NPR Ombudsman Cries Foul on 'Ultra-Right' Label in Norway Story

On Tuesday, NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos reached back to a July 26 story on the horrific shootings in Norway. Correspondent Sylvia Poggioli suggested the shooter, Anders Breivik “once belonged to the ultra-right Progress Party.” Schumacher-Matos lamented the “ultra-right” label, and asked Poggioli to explain herself. He called it "ultra-wrong."

It quickly became clear that Poggioli saw "ultra" extremism in the party's opposition to Islam and immigration. The ombudsman posting including just a few paragraphs of what Poggioli wrote in her own defense. But at the bottom of the page, he posted the whole reply, and her affinity for left-wing rags like the Nation and "far right" labels became really obvious:

Until recently, radical right-wing parties were marginalized and considered disreputable. For example, Norway's Progress Party—of which Breivik used to be a member—was isolated. Its anti-immigrant rhetoric made it a pariah party.

The arrival over the last two decades of millions of immigrants—mostly Muslims—on a continent where the nation-state had been based on mono-ethnic societies, has given new impetus to the ultra-right parties. The turning points were the Islamist terrorist acts of 9/11, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (2004) and the Madrid and London bombings (2004, 2005).

As Ian Buruma writes in The Nation, “this finally gave right-wing populists a cause withwhich to crash into the center of European politics.”

This is what writer Kenan Malik said in a NYT forum on this topic:

Far right parties throughout Europe draw upon two distinct constituencies. The first is a core of hardline racist bigots -- many of these parties, like the British National Party andthe Sweden Democrats emerged out of the neo-fascist swamp and some still live there.The bigots, however, have been joined by a swathe of new supporters whose hostility toward immigrants, minorities and Muslims is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a newfangled sense of fear and insecurity.´The pool of voters for the ultra-right may have been enlarged by disgruntled and insecure centrists and even former leftists, but the parties rhetoric and slogans are an echo of Europe’s dark past -- xenophobia, anti-foreigner sentiment, defense of national identity and what is described as Western civilization.

She further complained that even elected national leaders in Europe are bowing to "far right" concerns:

The fear of Islam and the specter of what they call “Eurabia” has allowed the far-right to claim the high ground -- with considerable success at the polls -- against liberals,accused of “appeasing Islamo-fascists”.

Very recently German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy declared the failure of multiculturalism, and promoted a vaguely-defined notion of “integration”.

For his part, Schumacher-Matos argued that these labels violate NPR's branding as a place for civil discourse: "The confusion over one person's "ultra-right" and what others might call only "right-wing," or just "populist" in this case, highlights the journalistic danger of labeling in politics. More fundamentally, tendentious labeling undermines NPR's valuable role in the nation as a common platform for civil political discourse - at a time that we are in need of it."

He added that a Nexis search by an aide in his office for the terms "Progress Party" and "ultra right-wing" for a month after the shooting. found only NPR described the party as "ultra right-wing." (A little Googling suggests it's not that unique if you add words like "far right," as Time did -- although it wasn't right next to the words "Progress Party.") Schumacher-Matos concluded:

Concerning immigration itself, the center-right prime ministers (European-scale) of Germany, Britain, France and Italy are themselves critical of large-scale immigration and what they call "multi-culturalism." Does that now make them "ultra-right", too? I don't think so. As Poggioli herself suggests, profound cultural, religious and historical sensitivities are at play in Europe — more so even than in the U.S. Using charged terms like "ultra right" would seem not to contribute to understanding these sensitivities. I say this as an immigrant myself.

I could be wrong about the Norwegian Progress Party, but that's the point: using "right" or "left" as convenient short-hand descriptions is slippery because they are imprecise and subject to interpretation. Adding superlatives such as "ultra" is even more so and, in fact, is dangerous.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis