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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, October 18, 2010

Should NPR Ban Its Employees from Political Demos? Yes We Can.

Two pre-midterm election demonstrations in Washington DC are scheduled for the end of this month. Actually they are likely one demo (with the cheeky title of "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear"), but held under the aegis of two cable news liberals - Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Both NPR and the Washington Post have publicly told their employees that they may not attend, unless they are there in a professional capacity.

This has naturally resulted in an interesting fulmination about the fairness of this fiat from liberal bloggers. Arianna Huffington has denounced this in her blog as an affront to sanity...

Jeff Jarvis also takes a whack at NPR for restricting its employees and notes that NPR apparently did not have to ban its workers from attending the recent "Restoring Honor" Glenn Beck rally on the National Mall. Jarvis makes the assumption that the good liberal media employees of NPR and the Washington Post wouldn't be seen dead at a Tea Party party. He may be right.

What is lost in this discussion is the right and obligation of journalists to behave as citizens. Regardless of who pays your salary, you still have the right to vote, participate and think about how you want the democracy to be. Full disclosure: as NPR's VP of News and later as its first ombuds, I also warned NPR employees about not appearing to give NPR's imprimatur to political causes. As the political temperature rises, NPR management is right to do so again.

The complication comes when well known journalists start to engage in politics. They have every right to do so, but a media organization also has the right to protect its reputation as a reliable witness to events. It's unfair, but I would argue that well-known journalists who are known to the public should avoid public affiliations while they are still in the employ of the company. Editors, engineers and even managers who have no public profile may participate but they must not do so as representatives of NPR.

What Huffington objects to is the sense that NPR journalism will self-censor its' reporting in order to achieve some sort of "neutrality."

I doubt that will happen.

The dangerous tendencies in American politics are emerging in their usual full-throated way and sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

I'm reminded of an argument I had when I was ombudsman at NPR. It involved an interview conducted by Terry Gross. She remains one of the finest radio journalists of her generation. But I was critical of her interview with Bill O'Reilly. After his usual bully-boy tactics didn't work with the fearless Terry, he stomped out of the studio. My only criticism was that she continued to ask her tough questions, even though he wasn't there to answer them.

Shortly thereafter, I got a blistering phonecall from Al Franken who berated me for half an hour for not supporting Terry. "You don't understand," said the future Minnesota senator, "Fairness doesn't work. We have to go after these guys by any means necessary."

I hope that NPR employees go to the Stewart-Colbert demonstration, just as I hope there were some NPR-ers at the Beck demo, if only to satisfy their curiosity. Journalists still need to experience what's happening outside the newsroom cocoon. Watching it on CNN is hardly a substitute.

If "fairness" doesn't work, pace Senator Franken, we are in much bigger trouble than we realize.

1 comment:

  1. I am not sure about the construct "fairness." When the media diminished women, there was no "fairness" involved. When it dimnished people of darker hue, there was no "fairness" in it, there was prevailing prejudice.

    There remain prevailing prejudices, they appear from the media in about the same proportion as they appear from the public. Perhaps not intentionally, but prejudice is not always intentional, sometimes it is habit.

    Areas in which prejudical references continue are in mental health, and in disability. Outstanding examples are "the" mentally ill and "the" disabled, perfect mirrors of "the" Blacks and "the" Jews.

    What are your policies on diminishments of this sort? Do you field them, see them, or address them?

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor