The Katrina Analogy: A Real Clunker : NPR Public Editor NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson went too far on Fox News when she equated problems with the Cash for Clunker program to a "mini-Katrina." That reflects poorly on NPR.
NPR logo The Katrina Analogy: A Real Clunker

The Katrina Analogy: A Real Clunker

By many measures, the Cash for Clunkers is a wildly successful government program. It is a stimulus plan at work. People are buying cars and trying to reduce carbon emissions.

Yes, the program has had a few hiccups but only because it is more successful than anyone envisioned. The $1 billion approved by Congress was supposed to last until Nov. 1 but was gone after a few days due to high demand. Now Congress intends to add another $2 billion.

It's hardly a disaster of Hurricane Katrina proportions in terms of government incompetence.

But that is what NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson said on a live Fox News "Special Report" Tuesday. She was reacting to a video clip of a woman in Philadelphia telling Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) that if the government can't run the clunker program, how could it possibly handle the health care industry?

To watch, click here.

"I thought that woman actually asked a pretty legitimate question. Cash for Clunkers is like a mini-Katrina here," Liasson said. "It's not good to start a government program and not be able to execute it."

Say what?

Nearly 2,000 people died and thousands more were injured or lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Bush administration's inability to help hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans after Katrina is considered one of the greatest recent examples of government incompetence.

It is inconceivable anyone could compare that disaster to Cash for Clunkers, which simply gives people a voucher worth up to $4,500 to trade in an old car for a newer, more fuel-efficient vehicle.

Emails have been pouring into my office.

"Cash for Clunkers" is an innovative, socially and economically beneficial program that has been slowed only by its unforeseeable degree of success," wrote Tom Gleason of Lawrence, KS. "Hurricane Katrina was an epic tragedy aggravated by government inaction. If Ms. Liasson (on Fox News) finds any basis at all to analogize between the two she needs to go to work for Fox News full time."

Liasson knew pretty quickly that she had crossed a line.

"I said something really stupid, which I regret," Liasson told me. "I should have merely said anytime time the government does something less than competent, it makes it harder to get people to trust them with other programs. People died in Katrina because of government incompetence. I should not have used that as an analogy. I was thinking of an example of government incompetence and I picked one that was too big and egregious. I was over the top in my choice of a metaphor. It was a mistake."

NPR's senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, said, "If this had been said live on NPR's air, we would have redone the interview, and we would have acknowledged and apologized for what was said in earlier feeds both on the air and online."

Liasson has been a political contributor for Fox News Channel since 1998 and also appears as a FOX News Sunday panelist. She is also on NPR's staff and, like all NPR journalists, has to follow NPR's ethics code — which doesn't allow NPR staffers to say something on another news outlet that they couldn't say on NPR.

"The point is I shouldn't have said it anywhere," said Liasson. "I always try to keep the ethics code in mind. It helps me set guidelines and parameters."

Weiss concurred.

"In live situations, both in other media and in front of audiences, NPR staff occasionally say things they shouldn't," she said. "That happens infrequently and we take it very seriously and address it with the individual. But a single episode of mis-speaking can be forgiven, a systemic problem cannot. Mara has acknowledged that what she said was wrong."

Appearing on two networks can be a tricky negotiation --especially as Liasson is often live on Fox. Whether Liasson likes it or not, making a gaffe on Fox reflects poorly on NPR — as many listeners have let me know. Liasson should think about NPR's ethics code every time she appears on Fox.