Some Initial Thoughts After Reading NPR Ombudsman’s Critique of Native Foster Care Series

I have managed to read at least once all six parts of the report done by NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos regarding the Native Foster Care Series, as well as the Editor’s Note in response to the Ombudsman by Kinsey Wilson and Margaret Low Smith.  It appears that the Ombudsman did a thorough job.  I agree with the general substance of most of his points, although I think the stories would have been excessively long had the reporters included all of the information he appears to think they should have.   I would have settled for factual accuracy and less blatant bias.  Below are a just a few of my other initial thoughts.

The Bunker-Mentality of the Reporters and Editors

I noticed a number of times in the Ombudsman’s reports that the reporters and editors refused to comment in response to his critiques.  The brief Editor’s Note does the same thing, indicating that “there is little to be gained from a point-by-point response to his claims.”  The reason the editors refuse to engage the Ombudsman on any particular points is obvious to me, namely that they cannot do so without looking stupid.  It appears to me that rather than feed the story by responding, the editors and reporters involved are going to try to hunker down and hope it blows over.  Below are a few examples from the Ombudsman’s reports.

They [the reporters and editors] declined to respond on the record to most of the points in this report. (Part 1)

Sullivan declined to answer questions about the tribal judges.  (Part 5)

Sullivan declined to answer my questions as to why the decision-making process was not part of the story.  (Part 5)

The best I can tell — the editors declined to speak on internal processes — the chain of command went along with that framing.  (Part 6)

Why the Breakdown in Communication Between the State and Reporters?  It Is Possible to Find Out.

The rather pathetic Editor’s Note, while acknowledging some mistakes, essentially stands by the series.  One of the mistakes it did acknowledge was the following:

“When it became evident during the course of our reporting that the state was assuming an adversarial posture, we should have taken extra care to reflect the state’s position through other sources.”

The back story to this is that reporters Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters had one singular interview with state officials Kim Malsom-Rysdon and Virgena Wiesler.  The state officials came away from that interview believing that the reporters were just looking for a story, not the truth.  No further interviews with state officials occurred, and it is clear that, since the stories aired, the State has given the NPR reporters (not Ombudsman) the cold shoulder.  The NPR reporters essentially blame a lack of cooperation by the State for their inaccurate information (which is still a really bad excuse), and the State blames bias by the NPR reporters.  The quote below from Part 4 of the Ombudsman’s report shows these differences.

NPR said the state declined repeated requests for follow-up interviews, did not answer detailed questions submitted by email, told its foster care contractors not to cooperate with NPR and did not offer any satisfactory explanations for federal reimbursements.

Malsam-Rysdon denies this. “Her claim that we wouldn’t provide a clear breakdown of budget and expenses is an outright lie,” she wrote me. “We answered all budget and other questions she asked, and our state’s Bureau of Finance and Management provided all budget information she requested, and this is supported in e-mail. I’ve asked her to provide a specific list of questions she asked of DSS that she claims weren’t answered.”  

The Ombudsman concludes that “I cannot judge who was at fault for the breakdown in communications between the NPR reporters and the state.”  Well, given the right information, which exists and is in the reporters’ possession, doing so is likely possible.  There are two very easy ways to find out what really happened:

  1. Release the interview recording.  Sullivan’s lone interview with state officials was recorded.  Release it for the world to hear.  Then we can judge for ourselves whether the reporters were being fair in their questioning.  My understanding, from an in-person conversation I had with Laura Sullivan, is that releasing unedited interview recordings is against NPR policy.  My response is this: If the person being interviewed claims bias by the reporters, and wants the recordings released, NPR should not hide behind this policy to protect itself.
  2. Release any questions asked by email.  If the reporters asked questions via email that were not answered, then they should have those emails.  The burden of proof for this allegation is on them, as the evidence to support their accusation is completely under their control.  The State cannot do anything to prove that emails were not sent.

My strong suspicion is that it was obvious from the get-go that the reporters were not in search of the truth and we using the interviews with state officials as a way to get quotes for their hit piece.  If so, they should expect to be told to get lost, or some less civil variation thereof.  I also very much doubt that emails with legitimate questions went unanswered.

Release Forms Would Not Have Allowed the Release of Records 

One glaring inaccuracy that I noticed in the Ombudsman’s report was a statement by the Governor’s spokesman Tony Venhuizen which suggested that records in the Howe case could be released if the adults involved signed releases.  This inaccuracy was really by someone being quoted, not the Ombudsman himself.  The following quote is from Part 2:

Tony Venhuizen of the governor’s office, however, insisted to me that “all court processes were followed” in the Yellow Robe case. This much, at least, should have been reported. To be able to respond with more detail, Venhuizen said, the state needed that signed release of confidential state records by the family. He added: “We welcome Ms. Howe (the grandmother) and the other individuals who spoke to Ms. Sullivan to waive the confidentiality of their records.” Sullivan has not responded.  

Even with a release from the adults involved, information in an abuse and neglect case must still be kept confidential pursuant to SDCL 26-8A-13.  In this previous post, I advocated for changing this law to allow for the release of some information if a parent signs a waiver.  I also advocated in favor of opening court hearings in abuse and neglect cases to the public.  Neither has happened yet, and either is possible with the right state legislation, which should be pursued in the upcoming legislative session.