by Eric Boehlert
Smart newsrooms develop an ethics code to help journalists do their jobs well, and to create clear lines of demarcation for when inevitable conflicts arise. To its credit, National Public Radio operates under a wide-ranging ethics code that leaves little doubt about how its journalists should conduct themselves.
And yet still, NPR finds itself struggling with the evergreen controversy that surrounds Mara Liasson and Juan Williams, two well-known NPR voices who regularly appear as commentators on Fox News. Last week Politico reported that NPR news executives approached Liasson and asked her to re-think her weekly Fox News appearances. (She declined to cut her contractual Fox News ties.) And in February, the same NPR bosses asked that Williams no longer be identified as an NPR journalist when he appeared on The O’Reilly Factor.
If NPR bosses don’t want the network’s name associated with The O’Reilly Factor, and if they asked Liasson to re-think her Special Report and Fox News Sunday appearances, then that confirms there’s a problem that ought to be resolved. Why else would the issue keep popping up? And the problem is this: A thoroughly respectable and professional operation like NPR has no business associating itself with Fox News these days, by lending its status and credence to an utterly irresponsible enterprise like the one Roger Ailes is running. Consequently, by continuing the association, NPR is doing real damage to its brand and its hard-earned credibility.
The need for action is confirmed by NPR’s own ethics code, which specifically spells out why the Fox News-type of alliance is such a bad idea. And yet, at least publically, NPR executives continue to duck the matter. I’m not sure what all the dithering is about, the issue does not appear to be that complicated.
NPR’s association with Fox News has been a thorn in the radio network’s side for years. From NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, Dec. 8, 2009:
Barely a week goes by without my office getting an email or phone call insisting that NPR tell Mara Liasson or Juan Williams that they should not and cannot appear on Fox News.
And from then-NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, May 15, 2006:
Nothing riles some public-radio listeners like NPR journalists appearing on FOX News television programs.
Maybe if we turn the tables slightly and look at the conflict from a different perspective, the picture will come into sharper focus.
Imagine this scenario: What if NPR currently did not have an association with Fox News and Ailes’ team reached out to public broadcasting in 2009, the year Fox News co-sponsored political rallies, promoted partisan conservative PACs on the air, backed hosts who attacked the president of the United States as a racist and a socialist and a communist and a Nazi, passed off a Republican Party press release as its own research (typo and all), and featured a sister website that regularly cheered "Victory!" whenever an Obama initiative failed. Given that media landscape in 2009, would NPR executives today think it would perfect make sense to begin aligning itself with Fox News?
In the year that Fox News seemed to proudly obliterate any barrier between journalism and politics as it morphed into the de facto media engine driving conservative politics, invited fringe conspiracy theorists on air, declared itself the "voice of the opposition," and promoted violent political rhetoric, would executives in charge of protecting NPR’s brand and credibility be willing to now begin associating their network with Fox News?
I seriously doubt it.
And yet today, NPR remains publically, and stubbornly, aligned with an organization that makes a mockery of NPR’s own ethical standards, a cable outlet whose employees would be summarily fired from NPR for the seemingly countless and chronic journalism transgressions they make.
The roiling controversy seems to represent a clear case of how the media players have changed dramatically in recent years, yet NPR’s leadership has failed to adjust. I don’t think there was anything wrong with Liasson or Williams signing on to be contributors with Fox News back in its early days, during the Bill Clinton’s second term. At the time, Fox News was truly a right-leaning news organization. Meaning, it framed the news from an obvious conservative perspective, and it employed conservative hosts such as Bill O’Reilly. But the Fox News that Liasson signed on with 12 years ago is virtually unrecognizable to the overtly partisan and chronically deceitful Fox News that broadcasts today, acts more like the RNC than NBC, and which no longer even qualifies as a legitimate news organization. (Read 30 reasons why.)
That’s what’s changed. And while I’m not surprised that Liasson and Williams want to maintain their high-profile, well-paying TV jobs (TV always trumps radio on the Beltways’ celebrity totem pole), Fox News’ radical new direction this year means the sweetheart deals it’s offering the NPR personalities not only continue to do real damage to NPR’s reputation, but they clearly violate NPR’s ethics code.
