NPR walks back “In Defense of Looting”

September 4, 2020 • 10:45 am

A few days ago I reported and criticized an execrable interview on NPR: “In defense of looting,” a summary of Vicky Osterweil’s eponymous book that justified looting as a proper and, in fact, socially positive and equitable response to the inequalities of American society. It was so over the top that many people couldn’t believe it wasn’t a spoof. But it wasn’t. This is how far we’ve come on the Wokeness Express.

Osterweil’s piece has been roundly trounced by others (see, for example, this takedown by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic), and maybe there was sufficient social-media pushback to make NPR think twice. They did try to walk back what they said about the interview. But I’m not that hopeful that this signals a permanent change in their wokeness, for approbation of looting is easily spit out while swallowing the rest of the Social Justice hog.

But at least NPR has had second thoughts. Max Tani, a media reporter for The Daily Beast, emitted this tweet in which NPR’s public editor says that, well, maybe they didn’t put the piece in proper context (the proper context is a wastebasket). I’ve put the NPR editor’s words below to make them easier to read.

Here’s what’s in the tweet and the NPR statement:

It’s not clear what they’re saying here. If the piece wasn’t properly fact-checked, but it was fact-checked, “but we should have done more”, then which facts needed to be checked or challenged? (If you read the NPR piece, you’ll see that the interviewer’s questions were all softball queries.) Nowhere can you find the “false information” that was promulgated either by the interview or Osterweil.

NPR put a caveat at the head of the interview, but it doesn’t clarify matters much. This is what it says:

This story was updated on Sept. 1, 2020. The original version of this story, which is an interview with an author who holds strong political views and ideas, did not provide readers enough context for them to fully assess some of the controversial opinions discussed.

But, not having the original story, I can’t see what has been changed, and NPR really should tell us. Was it just the introduction? In Osterweil’s answers there are now a few words in brackets, but I don’t know if they were there originally, and, at any rate, I don’t see anything obvious changed in the main interview. I suspect they just tweaked the intro, but they don’t appear to have called out “false information” that was spread by Osterweil.  If readers have the original piece and can compare it to what’s there now, let me know.

The last link in the piece above is to McBride’s NPR public editor column, called “‘Without evidence’ is a new catchphrase at NPR.” It discusses how NPR uses the phrase “without evidence” as a fact-check on statements that are, well, unevidenced. It includes this statement, a criticism of Trump, that appears a bit unfair because some people have indeed maintained that Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two men in Kenosha and injured one, was acting in self-defense. What I said at the time, as I recall, was that I’m reserving judgment until Rittenhouse’s trial, but you can’t assert there is no “evidence” that the gunman was acting in self-defense. There are some who construe the videos as self defense, and that indeed, regardless of the motives, to them Rittenhouse did at least “appear” to be acting in self defense. Here’s what McBride says at the start of her piece:

When a reporter asked President Donald Trump for his thoughts on the teenager who killed two protesters and injured a third person in Kenosha, Wisc., Trump said, it looked like “self-defense.”

The lead of the NPR story later that day reads that Trump claimed “without evidence, that it appeared the gunman was acting in self-defense.”

The claim is not about a fact but an “appearance”, and you can’t really say that that appearance was without evidence. NPR was gratuitously criticizing Trump. Granted, Trump should have kept his mouth shut about a pending criminal case, but that’s not what NPR is discussing. But we’re here for the Osterweil piece, and McBride’s “apologia” has a very short section on the Code Switch piece about looting; here it is in its entirety. I’ve put their one admission of negligence in bold.

Last week NPR’s Code Switch team published an interview with Vicky Osterweil, author of a new book, “In Defense of Looting.”

Osterweil’s central thesis: “[Looting] gets people what they need for free immediately, which means that they are capable of living and reproducing their lives without having to rely on jobs or a wage — which, during COVID times, is widely unreliable or, particularly in these communities, is often not available, or it comes at great risk. That’s looting’s most basic tactical power as a political mode of action.”

Code Switch brings the NPR audience provocative research all the time. It’s part of their mission to advance the conversation on race. Osterweil went on to say that looting is insured, that looters target businesses that aren’t rooted in the local community and that the civil rights movement only adopted non-violence to appeal to white northerners. All of those statements deserved pushback.

Code Switch editor Steven Drummond said that the article was fact-checked, but not enough.

“We have updated the intro to this interview to give readers more context,” he wrote in an email. “This notion of looting and the role it plays in the public discourse is a fair target, and we often interview authors who have controversial opinions and viewpoints. We should have challenged them more.”

These three instances reflect how NPR audience members needed more context to reconcile the speech of a news source with the broader truth.

