In NPR actions, were all things considered?

Los Angeles Times 19 March 2005
Tim Rutten
Regarding Media

National Public Radio's decision to sever its 21-year connection to one of its most experienced arts reporters has stirred a sharp controversy among some of the networks' longtime supporters and raised questions about how its news operation sets and enforces journalistic standards.

The situation is of more than usual interest not only because it involves one of the nation's major cultural institutions - New York's Museum of Modern Art - but also because NPR is one of the few serious American news organizations whose audience actually has grown appreciably over the past few years. Moreover, as a noncommercial broadcaster supported by public funds, private philanthropy and the donations of its listeners, NPR traditionally has claimed to hold itself to a particularly high standard of transparency when it comes to reportorial standards and practices.

The sequence of events at issue began two days after Christmas, when NPR's signature news program, "All Things Considered," broadcast a report by David D'Arcy on the long-running dispute over ownership of Egon Schiele's "Portrait of Wally." The painting, which now may be worth as much as $10 million, was stolen from its Jewish owner, Viennese art dealer Lea Bondi, in 1939. It subsequently passed under murky circumstances into the collection of Austria's government-supported Leopold Foundation. Seven years ago, the Leopold loaned the painting to MOMA, where Bondi's heirs recognized it and asserted ownership. Their claim was first pressed by Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert Morgenthau and - when he was found to lack jurisdiction - by federal authorities. The painting currently is being held in U.S. government custody until a federal court can resolve the matter.

D'Arcy is not an NPR employee but a New York-based independent journalist who has provided the network with hundreds of reports on art and culture over the years. He also is a correspondent for the Art Newspaper, a contributing editor to Art & Auction and a regular critic for BBC Radio.

From the outset, he has taken a keen interest in the Schiele affair. His Dec. 27 report began with a taped interview with MOMA Chairman Ronald Lauder, who was described as "the founder of the Commission for Art Recovery, which has urged museums around the world to search their collection for art looted from Jewish families in the Nazi era - museums like MOMA."

According to D'Arcy, Lauder said, "If stolen works are identified in museum collections, the priority should be to return them to the families that owned them." Lauder then is heard on tape saying, "It first should go back to its rightful heirs and whatever they want to do with it is their decision."

Later in the piece, D'Arcy asserted, "None of the parties to the case would be interviewed for this report, not MOMA's lawyer, not the U.S. attorneys, not the Bondi family and not the Leopold Foundation. In motions filed in federal court, Leopold's lawyers argue that Lea Bondi waited too long to claim the portrait; that the Nazi who seized it was acting under laws of the then-legal government and that Dr. Leopold [the foundation's founder] never knew it was stolen. When MOMA has discussed the case over the past seven years, the museum has said it's bound by its loan contract to return the painting, and that position is backed by museums throughout the country.. "

The piece also quoted a variety of lawyers and art professionals at odds with the positions of both MOMA and the Leopold and one who supports the museum. One of the critics, Tom Freudenheim - former assistant secretary of the Smithsonian and former deputy director of Berlin's Jewish Museum - said he found MOMA's position "especially puzzling, not only for me because I'm Jewish, but also because the Museum of Modern Art is directed and chaired by Jews, that they wouldn't somehow have some sense of responsibility."

Here, it's worth noting Regarding Media's bias in this matter, since it is the columnist's belief that any property stolen, coercively transferred or expropriated by the Nazis - whether artistic masterpieces or kitchen implements - should be returned to its rightful owners. Now and without exception. The Austrian government's position in this matter is hardly surprising, given that country's history of avoiding confrontation with its complicity in Nazi criminality. As an old Central European joke goes, "postwar Austria's great achievement has been convincing the world that Hitler was a German and Beethoven was Viennese."

MOMA's position is murkier, more an attempt to find subtle footing in a moral landscape that simply won't allow a delicate stance. Nothing in D'Arcy's report, therefore, seems particularly surprising or stunningly accusatory. Nonetheless, it resulted in the termination of his relationship with NPR.

ACCORDING to D'Arcy, shortly after New Year's, he received a call from Bill Wyman, the network's cultural editor, who said he had received a complaint from MOMA about the report. In particular the museum alleged that the reporter had never sought its comment. Ultimately, according to D'Arcy, he was questioned in a telephone conference with Barbara Rehm and William K. Marimow, both of whom are managing editors of NPR News.

As D'Arcy recalls it, Rehm told him " 'there are real problems with your piece.' I was asked why I didn't confront Lauder directly over the Schiele case. 'You made Ronald Lauder look like a hypocrite,' I was told. Bill Marimow said, 'You made these guys look like bad Jews,' while Rehm hissed 'shabby, shabby' in the background. Then they told me I had violated every rule of journalism.. I don't think they accused me of bombing the World Trade Center, but it may have been slipped in. They asked me for all sorts of off-the-record material. Then, they said, we'll get back to you."

A month after the initial report, "All Things Considered" aired a correction to D'Arcy's report, which said that the piece failed to make clear that the painting was not in MOMA's possession, did not report the museum had said it never has taken a position on the work's ownership and that, "finally, NPR failed to give the museum an opportunity to answer allegations in our story about its motivations and actions."

D'Arcy told NPR and, subsequently, The Times, that he repeatedly sought comment about the general issue and the Schiele case. A MOMA spokeswoman, Margaret Doyle, told The Times that the reporter sought comment only in connection with an article on the issue by the museum's lawyer and not on any of the specifics of his report.

A short time later, Rehm again called D'Arcy - this time with a lawyer listening in - and read him a termination notice, which said in part: "In reporting on this subject basic editorial standards of journalism were overlooked such as presenting the facts in a fair and balanced way. In addition the museum was not given an opportunity to respond to the harsh criticism raised in the piece."

D'Arcy's editor at "All Things Considered," Tom Cole, was suspended without pay for one day. Rehm, D'Arcy said, told him that "Cole agreed with all the criticisms and had showed the appropriate remorse."

Rehm did not return calls seeking her comment on D'Arcy's firing. Marimow said, "We looked into this matter and we issued a correction and that's all I have to say."

An NPR spokesman who asked not to identified said the reporter was fired not for the substance of his report but for failing to observe two of the network's reportorial guidelines: He allegedly interviewed Lauder on one topic - the general issue of art seized by the Nazis - then used it in a piece about another specific issue, the Schiele case. Moreover, according to the spokesman, D'Arcy made no direct effort to secure MOMA's response to "specific attacks on its integrity that he intended to broadcast in the piece. NPR requires that the most strenuous efforts be made to do just that and he didn't do it."

Since D'Arcy's dismissal, NPR supporters and art professionals who believe the public broadcaster caved in to pressure from MOMA and reacted disproportionately to its complaint, have bombarded the network with demands for an explanation.

This week, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman, issued a report saying that the network had responded appropriately to the complaint and that the correction was valid. Somehow, he failed to mention that the reporter involved had been fired and the editor suspended.

So much for "presenting the facts in a fair and balanced way."
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