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

August 27th, 2011 4:04 PM

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.