[Update, May 24: After this post appeared, NPR acknowledged Nancy Pearl's conflict of interest in a note that appears at the top of her post at http://bit.ly/NPRconf.]
A librarian doesn’t tell listeners about her financial ties to one of her “great summer reads”
By Janice Harayda
You expect some objectivity when you tune into a report on books by a regular commentator on NPR. You know that authors who appear on a broadcast are usually there to promote their work and gain financial benefits. But you assume that an experienced host or commentator will provide the professional distance needed to maintain credibility for the nationwide network of radio stations.
Think again. The latest meltdown of ethics at NPR involves the librarian Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Lust and a regular commentator for the network. In January Pearl drew fire from independent booksellers when she said she had signed a deal with Amazon to write the introductions and other material for about six novels a year in series called “Book Lust Rediscoveries.” She just made that situation worse.
Today Pearl released on the NPR website and on its “Morning Edition” a list of seven “great summer reads” from among the thousands of books that will appear this spring or summer. And – you guessed it – one of her favorites is the first book in the series from which she stands to make money under her Amazon deal. Equally disturbing is her failure to spell out her conflict of interest clearly. Pearl says coyly on the NPR site that A Gay and Melancholy Sound is “the first book brought back into print as part of the Book Lust Rediscoveries series.” She doesn’t mention her financial link to it.
This lack of disclosure betrays the trust of the millions of people who tune in to “Morning Edition” and other NPR shows. It may also violate Federal Trade Commission disclosure rules. The FTC rules say that bloggers or online endorsers must disclose “the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” Pearl appears to have a “material connection” to Amazon (“the seller of the product” she endorsed) that she did not disclose. And it’s hard not to wonder if that isn’t exactly what the online retailer was hoping for when it signed her to a deal.
Pearl’s failure to tell the full story of her involvement with A Gay and Melancholy Sound seems also to flout NPR ethics codes. Those guidelines note that “partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete.” Pearl has told NPR listeners a partial truth about her “great summer reads,” and NPR should respond by amending its website and broadcasting a correction about her financial tie to a product she enthusiastically recommended. NPR can foster only cynicism about its work by asking people to believe that from among the thousands of books Pearl could have chosen, one her seven favorites is the one most likely to put money in her pocket.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.