NPR fires back in wake of Stewart/Colbert rally memos

NPR is pushing back against mainstream media’s favorite whipping boy — the “blogosphere” — over reaction to a memo earlier this week that said NPR journalists were forbidden from attending the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert “rallies” in Washington later this month. Both ostensibly are aimed at poking at the high-octane political discourse we’re experiencing.

The organization’s president, in a memo to stations today, blames bloggers for inciting the masses with the notion NPR was vowing not to cover the the event.

Dear Station Colleagues,

There’s been quite a bit of media hubbub about an internal memo we sent the other day reminding employees about our longstanding news code of ethics. We specifically mentioned the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies, and that’s what caused the stir….and quite a bit of speculation and even false information.

First let me give you the facts, and debunk a few of the blogosphere’s mistakes:

We will cover the rally to the extent that it is newsworthy, just as we do with any rally.

We did not specifically send out a similar note in advance of the Glenn Beck rally. That is true. Conspiracy theories aside, the reason we did not send out a note before that rally, or the One Nation rally, is that they were overtly political (e.g. Sarah Palin was a main speaker at the Beck rally). In terms of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert, that rally could be perceived as entertainment and subject to confusion.

We are not against “sanity” and we do not discourage “curiosity”, two charges from high-profile bloggers. No more so than we were against “honor” and “freedom” in applying our policy to the Glenn Beck rally. The fact is the Stewart/Colbert rally is becoming politicized. Witness the close relationship with the Huffington Post which has wrapped itself around the event.

We are not violating the civil liberties of our employees. We understand that our employees are citizens as well as journalists. Our policy is not intended to tell them how to live their lives, nor do we compel anyone to become a reporter or work for NPR. But when an individual decides to sign on with NPR as a journalist, he/she understands that comes with certain rules. This is the case in almost all legitimate news organizations, indeed in many professions. In our case, the rules are designed to protect the impartiality of our content.

We do not bar our staff from voting. We do not bar our staff from attending political debates, speeches, or even tapings of Jon Stewart’s or Glenn Beck’s programs for that matter.

We believe in common sense and trust our staff. No one is going to be fired if they happen upon a rally and wander through to check it out.

So what is this about? The rationale for this policy is pretty simple. We live in an age of “gotcha” journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. We need to err on the side of protecting our journalism, our journalists, and our reputation. While the credibility and trust that attaches to the NPR brand depends principally on the quality of our news reporting, it can be easily undermined if our public conduct is at odds with the standards we seek to uphold as a news organization. This is a pillar of quality journalism, and indeed many quality news organizations including The Washington Post have also reaffirmed their policies in the wake of this debate, also addressing the Stewart/Colbert rally specifically.

While I sent the ethics reminder to all staff, the policy applies only to those staff in editorial positions or those staff outside our newsroom who are in positions where they could be representing NPR in public forums (for example, our communications staff who are quoted in press reports). But I sent the code to everyone on staff because we should all be mindful of the message we send in our activities outside of work. We rely on our employees to understand our standards and exercise good judgment about how our policies apply to them – and seek clarification when needed.

Please let me know if you have any questions. These journalistic ethics are living breathing things that need – must! – be perpetually debated with full transparency and an open mind and heart. That’s what makes us who we are.


In a post this afternoon, NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, was a tad less nuanced:

One never truly knows what a lousy job the blogosphere is capable of until one is at the center of a story.

But she misses an opportunity to expand on the admission that the entire brouhaha isn’t about reporters not having a bias, it’s about you not knowing what those biases are:

Sure, journalists have opinions and causes they support.

But at the end of the day, they have to be professional – and that means avoiding actions that create the perception that they are taking sides in political controversies, including elections.

The issue isn’t whether reporters “take sides” in political controversies. They do. They’re not mummies. The issue is whether those opinions make their ways into news stories or in the process of selecting what stories to cover in the first place. Not allowing you the opportunity to know what the biases are does nothing to guarantee the impartiality of NPR (or any other organization’s) content. It’s designed more to prevent the questioning of the impartiality of the content, by not giving you an important piece of evidence by which to prove it.

  • Heather

    And can we PLEASE agree that NPR staff should not use the phrase, “at the end of the day?” GAH.

  • Xopher

    I agree with Heather. They should be professional all day long.

  • Tim

    At the end of the day, I disagree with Heather.

  • Jeremy

    It is what it is. Going forward, this is low-hanging fruit.

  • chinanski

    Take it a step further. Maybe no reporter should be allowed to watch Stewart or Colbert. After all, they both have points of view and by watching them, the reporters themselves could be questioned as to their neutrality in covering stories.

