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Praising And Criticizing The American Red Cross

People receive free food from the American Red Cross in the heavily damaged Rockaway neighborhood on Nov. 14, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
People receive free food from the American Red Cross in the heavily damaged Rockaway neighborhood on Nov. 14, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City.

NPR does not owe it to humanitarian agencies such as the American Red Cross to laud their efforts. What NPR owes is to report fair, accurate and complete news to the American people.

But humanitarian groups are part of that public and are crucial to the social fabric of the nation. We as a people especially appreciate the work by selfless volunteers who bring relief in the wake of disasters. Many of us have pitched in to help in our communities, and even overseas. The volunteers are us, or at least who many of us want to be.

This is one reason why stories about volunteers are a staple of NPR and the rest of the news media.

But NPR's greater responsibility remains to tell all the news, including when it is critical of volunteer agencies. This was the case in the reporting on the relief efforts in New York, New Jersey and the surrounding East Coast following the hammering from Hurricane Sandy.

The New York news media and local officials were critical of the slow response by the American Red Cross in the first days after the storm hit. Relief trucks and goods were available but not deployed. Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro publicly charged that the organization's response was "an absolute disgrace." He even went so far as to say "do not donate to the Red Cross."

NPR did not directly report on the criticism, but the disillusionment made its way into aired statements by storm victims, even after the Red Cross had jumped into gear and thousands of its volunteers tirelessly braved miserable conditions to distribute food, water and needed goods. Molinaro and other critics then changed to praise the efforts.

I am reminded of the tension between good works and reporting by this letter that came from Sharon Canclini of Arlington, Texas. She was one of those who traveled across the country to give of herself to help the people of New York:

I spent last week as an American Red Cross Nurse responding to the call for assistance for the Super Storm Sandy.

I spend my days walking up down dark stairwells checking on residents, seeking out those who will not present at feeding trucks or in shelters. I drove into places I have never known looking for people so I could report back to relatives in other areas of the country that loved ones are safe and well. I got up early and went to bed late, I missed meals and gave away what food I had packed in to those even hungrier than I. My work is voluntary and is supported by my employer who made arrangements to cover for me while I was away. I am just one of the thousands of volunteers that are trying to assist those in need. Helping in any disaster is a difficult task. It is conducted at the ground level and it is slow and challenging work.

I tell you this because in a report this morning a storm victim said 'the American Red Cross is nowhere to be found' and the reporter left the story with that ending. I would appreciate it if NPR would add some balance to the reporting. The Red Cross and many other agencies are working diligently to meet the needs of the many thousands of people impacted by this storm. Please help the needy citizens find a measure of hope by balancing your reporting with the facts.

Reports that focus on the negative experiences of some surely discourage those who are trying to recover and move on. Likewise, these stories discourage those of us who are doing our best to help. Perhaps the reporter could have directed the person interviewed to any of the many shelters, mobile hospital units, feeding stations, and response events situated all over the impact area. I am sad and discouraged by the reporting of the negative!

I have to admit that the first part of her letter moved me to tears. I am a soft touch for selfless sacrifice. I also admire her employer, whoever it might be. But I also have to say that upon reviewing the story and all the NPR coverage, I found it to be far, far more positive than negative about the Red Cross.

Intern Laura Schwartz of my office pulled together the nearly dozen stories that mentioned the Red Cross relief efforts on NPR's main shows in the three weeks after the hurricane hit. You can find the excerpts here. On Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan even did a lengthy one-on-one interview with Anne Marie Borrego, the relief agency's director of media relations.

Following, meanwhile, is the excerpt that offended Canclini. It is from a Nov. 16 story on Morning Edition by Mara Liasson in which the reporter followed President Barack Obama to New York. Along the way, she met with a displaced New Yorker. Here is the bottom half of the story:

LIASSON: Mr. Obama met with first responders and talked to families who came to a supply tent run by New York City. Melanie Portamani lives, or at least she used to live, just a few blocks away. She came to pick up some cleaning supplies and food. She said her home was uninhabitable.

MELANIE PORTAMANI: It's standing but it's gone.

LIASSON: Where have you been living?

PORTAMANI: We were on a waiting list for a hotel, but we're staying at friends. There's no hotels available.

LIASSON: And she's not satisfied with the government's response.

PORTAMANI: Still waiting on FEMA. Red Cross is nowhere to be found. I think I got a package of tissues from Red Cross. That was about it.

LIASSON: What do you want to say to the president today?

PORTAMANI: We need help and he should have been here a long time ago. This is, you know, it's almost three weeks now and we haven't got nothing.

LIASSON: Presidents can be judged harshly if they fail to respond properly to a natural disaster. In his remarks yesterday, Mr. Obama seemed to acknowledge there have been shortcomings.

OBAMA: It's not going to be easy. There is still going to be, believe it or not, some complaints over the next several months. Not everybody's going to be satisfied. I have to tell you, the insurance companies and some of the other private sector folks who are involved in this, we need you to show some heart and some spirit in helping people rebuild as well.

LIASSON: The rebuilding effort is already underway. Yesterday the president announced that his housing secretary, Shaun Donovan, will be the point person for long term recovery and rebuilding in the region. Donovan is familiar with the area. He's the former head of the New York City Housing Department.

I sympathize with Canclini's compliant, but the offending quote is a minor part in a much larger story and reflects the genuine frustration by Portamani, which should be reported. The positive focus on the Red Cross is in the many other stories and got much more time on NPR. As it, too, should have.

As a New Yorker, I wish to deeply thank Canclini for her generosity and sacrifice. I used to live in Texas, and while I don't recommend that any place go through what New York and New Jersey did, I hope that I might return the favor if ever Texas needs it.

Intern Laura Schwartz contributed to this post.

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