CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Asleep at the Code Switch

Joel Kaplan

April 24, 2014

It seems the people running Code Switch, an NPR project that promises to be a forum to talk about the frontiers of race, culture and ethnicity, has been banning people from participating in their forums.

I reported in January on a complaint filed by Michael Camacho about how he was blacklisted for a rather innocuous comment he wanted to post on the definition of racism.

At the time, NPR's director of media relations, explained Code Switch's discussion guidelines and said that Mr. Camacho's comment occurred early in the life of Code Switch. Since then, she said, there have been significant improvements about how it handles comments and complaints.

Not so fast.

Another complaint, this one from Skamokawa, Washington attorney Chris Vandenberg, is eerily similar to the one from Mr. Camacho:

I noticed that another poster came to you because he had been banned from posting at code switch.

I have a similarly compelling story, which also illustrates how Gene Demby (the Code Switch team's lead blogger) chooses who gets to post in his Code Switch echo chamber.

Several months ago I made a post indicating that the issue of fear needs to be addressed before any real racial discussion will have any positive effect.

Mr. Demby proceeded to not only ban me but to modify my post so that his words chastising me for perceived racism remained where my post had been but my name was left creating the impression that somehow my comment was racist.

I fought this for several weeks finally resorting to threats of a defamation suit against NPR until someone removed the modified post. The irony is that Code Switch itself recently posted a story on the role of fear in race relations, which mirrored many of my comments.

I believe if you look into Code Switch policies you will find dozens if not hundreds of regular NPR posters of all political leanings who have been banned from posting on Code Switch. Search the last six months of the (NPR) Ombudsman's open forums and you will see that Code Switch is a common topic for its poor moderation.

I would like to post on Code Switch so that Mr. Demby cannot censor all dissenting opinion. I hope you will consider reviewing my case so that we can get some real justice from a NPR blog that claims it is fighting for justice.

We would have liked to include Code Switch's response to Mr. Vandenberg's complaint, but no one from the team has chosen to respond.

For six weeks, my research assistant, Antoinette Siu and I sent emails and made phone calls to find out what was going on and to get Code Switch's side of this controversy.

We have yet to receive a response.

But here is what Mr. Vandenberg had to say about what Code Switch did to him:

I do not have the original comment. It was deleted and replaced by a comment from Gene Demby insinuating that my comment had been racist but leaving my signature line, which was tantamount to defamation. I do have the e-mail from Brian Rideout, counsel for NPR, who had Mr. Demby's comment deleted in response of my threat of a lawsuit. I am still however banned as are, at a minimum, several dozen people, many of whom also claim there was no hint of racism in their posts. If you look at the last 10 months of the NPR ombudsman open forum board you will see a lot of posters (including popular ones of all political stripes) complaining about code switch.

The comment that got me banned was in relation to the Trayvon Martin case and my post suggested that no meaningful discussions of race would occur until the issue of fear was addressed by both sides. Ironically, Mr. Demby recently posted a story that was covered on the NPR website that suggested that white fear was the reason for violence against African Americans. Basically, he helped make my point for which I was banned back in June or July of 2013.

I have been considering bringing the matter of Code Switch to the attention of my local congresswoman to determine if Mr. Demby's tyrannical control of dissent on the Public Radio website is within the acceptable boundaries for receiving public funds. So far NPR, the NPR Ombudsman office and your office has refused to make a significant investigation in how Code Switch is moderated. Obviously your conclusions in the Comancho affair (linked to on this months Ombudsman open forum board) is that everything is better at Code Switch now. Several hundred NPR listeners, including myself, would beg to differ.

From my perspective, it would be nice if Code Switch would actually wake up and address Mr. Vandenberg's legitimate concerns.

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