NPR's Michele Norris and the Burden of Proof

All Things Considered's Michele Norris was on NPR during the election campaign. But she was not doing any politics. She did mostly nonelection stories — a lot of them. A number of listeners and colleagues wondered why.

The reason was simple. Norris' husband, Broderick Johnson was a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign. For that reason, NPR management decided that Norris should not do any political interviews.

Norris accepted the decision without complaint. She supports NPR and All Things Considered and did what she was asked to do — or not do — for the benefit of the program.

But with the campaign over, Norris has begun to express doubts.

No Bumper Stickers

"When I worked for ABC News or The Washington Post, Broderick was never a problem," she says of her husband. "We have separate checking accounts and we drive my car — the one without the bumper stickers — when we go to church. We are very careful to follow the rules."

In fairness to NPR, Johnson was not working for a presidential candidate while Norris worked for The Washington Post or for ABC.

But when her husband started working for Sen. Kerry, Norris told All Things Considered and NPR management about her husband's job before the campaign began. Management's decision not to let her do any political stories was acceptable to her at the time.

After all, with the media under scrutiny for the slightest sign of liberal bias, it made sense to avoid any appearance of partisanship.

But after several weeks, Norris says, many NPR co-workers and other media colleagues began asking why she was not on the air covering what she loves — politics. Non-election interviews were left to Norris, while her colleagues Melissa Block and Robert Siegel were directly involved in the campaign coverage.

Should NPR Have Been More Open?

"I wonder if we should have been more open with the listeners and with my co-workers at NPR about why this had happened," Norris says.

Doubts have never been raised about the quality of her work, Norris says. Her reputation has always been beyond reproach. But she wonders if professionalism is no longer enough. And if it isn't, what does that say about the defensive crouch we are now forced to assume?

Christopher Turpin, the executive producer of All Things Considered, says the decision to keep Norris away from political interviews had nothing to do with her journalistic skills. NPR not only must be fair, but it must be seen to be fair as well, Turpin says, explaining the decision.

'Make the Same Choice'

"If I had to do it over again," he says, "I would make the same choice, although it was an extremely hard decision to make. Norris is a great journalist, and I trust her implicitly to do a solid job in any story she does."

Chris also mentioned that NPR's ethics code (See link below) is very clear about such situations. He also believes that other media follow the same principles.

The NPR code states, in part:

... All of us are in positions of trust when it comes to both our audience and the people and institutions that we cover. To maintain that trust requires that there be no real or perceived overlap between the private interests and opinions of NPR journalists and their professional responsibilities.

... An employee covered by this code has the responsibility to disclose potential conflicts of interest...

Turpin goes further. He says that NPR has an obligation to ensure that its journalism is credible and, at the same time, to ensure that its journalists are protected from the accusations of bias that inevitably arise, especially during election campaigns.

"I think the listeners are best served by understanding that we take seriously our responsibilities and our obligations to be fair, even when it may be a disadvantage to us," he says. "Not having Michele available to do political stories was an enormous disadvantage to All Things Considered.

A Very 'Washington' Dilemma

This situation illustrates a dilemma common to many newsrooms, but which is most often found in Washington, D.C., where personal relations often flower amidst the journalistic and political worlds.

Journalists are responsible for their own beliefs and careers and their ability to balance the two. But are journalists obliged to take responsibility for the ideas, opinions and careers of their spouses and partners?

In the interests of full disclosure, should All Things Considered have aired the reason why Norris was not doing, for example, an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney?

At a certain point, complete disclosure becomes absurd. Some journalists may feel uncomfortable doing certain stories because of personal connections. In such cases, they can and should recuse themselves and ask that another journalist take over the story.

Management also has the right to reassign a journalist if his or her personal beliefs are public knowledge.

Judged on the Journalism

But journalists also are assumed to be professionals and they must be judged primarily on their ability to produce good journalism.

I sympathize with Turpin's tough choice, and if I were in his shoes I'm not sure I would have handled it much differently.

But I worry that news organizations will in effect censor their own journalists because of what their partners and spouses do. It is dangerous because it implies that journalists are incapable of good journalism because of what their spouses and partners believe.

In my opinion, the final product should be the evidence. If there is a failure of journalism, it will soon be obvious. If there is no evidence of bias on the radio, the journalists should be allowed to get on with their jobs.

Let management — and the ombudsman — worry if a listener thinks that all journalists must share the same opinions as their spouses.

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