Introducing Joe Olivo

Friday, July 13, 2012


In the past few weeks, two NPR reporters have interviewed New Jersey small business owner Joe Olivo. What both reporters neglected to note was Olivo's affiliation with the lobbying organization The National Federation of Independent Business. Bob talks to Olivo, and NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos about whether disclosing Olivo's relationship with the NFIB was necessary context for listeners of those stories.

Smog - Held


Joe Olivo and Edward Schumacher-Matos

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [17]

Chet S, comment above: "I think it would have been just good journalism to report the affiliation. Knowing this now makes me a little more skeptical of the statements made by Joe Olivo. I do have to say I was at first pleased that NPR outed themselves with this story but at the same time dismayed at the dismissive response from the Ombudsman."

Completely agree

Jul. 29 2012 10:16 PM
Bonnie Peterson from Houghton, MI

NPR's Ombudsman is cavalier. Has Joe's claim of having 49 employees been independently verified? (now I see this comment has already been posted - I'm glad I'm in good company!)

Also just because the Ombudsman "thinks" Joe is representative does not mean Joe IS representative. Has anyone done a study of what <50 and >50 employee-business owners think, and then ask them again once they are told the specifics of the provisions for employers and employees? I know a small business owner who WANTS to provide more benefits for employees, not less benefits.

Jul. 21 2012 07:45 AM
Doug Miller from 99509

To Robert Vernon: Point taken. I applaud Joe Olivo's membership in associations, and I appreciate your use of de Tocqueville to make the point about freedom of association (and the absurdity of trying to keep association members off the radio). I would note, however, that no one has been defamed. If you go on the radio espousing a position and stating facts, listeners have a right to question your motives and your facts. Interestingly, the law has addressed this issue. Some people are deemed to be "limited purpose" public figures, and given less protection, on grounds that they have injected themselves into a public debate. On the face of it, Joe Olivo seems to have injected himself into this debate.

Jul. 19 2012 01:49 PM
Robert Vernon from Roanoke VA

To dismiss Joe Olivo's comments or attack his credibility because he belongs to a small business association is absurd and disturbing in our public discourse -- especially since he is a bona-fide business owner and not a paid employee of his association. Taken to its logical conclusion, this type of thinking would disallow comments on:
1) the low pay of teachers by any teacher who is a member of the NEA or a local teacher's union;
2) the effect of the drought on agriculture by any farmer who belongs to the American Farm Bureau;
3) the state of the American auto industry by any member of the UAW;
4) the impact of local or state taxes on businesses by any member of a local Chamber of Commerce;
And the list goes on to absurd lengths.

It would seem wiser to be more wary of those trying to stifle debate by impuning the citizen speaker than to defame the speaker him or herself.

Alexis de Tocqueville so admired American's ability to accomplish great things through free association that he wrote the following:

"The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it."

The attacks on Joe Olivo and his membership in a voluntary association of small business owners is an insult to all who give of their time voluntarily to promote a group interest. It is one of the key facets of our unique democracy, distinguishes us from other democracies, and should be celebrated not denigrated.

Jul. 18 2012 08:19 PM
Doug Miller from 99509

Edward Schumacher-Matos, you have opened yourself up by agreeing to be interviewed and by commenting here. And by not really responding to some of the comments made before yours, you appear to be ignoring or missing some of the arguments. Mr. Olivo may not have been a true "leader" of that organization, but he has a title. The title (and the affiliation)raise the odds on bias, because *he* probably attaches importance to these things (even though you apparently do not). His personal interest in the affiliation, the title, and his status as a regular interviewee might even matter more to him than either the merits of the policy position or the potential effect of the legislation on his business. (This may also be the case when an interviewee is flogging a book, but at least we are usually told about the book.) These personal interests might matter so much to him that they would cause him to mislead people about his actual number of employees, or even fiddle with his hiring so that he stays right on the cusp of being directly affected by the legislation. How many businesses actually maintain 40-50 employees over the course of many years? The point of having him on was not only to have someone articulate a position, but also to suggest that there are many employers who will deliberately NOT hire people because they don't want to be subject to the law. This is a particular species of "representativeness."

