The Siren Song of Punditry


Can NPR journalists express their personal opinions when they speak or write for other media? That's the question asked by some media critics and many listeners. They object whenever NPR reporters appear to reveal their opinions on the issues of the day.

NPR encourages its journalistic staff to speak in public. But they are expected to hold to the same high standards when they appear in other media as they would in their regular duties on NPR. A number of NPR journalists appear in other media. Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr's essays first heard on NPR often appear as a weekly column for the Christian Science Monitor. Other NPR journalists are frequently asked to pen their observations for op-ed columns around the country.

Still other NPR journalists have regular duties on some of the national television talk shows. It's on television where the temptations and dangers of personal opinion seem the greatest, in my view. On television, the challenge is for NPR journalists to stay in their role as reporters and to avoid any punditry that might be viewed as personal opinion. NPR's Nina Totenberg and Tom Gjelten regularly appear on PBS where the discussions are often weighty and the tones are measured. PBS hosts often urge their guest to voice their opinions, but few NPR listeners find that problematic.

Some listeners find this more troublesome when it comes to Fox News and the regular presence of NPR's Juan Williams and Mara Liasson. That issue came to a head with reference to statements made by Liasson on Fox.


Last Oct. 3, Mara Liasson on Fox News Sunday commented on the arrival of Congressmen Bonior and McDermott in Baghdad prior to the start of the war: "These guys are a disgrace. Look, everybody knows it's 101, politics 101, that you don't go to an adversary country, an enemy country, and badmouth the United States, its policies and the president of the United States. I mean, these guys ought to, I don't know resign."

Few NPR listeners wrote to me to complain last fall (NPR listeners evidently don't watch Fox very much). But Liasson's remarks were recently revived by Norman Solomon, a media critic for FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a liberal media watchdog. Solomon concludes his column with: "(I)f a mainstream political journalist like Mara Liasson was so quick to suggest 10 months ago that McDermott resign for inopportunely seeking to prevent a war, when will she advocate that the president resign for dishonestly promoting a war -- or, failing resignation, face impeachment?"

Another regular critic of NPR's coverage is Ali Abunimah. He agrees with Solomon but adds, "My reading of NPR's guidelines is that they (NPR journalists) are not 'pundits' and not giving opinion, but rather analysis. If this is not opinion and not punditry, where do you draw the line? If your political correspondent believes that criticizing the president is unacceptable behavior, you need to tell her to check what country she thinks she lives in."

I think Solomon and Abunimah are substantially correct -- but only up to a point. NPR reporters, hosts and ombudsmen should not be in the business of making their own opinions known about matters of public controversy. When they do, the public quickly senses that NPR compromises its ability to report in a fair manner. In this pundit-crazed media culture, there are more than enough people who opine as soon as the klieg lights come on. NPR and its listeners deserve a better form of public discourse.

Up to NPR Standards?

Bruce Drake as vice president of news is responsible for NPR's journalistic standards. He says:

"My guidelines are simple: an NPR News reporter should not say something on a television talk show, the Internet or a public speech that they could not say on-air for NPR in their own reporting. NPR listeners need to know that the journalists they hear on our air are committed to accuracy and fairness. Our listeners need to know that our journalists do not come to the stories they cover with an agenda, meaning that they must maintain a firewall between their private opinions and their professional performance."
Liasson realizes that her spoken words can't be retracted: "I certainly shouldn't have said it. I don't believe it is in any way representative of remarks I make anywhere, on Fox, PBS, NPR or in person about the news. I would encourage people to read the entire transcript from 10/3/02."

Many television talk shows -- not only on Fox -- make their reputations for delivering opinions and emotions. But Fox especially seems to pride itself on its appeal to unfurled patriotism with a conservative perspective. That frequently infuriates many NPR listeners (but not, it seems, Fox viewers) because of the openly ideological premise that some find jingoistic and downright un-journalistic. NPR listeners also object to the high emotional content of the programs and resent seeing NPR reporter participation.

In my opinion, that journalistic tone on Fox can often resemble a food fight rather than a reasoned discussion. The programs can be very entertaining, but no one would confuse them with the Oxford Union debates.

NPR as 'Liberal Media?'

Some listeners just don't understand why NPR would allow its reporters to lend their own credibility and that of NPR to Fox programs. Fox hosts often imply that NPR reporters are the embodiment of liberal journalism by placing them against openly conservative personalities. This may confirm in the minds of some viewers that NPR must be as ideologically committed in its own way as Fox is to the conservative cause.

The lure of speaking one's mind is tempting. In my experience, journalists who have been in the business for a while often fall victim to the siren song of punditry ... much like the eunuch in the harem, some journalists end up resenting having all of the responsibilities and none of the pleasures.

NPR's Ethical Standards

NPR is in the process of writing its own ethics guide. It can't come too soon because of issues such as this one where Liasson appeared to abandon her role of reporter. Situations such as this one inevitably come back to haunt both the reporter and NPR. The New York Times happens to have a very succinct code of conduct for its journalists that could just as easily apply in this case:
102. In deciding whether to make a radio, television or Internet appearances, a staff member should consider its probable tone and content to make sure they are consistent with Times standards. Staff members should avoid strident, theatrical forums that emphasize punditry and reckless opinion-mongering. Instead we should offer thoughtful and retrospective analysis. Generally a staff member should not say anything on radio, television or the Internet that could not appear under his or her byline in The Times.
NPR and The New York Times both have strong reasons for maintaining the high journalistic standards of their organizations. But in NPR's case, are those standards being enforced?

Jeffrey Dvorkin is the NPR Ombudsman.

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