Indeed, it’s not even close.
Public broadcasting guidelines clearly state that when appearing on outside programs "journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist." And, "They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis."
The NPR ethics code, written "to protect the credibility of NPR’s programming by ensuring high standards of honesty, integrity, impartiality and staff conduct," also forbids NPR journalists from participating in appearances that "may appear to endorse the agenda of a group or organization." Is there any independent viewer still watching Fox News today who thinks it does not endorse a political agenda? Its on-air hosts help raise money for GOP PACs, for crying out loud.
According to the ethics code, the solution to such transgressions is quite simple:
Permission for such appearances may be revoked if NPR determines such appearances are harmful to the reputation of NPR or the NPR participant.
How is being so publically associated with wildly partisan and habitually irresponsible Fox News not harmful to NPR’s reputation? Or to put it another way, does anyone think that being aligned with Fox News today helps NPR’s reputation? Yeah, me neither.
According to Politico’s reporting, when recently confronted about her Fox News appearances, Liasson claimed that because she appeared on "serious" news programs and not the heavily opinionated ones, her pundit job shouldn’t cause NPR any problems, and that, by extension, there was nothing wrong with her cashing Fox News checks and allowing the channel to buy her NPR status each week.
But that’s an awfully narrow, naïve, and convenient reading of the situation. Liasson is part of the Fox News family. Period. For instance, Liasson appears on the Fox News website as a "Fox News contributor," not as "Fox News contributor to the sorta/kinda serious shows." The only way she’d really be able to defend her continued alliance would be to argue that Fox News in its entirely (i.e. Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity) is a serious endeavor worthy of NPR’s status. But if Liasson can’t defend all of Fox News, then her half-pregnant approach (i.e. she’s only employed by a tiny portion of Fox News) just doesn’t fly.
And by the way, the fact that Juan Williams is now an NPR "news analyst," rather than a full-time staffer, does not solve the radio network’s quandary. Being a news analyst under contract does not mean that Williams’ regular appearances on Fox News don’t pose an ethical problem, because according to NPR’s guidelines, free-lancers like Williams must also adhere to the network’s ethical standards:
The code also applies to material provided to NPR by independent producers, member station contributors and/or reporters and freelance reporters, writers, news contributors or photographers.
And what if a non-staff contributor violates the code of ethics? NPR has the option simply to stop using that person in the future:
Because contributors in this category are not NPR employees, the remedy for dealing with a conflict of interest or other violation of the principles of this code is rejection of the offered material or of any future programming proposals similarly affected by the conflict or other violation of the ethical principles. NPR may also terminate any ongoing contract with the freelancer.
I admit that the ongoing Fox News controversy is a thorny one for NPR. But it’s really a political mess, not a journalistic one. Meaning, if the simple question before NPR executives revolved around whether associating with Fox News caused harm to NPR, and whether it ran afoul of the network’s ethics code, the answer, I think, is quite obviously yes. And if that were all there was to the story, I think NPR leaders would move quickly to end the associations given how Fox News has transformed itself in 2009 into a purely partisan entity and not one that still adheres to traditional journalism standards.
However, anything having to do with Fox News and the partisan debate about its obvious failures means NPR bosses are really wrestling more with a political problem. Because if they forbid Liasson and Williams from regularly appearing on Fox News, NPR would have to deal with the wrath of the right-wing noise machine and right-wing foot soldiers who would no doubt descend (electronically and perhaps even physically) on NPR and raise holy hell. And let’s face it, that’s not a pleasant scenario to contemplate, especially when the previous Republican administration launched a federal crusade to rid public broadcasting of its alleged liberal bias; a crusade that came with it the implicit threat of funding cuts.
But for the sake of NPR’s long-term health and reputation, the network’s signal callers need to face that right-wing mob and do what’s right according to the ethics code. NPR needs to cut its ties with Fox News.