to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.


NPR Ombud Alicia Shepard

Email form on NPR‘s website:

Thanks to Steve Burns from Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice for bringing this item to FAIR’s attention.

The US Embassy in Baghdad’s transcript from the press conference is available at The full NPR transcript is available at