by Matthew L. Schafer
NPR created unintended controversy this week when NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller and Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss sent out staff memos advising NPR staff not covering the upcoming “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” to not attend. Despite the controversy the memo, which was sent on Wednesday morning, has caused, the memo itself is extremely unsurprising from a historical and ethical perspective.
“NPR is forbidding its employees to be curious,” media critic Jeff Jarvis wrote on Thursday. “There’s a big event going on in Washington. It could — just could — be the beginning of a movement mobilizing the middle. But NPR people are not allowed to even witness it.”
The Weiss memo driving the controversy reads, in part:
NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming John Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.
That memo was followed up by Schiller’s memo, which was sent a mere twelve minutes later. Schiller’s memo read similarly, saying:
…No matter where you work at NPR you should be very mindful that you represent the organization… So please think twice about the message you may be sending about our objectivity before you attend a rally or post a bumper sticker or yard sign. We are all NPR.
The backlash from the media blogosphere increased in degree so fast, NPR wrote a blog post to respond to the rising criticism. The Huffington Post went as far to say that NPR was banning its employees from attending. CNN’s Emma Mustich ran with a headline, which reads, “NPR to staff: Stay away from Jon Stewart rally.”
When every “journalistic outlet” is trading in opinion, no news consumer knows who to trust.
This coverage led to wave of retweets on Twitter, as Twitter users responded to the blogosphere. One person tweeted, “What? Ugh. RT @*** NPR bans employees from Stewart-Colbert rallies.” NPR Ombudsperson, Alicia Shepard, summed up the general sentiments, calling them all false. Among others, Shepard highlighted some critics feelings: “NPR is “controlling” the private lives of its employees; NPR made this rule up just for the Stewart-Colbert rallies; and NPR has morphed into a right-wing media organ and doesn’t want its staff attending what will be perceived as a “liberal” event.”
While many gripes have been voiced, Jarvis specifically criticized NPR’s attempts to remain objective. “Oh, I understand the argument: NPR reporters are supposed to be objective and express no political opinion… I say this is merely a lie of omission,” Jarvis wrote. Here, Jarvis’ beef, it appears, is merely just a belief that objectivity is impossible, but this attitude shortchanges NPR’s ethical standards.
“Objectivity hand-in-hand with the dedicated journalists digging below the surface, can create a journalism that is both ruthless, dependable, and defensible,” Lippmann Would Roll suggested this summer. “And while it isn’t perfect, at least it’s attempting to be.”
NPR will cover the Jon Stewart/Steven Colbert rally this month, and it will do so as even handedly as possible. This is not the issue. The issue is that people, especially the more vocal bloggers and media critics, have been quick to cast aside objectivity. Yet, objectivity has been a journalistic landmark. When every “journalistic outlet” is trading in opinion, no news consumer knows who to trust. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the public’s dismal trust in the media.
NPR’s ethical guidelines, which were reflected in Weiss’ email, are similar to the industry standard set by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). SPJ’s standards read, in part, that journalists should “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” Fox News suffered backlash from not enforcing such a policy last year when a producer was caught pumping up a crowd at a Glenn Beck rally.
In light of past events, it seems that the NPR memo is a completely reasonable request of employees. While a similar memo did not go out before the Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor,” there is no conspiracy here. This rally, ran by comedians, is obviously a rally that employees may be unsure as to its classification or whether or not they would offend NPR ethics by attending. Is it political? Is it entertainment? Does it fall into the NPR ethics section titled “Politics, community and outside activities,” which urges NPR employees not to attend rallies?
In the end, NPR’s Sheppard is right, NPR needs to be professional. News organizations have to be. Jarvis responded to Sheppard’s assertion arguing that if NPR truly believed that it was being professional NPR would tell its employees not to vote like the Washington Post. Well, it appears NPR does. Part of its ethics policy instructs employees to refrain from “otherwise engaging in politics.” One would assume this includes voting
Journalism is—and has been—based on objectivity. While the blogosphere provides a great service by injecting much needed commentary free from objectivity, it should not chastise a news organization from enforcing commonly held policies that prevent abuse. Indeed, where would the citizenry be without those policies and organizations?