Guilt by Association: The NPR-FOX Connection

Nothing riles some public-radio listeners like NPR journalists appearing on FOX News television programs. Two prominent NPR correspondents, Mara Liasson and Juan Williams are regular panelists on FOX. What bothers those NPR listeners who complain to me is that the cable television network openly espouses conservative opinions as expressed by outspoken hosts. The FOX slogan, "fair and balanced" is deemed by many of the complainants as ironic, to say the least.

That's because NPR makes every effort to remain nonpartisan, and FOX, it appears, does not. Frustrated public-radio listeners tell me that the NPR presence only serves as cover for FOX's claim that it is "fair and balanced." And that frustration is further pumped up by some political blogs, seeking to trash both FOX for being conservative, and NPR for looking like FOX's willing agents whenever its news representatives participate on FOX's programs.

The Abramoff Scandal (Again)

It happened again, just the other day. On FOX News Sunday, for May 7th, NPR's Mara Liasson reported (accurately, in my opinion) that the polls indicate the public sees the Abramoff scandal as being essentially bipartisan even though only Republicans took money from the now disgraced, but once well-connected lobbyist.

The FOX transcript did not initially record it like that. Due to a misplaced comma, it left the impression that Liasson said that both parties had profited directly from Abramoff. FOX soon issued an accurate transcript, but the correction was ignored by two blogs, Media Matters and Think Progress.

The blogs encouraged people to complain to NPR, and hundreds did, many with a surprising level of rancor and vituperation, which was shockingly intense, even in these times of "take-no-prisoners-and shoot-the-wounded" political debate.

The blogs got it wrong because FOX's original transcript was in error. But the blogs, unlike FOX, never bothered telling their supporters about the correction.

The role of the blogosphere in this matter seems worth exploring because while it encourages people to express strong feelings, the level of pure acrimony in this case, seemed to me to rise to the level of hate speech.

What About NPR on Other Media?

At the same time, there is rarely any objection from listeners to NPR journalists appearing on or in other media. Political editor Ken Rudin is a regular on CNN. Reporters Nina Totenberg, Andrea Seabrook and Tom Gjelten, among others have often appeared on PBS.

The few complaints I receive about those appearances are minor compared with the astonishing level of anger, rebuke and personal attack whenever NPR journalists appear on FOX.

The reasons for this are somewhat complicated, but I think it's worth looking into why normally mild-mannered public-radio listeners (if indeed, they are as they claim) start biting the carpet each time a blog points out the latest alleged NPR misstatement on FOX.

First, for many in the blogosphere, the issue is FOX — pure and simple. Many who write to me describe FOX as the "anti-NPR." They say that while NPR represents some of what is best about American journalism, FOX represents the worst.

In a free country, free expression should be a sacred trust. But when the blogs launch a campaign, there is a mean-spirited, venomous quality to the e-mails. Of the hundreds I received complaining about Mara Liasson’s putative error, many were as nasty and as personal in tone as I have ever seen.

Perhaps only three or four of those who wrote to me had actually seen the report on FOX. Those listeners thought Liasson might have made the argument in a less ambiguous way. While the tone of their emails was oppositional, they were reasonable and respectful.

A Journalistic Drive-By Shooting

The rest of the e-mail traffic, however, had all the journalistic subtlety of a drive-by shooting. The reaction to Liasson's statement and other recent experiences with blog-inspired campaign, leads me to an inescapable conclusion: These blogs appear to be making our public life even more crude and vulgar than it has been up to now. I'm sure that pointing this out will likely result in another wave of crude and nasty notes, though I hope it won't.

My question to the bloggers: When will you start running corrections and taking responsibility for your actions like the "mainstream media" you so disdain?

NPR Journalists on FOX? Yes, but…

Directly related to this issue is the valid question of whether NPR journalists should be allowed to appear on FOX or any other media, for that matter. Many listeners think that NPR should refuse to allow its correspondents and editors to appear on FOX in particular. They seem not to care very much if NPR News representatives appear anywhere else.

So the issue seems to center on whether NPR should allow its journalists to appear on FOX. I think the answer must be yes because of NPR's commitment to free speech and free inquiry.

…remain reportorial

But at the same time, its employees need to be reminded that NPR's own ethics guide — specifically section V.10 — is quite clear:

10. In appearing on TV or other media, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as journalists on NPR's programs. They should not participate in shows that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis; that whenever they appear in public, they represent NPR and its journalistic standards and practices. They should not express their personal opinions on matters of public controversy because that impairs their ability to report credibly on those same matters for NPR. NPR journalists have, in my opinion, an affirmative obligation to remain reportorial at all times.

There is a small risk to remaining reportorial. Reporters have to stay reportorial — not become editorial writers or opiners. Not expressing a personal opinion might make NPR journalists less useful to other media — especially FOX, but that is what is required.

NPR's reputation is a good one and should not be diminished or diluted, especially these days when strong opinion is seen as a media virtue and rarely as the journalistic vice it often is.

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