Perhaps it all comes down to depth. If an interviewee is unrepresentative or has undisclosed biases, then a different interviewee (or perhaps even a reporter) could point that out, if there is time. In the presnt case, for example, even if there are lots of businesses with 40-50 employees, are there other, non-Obamacare factors (such as employment discrimination statutes or the FMLA) that might cause an employer to keep the number below 50? Maybe that point belongs in a wonky policy debate, not an NPR story. Maybe the job of journalism is to alert us to the *existence* of a debate, not to cover the full range or nuances of that debate. Courts and medical journals have different standards for evaluating bias and representativeness, I guess because there is more at stake.

Jul. 18 2012 04:59 PM
Art Hackett from Madison, Wisconsin

By going to a pre screened person for comment, the journalist (I am a retired one) is guaranteed the most important quality in the interview. It will be "black" when the subject of the story is "white." There may be fifty shades of gray on the best seller list but not in the news business.
Imagine if NPR had pulled someone at random, based on, say, a comment from a listener on the show's Facebook page. They're halfway through the interview and the small business person is ranting about how Obamacare is going to bankrupt his or her business. The reporter asks, "Would the subsidies the Affordable Care Act provides, help? "Subsidies? I haven't heard about them? Can you explain?" Terror strikes. The reporter is forced to explain something the subject is supposed to know about. That will be strike one on the bias count. "I guess if there were a subsidy, it might be a pretty good thing." Strike two: The story is no longer "fair and balanced." The reporter has run out of time and can no longer interview someone who can say with certainty that Barack Obama is Lenin's evil spawn. Strike Three. He's just become yet another argument to cut NPR's funding.

Jul. 17 2012 11:33 AM
Edward Schumacher-Matos from Washington, D.C.

Great fun to be interviewed by On The Media re how to label Joe Olivo, even if Garfield's parting shot—"actually he is in the NFIB state leadership, but never mind"--shows lack of NFIB organizational understanding. NFIB officials with real NFIB authority were interviewed in both NPR stories and properly identified. Olivo's position in the NJ state "leadership council" doesn't mean a thing re giving him authority. High-falutin name as way to make members feel they have a voice.

I make some labeling suggestions in my column. All fun to debate—but rather like counting angels on the head of a needle. More important: Should Olivo have been used at all, no matter how he is labeled? No. Journalists should go the extra mile to find original and diverse "typical" voices. Are his views representative? Yes, on health care act, though story itself said the views among small-business people were divided. Were the stories fair? Yes. Unless you like counting angels.

Edward Schumacher-Matos

Jul. 16 2012 07:40 PM
Chet S

I think it would have been just good journalism to report the affiliation. Knowing this now makes me a little more skeptical of the statements made by Joe Olivo. I do have to say I was at first pleased that NPR outed themselves with this story but at the same time dismayed at the dismissive response from the Ombudsman.

Jul. 16 2012 06:23 PM

A kiss is still a kiss. A fact is still a fact, by ommission or commission. When I heard the original package I was startled to find myself rethinking just how bad this could be for small business. However, had I known that this "expert" held the same position for the past 20 years, becoming --in all fairness-- his agenda, I would not have given credibility to his comments. So YES, it does matter that he's hooked into an organization with an anti-Obamacare agenda. Whatever are you thinking Mr. Ombusdman? Your explanation made me laugh out loud. A laugh is still a laugh.

Jul. 15 2012 12:17 PM
Dan from Philly

Why does it discredit a small businessman to discover that he is active with an organization that advocates in the interest of ... small businesses? Is that really a revelation? Yes news reports should mention he is part of the organization - I get that. But wouldn't it be more shocking if someone passionate about the issues wasn't involved in advocacy? Sheesh, what a non-story.

Reminds me of all the attacks on the Koch brothers for spending their fortune on... things they think are important. What a scandal.

Jul. 15 2012 11:55 AM
Robert from NYC

Yeah, Olivo's relationship with the NFIB was necessary to reveal.

Jul. 15 2012 10:29 AM
DonkeyHotey from Internet

Did anyone verify the "facts" that Joe the Printer was asserting? Does he really have 48 employees? Does he actually give most of them some form of health insurance? Is his business growing, so that he might be approaching the need for more than 50 employees? Who does he do printing for, the NFIB and/or the NFIB big members? Is he actually a valid example of a typical small business person impacted by the AHCA? I did not hear any independent reporting corroborating the facts he claimed in the interviews. How does the ombudsman know that Joe the Printer's story is basically true? It might be true, but as far as I can tell all the "reporting" was based on Joe the printers assertions.

