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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.

'Disgrace...'

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:

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