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NPR: we are not an ad agency for domestic drones

NPR isn’t going to sit idly by while critics call a news story on domestic drone use “much more akin to a commercial for the drone industry.”

“Just because you don’t like the subject of a story doesn’t mean that the story was wrong,” responds NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos to Glen Greenwald’s Salon takedown of Brian Naylor’s report on police drones.

The December 5 All Things Considered piece was titled “Look, Up In The Sky! It’s A Drone, Looking At You.” Naylor reviewed industry videos that push drones as a way to pursue crime suspects or search for missing persons.

One company, AeroVironment, brands its unmanned air device The Qube, “and while it may look like something kids would look for under the Christmas tree, it’s no toy,” Naylor’s report observed.

The story did quote someone from the Center for Democracy and Technology expressing privacy worries, and mentioned that the Federal Aviation Administration will have to establish flight standards for the gadgets.

All these devices “have some people a little wary,” Naylor noted.

None of this assuaged Greenwald’s concerns:

So NPR listeners heard for 4 1/2 minutes about the wonderful, exciting uses of drones from an executive of a drone corporation, an official with the drone industry, and a sheriff’s spokesman using drones, and then for about 10 seconds at the end from someone who is “a little wary.” If the drone industry had purchased commercial time on NPR, how would this report have been any different?

Some NPR listeners have also protested the story. Naylor has posted his own response. “I was surprised at the amount of criticism this story drew on the blogosphere,” he says:

I think much of it is because it didn’t reflect the view, apparently held by those who found fault with the story, that civilian drone use poses an existential threat to our liberties. I don’t know if that’s the case, and I don’t know if anyone does, since relatively few (less than 300) are in actual use.

The idea behind the piece was this; while we’ve all been made aware of the growing use of drones by the military and CIA overseas, drone use is something relatively new within the US. (By the way, these are small, maybe a bit bigger than model aircraft, and only weigh a couple of pounds, a fraction of the size of those used by the military…which I  pointed out in the story, but I’m not sure if our photo corresponded.)

So I thought it would be informative to detail how those in the industry see their potential use. I was surprised, as I venture most of our listeners were, just how many potential applications there are for these things, everything from crop dusting to pipeline inspecting to search and rescue uses.

Of course I interviewed someone, in law enforcement, who has had firsthand experience operating one. And I then raised the concerns about the privacy questions regarding widespread use of drones. I reject that the issue was somehow glossed over. There were two, admittedly short, sound bites, which touched on how drones could be used in all manner of potentially troublesome ways. That those concerns came at the end of the story doesn’t mean they were an afterthought. In fact, in radio, what comes at the end of the story is often what listeners most remember.

So I reject the idea that this was a long commercial for the industry. In my mind it was an objective, informational piece about an issue most of our listeners were probably unaware of, presenting the facts, and raising important questions. Just what we aim to do here at NPR.

But Greenwald clearly sees NPR’s mission differently.

“While one can certainly envision how drones could perform legitimate police functions,” his commentary concludes, “the importation of instruments like drone technology into domestic police activities raises a slew of profound questions, and there is one thing we can be certain of: establishment media outlets like NPR will do their best to obscure and belittle those questions while glorifying these weapons. That’s what it means to be the ‘establishment media’.”

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