Jul. 15 2012 09:49 AM
Michael Sprinker from Chicago

So what would NPR's and its ombudsman's attitude be that it would be OK to interview the same worker at a plant who happens to a local union steward (own time, little or no pay) time after time again without mentioning that worker's affiliation? I think your ombudsman's attitude would be that it would unfair to listeners to NOT mention that worker's affiliation,particularly if they were referred to that worker by a union. After all, we all "know" that all elected union officers think the same (I hope my sarcasm is evident)...

So why did no one think we would not like to know that this "random" small business owner was recommended by the NFIB, was an NFIB state officer,and thus, might be giving the NFIB party line? So he is a "good speaker" and apparently easy to interview with no "uh's, hmm's, well's"). Since when do we only want to hear from those who are never at a momentary loss for words?

To go back to my worker/local union steward example, what would NPR's and most news reporters' (and editors') thoughts be on that? Is a worker's affiliation somehow of more meaning which the audience needs to be informed of?

Jul. 14 2012 04:50 PM
Stephen Hughes from Dedham, MA

In today's political climate, journalist should always make disclosers of all news source affiliations and sponsorships and not give superficial descriptions, i.e., conservative, liberal, etc., and when not known, so disclose that too. It would help us listeners assess the biases / agendas of the sources.
p.s. love your radio show.

Jul. 14 2012 12:59 PM
Brendan Keefe from NY

An example of the good work done by "the liberal blogosphere" is this post from Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog:

It was posted more than two weeks ago.

Jul. 14 2012 12:06 PM
Rick Evans from 02368

@Lew Mills --wrote "You just shuffled away from this issue. You let NPR off the hook--and all of the other news organizations who got this one wrong--by seeming to attribute the error to "rolodex" journalism."

Dude, be serious.

Bob can't FORCE NPR to talk to him. The ombudsman did talk to Bob and dismissed the concern. Bob cannot FORCE the ombudsman to see the problem with treating an affiliate of an advocacy organization as just another little guy on the street.

I suspect Olivo is picked because he can be relied on to deliver a set of well rehearsed sound bites instead of a "like", "um", "you know", "ugh" filled off the top of the head string of random thoughts.

I don't know if Guy Raz refused to talk to Bob but that would be especially disappointing considering Renee Montaigne was recently talked to WGBH's local show Beat the Press after a beach volley ball athlete turned a Morning Edition interview into a promotion for her disposable diaper sponsor.

If NPR which like me I suspect you hold to a higher standard is tone deaf on this issue they need to hear from listeners. I must admit I wasn't aware of Joe Olivo's omnipresence until this segment. But I'll definitely be nicely reminding NPR, Guy, Steve, Renee, Audie, Robert, and Melissa about full disclosure.

Jul. 14 2012 06:57 AM
Lew Mills from San Diego

Seriously? Joe Olivo may be "just a businessman", but the fact that he has been an advocate for decades is completely relevant to his credibility. The story makes it sound as if his decision to hire his 50th employee is his primary concern. But, he is obviously highly motivated to continue advocating against healthcare reform. He would remain so even if his business closed or was sold. It's clearly in Joe's soul.

You just shuffled away from this issue. You let NPR off the hook--and all of the other news organizations who got this one wrong--by seeming to attribute the error to "rolodex" journalism. But it's not just the accessibility of these spokespeople that gets them on the air. They are actively seeking these free publicity moments for their cause. I think that the story that you completely missed is the legions of "Joes" out there posing in these same ways, and leading to the gross distortion of news stories--on NPR and everywhere else.

I've been a "poster boy" speaker for many years myself. But I am always very clear that I am speaking from my personal experience AND as an advocate. I reveal the organization through which I advocate and when there is a distinction between my view and my organization's, I make that clear. Without that clarity, you are corrupting the entire concept of an interview, and of course, diluting your own credibility.


Joe the Listener (Who is actually a very concerned left-leaning liberal, who sees conspiracy in these highly organized right-wing attacks by "everyday people named Joe.")

Jul. 14 2012 02:25 AM

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