Edward Schumacher-Matos, the ombudsman for NPR tasked with holding the organization accountable on questions of journalistic integrity and ethics, published a lengthy piece on Wednesday evening calling for the network to end its use of the phrase “Redskins” when discussing Washington, D.C.’s NFL team.
“My own conclusion based on the investigation that follows is that NPR should begin to purposefully disassociate itself from using the Redskins or the Washington Redskins on air and online,” wrote Schumacher-Matos.
Internally, NPR has grappled with its own use of the offensive word for months, according to Schumacher-Matos. In on-air broadcasts, journalists at the network have either tip-toed around the controversy or addressed it head on, but have largely continued to use the word in relation to the football team. Since January 2013, the network’s nationally-syndicated programming has used the word 23 times without addressing its problematic connotations, and a further 14 times while either discussing the issue or acknowledging the controversy in passing.
Editors at the network said that the decision on whether or not to keep using the word was the focus of a meeting during the most recent NFL season. “Since the name of the team is the Washington Redskins, we use that in our reporting,” Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes told Schumacher-Matos.
The issue landed on the ombudsman’s desk after Weekend Edition anchor Scott Simon offered up a bit of commentary during a recent broadcast in which he discussed “the Washington football club whose team name I refuse to utter.” Listeners chimed in on both sides of the debate.
Schumacher-Matos appeared to wade into the debate a skeptic, writing that his initial reaction was to argue that it wasn’t NPR’s responsibility to advocate for a name change — even one that he accurately describes as “a racial slur” — but rather to simply report. By the end of his investigation though, Schumacher-Matos concluded that the network should seek to end its use of the word entirely, and offered his suggestions on how to phase out its usage:
The name should be avoided in Web headlines and used only infrequently in stories. Some news stories—not all—should note the name dispute in passing. Other features and analytical stories should continue to directly focus on the dispute and the use of Indian mascots by other teams, as was done this past season. Scott Simon, who has some leeway as a long-time host who also does commentaries, should be left to do what he is doing, as a major voice inside NPR reflecting a Native American view.
If it adheres to its own ombudsman’s suggestions, NPR would be just the latest in a growing roster of national news outlets that have decided to stop using the term when discussing D.C’s football franchise. Sports editors and reporters at Sports Illustrated, Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Daily News, and The Buffalo News have all come out against the name in the last year, while other notable figures ranging from NBC’s Bob Costas to President Obama have voiced their support for a name change. The Kansas City Star has long avoided the word, and ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte has contemplated whether the largest network in sports should continue using the name.
Despite team owner Dan Snyder’s long-standing insistence that he will “NEVER” change the name of the team, the franchise and the league have begun to show some cracks in their façade: earlier this month ThinkProgress reported that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell secretly met with a U.S Senator to discuss changing the name, and the team has retained a powerful group of Republican strategists to try and sway public opinion on the team name.