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October 29, 2003

NPR Journalists: Pundits or Reporters? Time to Choose

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


On October 10, the normally sedate television program, Inside Washington, had this lively exchange among host Gordon Peterson, Colbert King and Charles Krauthammer -- both of The Washington Post -- and NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg:

NINA TOTENBERG: The problem in Iraq is also that I think that the administration doesn't want to really fess up that there are some serious, serious problems that maybe even they didn't do everything perfectly. I mean, now they've got this guy who was the head of the intelligence section in the Defense Department who is being quoted as telling various groups while he's in uniform that this is a Christian crusade against Muslims who --

GORDON PETERSON: You're talking about Boykin, Gen. Boykin.

TOTENBERG: Gen. Boykin, and this is terrible. This is seriously bad stuff for us.

COLBERT KING: And the other thing about Boykin, he got it wrong. He said, God put George Bush in the White House. It's the Supreme Court that did it.

TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court put George Bush in the White House.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: There were 5,000 yentas in Palm Beach who couldn't read the ballot. If that was not an act of providence, nothing is…

TOTENBERG: I hope he's not long for this world, because you can imagine --

PETERSON: You want a hit out on this guy or what? What is this,
The Sopranos?

TOTENBERG: No, no. I mean, in his job. In his job, in his job, please, in his job.


"Cyberalert!"

The Media Research Center (motto: "Tracking Liberal Media Bias Since 1996") immediately put out a "cyberalert." This is a call to supporters to send repeated e-mails saying how distraught, shocked and appalled they are. NPR has sent out the following note to concerned listeners:

Ms. Totenberg was invited -- to share her opinions as a panelist on Inside Washington, a syndicated television talk show produced by the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., not associated with NPR. During this particular show, Ms. Totenberg expressed her view that General Boykin's remarks would put the U.S. at a disadvantage in dealing with Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere, and that he should be replaced. In no way did she wish any harm to General Boykin. I have attached the Inside Washington transcript in which Ms. Totenberg makes clear that she was talking about General Boykin's tenure in his job.

In my opinion, Totenberg made it abundantly clear that she was not calling for anything other than the resignation of Gen. Boykin. Those who insist that she MUST have meant otherwise are indulging in their usual attempt to demonize her and NPR.

But there is another implication.

NPR journalists often appear in other media -- both print and broadcast. Some of the broadcasts are talk shows.

As is the nature of these talk shows, they trade on opinion and strong emotions.

Expressing Personal Opinions

Frequently NPR journalists speak in public or write op-ed pieces in which their personal positions are expressed, but should they?

The issue goes beyond the First Amendment right of NPR reporters. While no one denies that NPR employees have that right, it becomes more complicated when NPR journalists are asked for their opinions -- not as citizens -- but as NPR journalists.

Personal Opinions and Public Consequences

Whenever an NPR journalist opines in public about issues in the news, the consequences are fraught, in my opinion.

  • First, it diminishes the ability of that journalist to be perceived by the public as fair and neutral. For some news organizations, the expression of an opinion on a news story would be an automatic disqualification for any future reporting on that subject.
  • Second, it implies that the NPR journalist is speaking for the entire organization. Any personal opinion can make listeners question whether ANY NPR reporter could do a fair job. Expressing a personal opinion inadvertently hamstrings colleagues at NPR who are perceived -- rightly or not -- as sharing those opinions.
  • Third, "opinion" is not what NPR is about. NPR is -- and should be seen to be -- about providing fact-based reporting. Opinions and commentaries on NPR newsmagazines are always provided by non-NPR journalists or other outsiders. This is as it should be. Other media may make their reputations on providing strong opinions. But this has not been part of NPR's mission.

Staying Reportorial

There is a danger whenever NPR reporters appear in other media that do not have the same standards of journalism. NPR risks its own reputation by lending its own legitimacy to any media that may practice a different standard of journalism.

The overabundance of opinion, instead of reporting, in the broadcast media is growing, and some NPR listeners fear NPR has increasingly become part of that culture.

NPR journalists should be speaking, as well as writing and appearing, in other media. It is good for NPR and for its journalists, but when they do it, they should maintain NPR standards.

Some inside NPR might construe this as restricting their ability to engage in outside work. NPR may need to reinforce with its journalists that they have a choice between outside punditry or inside reporting.

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or by email at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman 



   
   
   
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