If you look at NPR’s flawed insertion of “without evidence” to Trump’s assessment of the Kenosha shooting and then look at the lack of fact-checking on the interview with the author of the book on looting, a casual observer might see a bias. But add in the David Greene interviews and you see that as a critic, some calibration is required.

It would take more than three examples to declare any trends in who gets fact-checked and who doesn’t. But these examples are a reminder that the audience is noticing. By all means, lean into the politicians and the pundits, and be gentle with the everyday citizens brave enough to open up to the world.

Most of all, NPR listeners need the newsroom to be evenhanded in its vigilance.

This is a pretty lame statement. At the end, they don’t admit they have a bias, merely an attitude that needs “some calibration”. Their one admission of negligence is the statement in bold above. And there is no link to McBride’s explanation in the original interview.

If this is how seriously NPR and McBride take their touting of an egregious article using puffball rather than hard-nosed questions, then there’s no hope for the station.  They have no issue with calling out Trump’s lies and ignorance, but anguish over criticizing someone who promotes looting.

h/t: Eli

16 thoughts on “NPR walks back “In Defense of Looting”

  1. NPR does get some funding from federal granting agencies. Conservatives regularly chafe at this, since they see NPR as being liberal. So some years ago, it seemed to me that NPR began to move to more middle-of-the road programming. They have definitely drifted more to the far left now, based on what I hear when I have it on.
    This fiasco will probably still cause worry at NPR and rightfully so. I am sure the conservatives will not ignore it.

  2. It’s a shame we have to police these Leftish media sources. Although these are minor quibbles compared to what happens on Rightish media sources, these things must be pointed out.

    I don’t know much about “In Defense of Looting” or its author but it occurs to me that someone taking this position did so mostly to make money. An evolutionary niche opened up and an author evolved to fill it. It’s the way of the [literary] jungle.

  3. I think the issue here is about more than fact checking. It’s about the people managing this piece apparently having no independent opinion that theft and destruction of property are bad.

    1. It’s much more. It is institutional bias.

      I recently listened to a program on my local NPR station (KNOW, 91.1 FM, St. Paul & Minneapolis). They had a couple of academic “experts” on the show. They said again and again that they did not condone looting; but then went on to say things like, we need to understand the experiences of these people to understand why they loot.

      Not really. They loot because they don’t respect the law, are selfish, and think they are entitled to take from others what does not belong to them.

      The host hardly challenged their narrative at all.

      Lately, they have “experts” on that laugh at any suggestion of disagreement with their woke line of argument. Literally: They laugh and then just say that obviously this or that woke line of argument.

      I daily feel the urge to pull the plug on my support of the station. But what is the alternative for information? (I do read the UK online journals, e.g. the Guardian.)

  4. … for approbation of looting is easily spit out while swallowing the rest of the Social Justice hog.

    Sweet turn of phrase, boss.

  5. Ideologues more often than not utter pure unadulterated piffle. They “love sect rather than truth” (Petrarch) and/or “are not constrained by scientific rigour” ( Lord something, chairman of Greenpeace UK some 12-15 yrs ago as quoted in the Guardian)

  6. Wood sums up the book;

    “I haven’t yet encountered anyone who has read the actual book, which combines tedium and indecency in ways I had not previously contemplated.”

    1. Well, maybe at least one person has read the book. Isaac Chotiner in the New York interviewed her. It’s a fairly long piece that affords her plenty of space to express her views. Chotiner says relatively little. This is her basic argument why looting is good. Rich people get stuff by exploitation so it’s only justice for poor people to get stuff by looting. She says:

      “To people in a movement getting what they want for free. Rich people get it from the exploitation of people working for them and through their generation of rents and profits, through labor and through ownership of factories and stores. I think that when people loot during a riot, they are solving a lot of the immediate problems that make their lives very, very hard, and they may also take the opportunity to make their lives more pleasurable. Liquor is also really expensive, and it’s often one of the only pleasures people who live in those neighborhoods can actually afford, but it’s still expensive on their terms. And being able to have that stuff for free allows you to have more communal pleasure, pleasures that are totally normal.”

      Perhaps her slogan should be: “Help smash capitalism — steal liquor.”

      1. Rich people get it from the exploitation of people working for them and through their generation of rents and profits, through labor and through ownership of factories and stores.

        Well, we certainly should close all those horrible exploitative stores and factories and rental homes. Free those employees from exploitation! Especially those locally owned small businesses owned and run by persons of color (tons of these in Minneapolis and St. Paul MN), since these owners are clearly traitors to the cause of victimhood. (There is no legitimate status for people of color except victimhood.)


