It took awhile to get around to it, but National Public Radio has belatedly apologized for airing a slanderous “news” story last year that suggested the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) may have been involved in sending anthrax-tainted letters to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.
When the story aired Jan. 22, 2002, NPR reporter David Kestenbaum suggested, without any supporting evidence, that the TVC might have been involved in sending the anthrax letters. Mr. Kestenbaum reported that the organization “had a gripe with Messrs. Daschle and Leahy” over their efforts to remove the phrase “so help me God” from the oath administered to individuals testifying at Senate hearings. The NPR report included an interview with a former postal inspector about the Unabomber investigation and quoted Planned Parenthood officials talking about their problems with hoaxers sending them white powder in the mail. In essence, NPR was linking the TVC with anthrax hoaxers and a serial killer based solely on the fact it had criticized the senators’ position on the prayer.
Eight days after the report aired, NPR issued a statement that it was “inappropriate” to have named the TVC on the air in connection with the search for the anthrax killer, given the lack of evidence that it had anything to do with the crime. TVC called NPR’s response inadequate, and demanded an apology.
As we noted at the time, none of this occurred in a vacuum. TVC pointed out that NPR’s anthrax smear dovetailed with a Democratic Party public relations campaign against Republicans and religious conservatives. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman had reported late in 2001 that the Democrats were “planning a daring assault on the most critical turf in politics: the cultural mainstream. The theory goes like this: Our enemy in Afghanistan is religious extremism and intolerance. It’s therefore more important than ever to honor the ideals of tolerance religious, sexual, racial, reproductive at home. The GOP is out of the mainstream … because it’s too dependent upon an intolerant ‘religious right.’ ”
At a hearing held last July before a House Committee on Energy and Commerce subcommittee, TVC Executive Director Andrea Lafferty cited the anthrax piece in calling on Congress to end funding for NPR. She noted that, in its Jan. 22 report, NPR took an FBI statement on how to investigate cases similar to the anthrax case and “created a supposition that sounded good to them that Christians who disagree with senators would mail anthrax to those senators.”
On Thursday, more than one year after the report aired, NPR finally got around to issuing a real apology: “No one had told our reporter that the Traditional Values Coalition was a suspect in the anthrax mailing. No facts were available” on Jan. 22, 2002, or since then to suggest that the TVC “had any role in the anthrax mailing. NPR deeply regrets this mistake and apologizes for any false impression that the coalition was involved in this investigation.”
While the belated apology is better than no apology at all, it is simply disgraceful that such a report made it to the air in the first place.