  7. Some NPR stations, at least, are capable of acting quickly and forcefully in connection with the mention of looting during protest demonstrations. Until recently, professor Cliff Mass of UW Atmospheric Sciences did a very popular program on meteorology at KNKX, an NPR-affiliated FM station. In his own blog (separate from the FM station), Mass made a comment on the trashing of Seattle stores by some individuals acting within the larger protest demonstrations: he commented that the vandalism of stores while police stood by without intervening reminded him of Kristalnacht in Nazi Germany in 1938. The very next day, KNKX eliminated professor Mass’ program.

    Three points ought to be emphasized. First, the comment in professor Mass’ blog specifically distinguished between the individual looters and the protest demonstrations around them. Second, the similarities he pointed out—vandalized stores, inactive police—are undeniable. Of course, if facts can’t be denied, those offended by the existence of the facts can try to cancel whoever points them out .

    Which brings us to the third point: a petition, signed mostly by grad students, quickly appeared demanding that the UW fire Mass from his tenured professorship. After a while, the local AAUP issued a statement that opposed the idea of firing a tenured professor, but in a strangely weasel-worded way: addressing the petitioners, the statement concluded: “In a spirit of solidarity, we call on the authors and signers of this petition to reconsider and rephrase their demands related to Professor Mass’ blog posts”.

    In short, the entire episode floodlights the temper of the times.

  8. As I said the other day, far left extremists such as Dan “The Zionists” Arel were bigging up this tripe.

  9. Looting is okay because businesses are insured?

    Even if the damage to business (lost profit) and businesses (property damage) was compensated 100% on the dollar, you just screwed every premium payer on planet Earth.

    Its like arguing its okay to steal a million dollars as long as you only take a nickle from each victim.

    I suppose embezzling is okay too, because there is loss insurance, and bribes are okay because you are just skimming a little from everyone.

    1. Statistically the stressed employees will be harmed psychologically, and the neighborhood will pay for some of the destruction and cleanup. So the looters harm the place they live in.

      That’s more to be said?

      Oh, yes, it is criminal too.

  10. Much of what I’m seeing, reading, hearing is deja vu all over again.

    I’m sure there are many periods in our history in which groups of citizens passively or aggressively militated for change; sometimes successfully, many times not.

    I am reminded of:

    1. Largely passive protests in and around UC, Berkeley from the 1930s on about the US disarmament policy and fascism.
    2. in 1949-1950 over anti-communist loyalty oaths professors were forced to take.
    3. Protests at UC, Berkeley in the 1960s over Civil Rights, Free Speech, and the Viet Nam War. The Black Panther Party, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups participated.
    4.In the 1970s, the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army”) were in the Bay Area of California (first) and Los Angeles, CA later. Their activities included murder, kidnapping (of Patty Hearst) and bank robbing in the Bay Area. Most were killed in a shootout.

    I was too young to be aware of the protests in the 40s, 50s in the Bay Area (born in 1941), but my family and I lived there in the 60s and 70s. We were well aware of the desires and activities for change.

    In this same period of time, protests were going on in many other parts of the world. Post WWII, the world was in turmoil and change was urgently desired. We should not forget.

    However, I am definitely against violence when trying to obtain change. No killing, beating, shooting, breakage, burning, looting, etc. It is never warranted.

  11. I think this was a relatively short experiment in trying to justify riots rather than criticize democrats at a moment when a united front is seen as key. While it’s a pretty low bar, it is at least encouraging that people objected to this line of thought. There is a spectrum of criticism that goes from ‘eating your own’ (every little thing is torn apart just for the sake of it, rendering a group fairly ineffective) to ‘always flatter the dictator’ (the attitude that one sees in tyrannies where any and every action of those in power must be not only considered justified but framed as a good thing.)

    It’s also an interesting illustration of how our society has managed to really decrease incentives for pillaging and plundering because we have created a ‘killing the goose that lays the golden eggs’ scenario. As Yuval Noah Hariri noted, in days past one could raid the richest neighboring village and expect to get something for their trouble, while today, pillaging Silicon Valley would really harm more than help a would-be plunderer. Not too long ago, there was some sympathy for the idea of the ‘just thief’, like Robin Hood or Jean Valjean. But I think today it is increasingly obvious that you’re not at all helping anyone, especially the impoverished, by looting their neighborhoods. To the contrary, they are the ones who will suffer the most. When all of the college kids go back to school and move on to other things, those in impoverished neighborhoods will suffer from a lack of access to stores and resources and a local economy for years, and possibly never fully recover.

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