    Grow up. You either trust a reporter to be fair and accurate or you don’t. The way the media world is headed, reporters will be allowed to write one story about any given topic and then move on because odds are they will have formed opinions and gained insight about that topic after doing a story. And we all know those things are bad.

    That last line is a joke if you didn’t figure that out on your own.

  • Heather

    I’m sure they could utilize some other synergy.

  • Ken Paulman

    Shepard wrote on the blog that she couldn’t see how one could argue that the rallies *aren’t* political, because the “don’t represent all viewpoints.” My (as yet unanswered) response is below.


    So far, we’ve got that the rallies are political because they won’t be representing “all viewpoints.” Are there events that do?

    Would NPR employees be forbidden to attend an appearance by the Dalai Lama unless there was a representative from the Chinese government there to provide balance?

    I’m not trying to be dense. I work in media and have had a hand in crafting newsroom ethics policies.

    What I want to know is whether there is any sort of test or criteria applied to determine what’s political and what isn’t. That’s ultimately the source of the disagreement.

    My argument is that the Stewart/Colbert rallies are fundamentally entertainment events, they are non-partisan, they are not promoting candidates, policy positions or legislation, and if they have a target, it is the mass media culture itself. Therefore, not political.

  • Chuckumentary

    In my mind, policies that pretend an organization’s journalists are unfeeling unopinionated newsbots don’t serve the public at all.

    I rather like City Pages “reporter bias” at the end of their articles. e.g. “Fan of the band” – okay, that’s good to know.

    Transparency is good.

    “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for journalists — I think it needs to be discussed and challenged.

  • Lukas Armstrong

    Perhaps one reason that NPR has gotten such flak for this memo is that it appears to be so selective in its judgments about what constitutes political activity. Two NPR reporters/commentators, Mara Liasson and Juan Williams, are in the employ of what everyone now recognizes as a GOP news organ, FOX News, but NPR seems not to consider the affiliation compromising or damaging to its credibility and does not inform its listeners about the affiliation, even though the reporting of both, Liasson in particular, is deeply friendly to the right. (Just listen to Liasson’s reporting during the 2008 campaign if you want a demonstration of just how snarky, animosity-driven, and politically tendentious NPR is willing to allow one of its reporters to be if the bias in question is the one that the Washington media elite deems acceptable.) In today’s perverse media culture, such advocacy is considered to be evidence of journalistic “balance” by the right wing interests who run our political discourse rather than the glaring absence thereof; activities that might be construed as mildly left-leaning are verboten. Hence NPR’s high comfort level with Liasson and Williams’ activities and hysterical concern about the Colbert/Stewart thing–and hence, to some degree, the eye-rolling from the blogosphere.

  • Lukas Armstrong

    To be fair, NPR did reportedly express concern about Liasson’s FOX affiliation back at the end of last year. I note, though, that her appearances on that network continue.

  • Rob Levine

    What a joke. The point was that reporters were warned OFF the Steward/Colbert rally, but were NOT warned off the Beck rally. It’s called a double standard. NPR = Nice Polite Republicans.

  • P J Brown

    To say that NPR is unbiased in its reporting is beyond funny. Many no longer listen due to the decidedly right-leaning reportage that is ever present especially from Mora Liasson and her ilk. As was once said, no one can serve two masters.

  • bsimon

    NPR writes

    “We live in an age of “gotcha” journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. ”

    As others have noted, allowing Liasson & Williams to represent the ‘left’ on Fox News Sunday is a far larger crack in NPR’s credibility than if some journalists or staffers attend a comedy central rally.

  • Jim Russell

    What seems to have been lost in this hubbub is plain old common sense.

    A good news organization should not (and in some cases CANNOT legally) deny its staff the right to exercise the privileges of being an American citizen — to have and to state their PERSONAL opinions.

    BUT. To the extent that the ORGANIZATION’S credibility and good name is being used or is leveraging those opinions … and thereby being tainted by them … the ORGANIZATION must have the right to resist such behavior by its staff.

    Therefore, there is and should be a happy medium. Staff should be able to appear at events anonymously, state personal opinions without reference to his/her employment.

    If that deprives you of your “cred,” it is a sure sign that you are trading on your organization’s reputation — and you should not do so.

  • chanstantinople

    The problem is the media makes no distiction between the personal and the professional. So for example if Glenn Beck were to attend a gay rights rally for personal reasons, you can bet the media would reflect this against his tv “personality”. Privacy and autonomy can’t exist when reporters become celebrities. The media walks a fine line needing both celebrity power to attract viewers and autonomy to express unbiased opinions. It’s a self created double standard that fails to recognize every humans right to privacy.

  • Helen Margiou

    As a liberal democrat, may I say, NPR, you are out of touch: first Juan Williams (shame on you!) and now the diktat re the Restore Sanity rally (delusions of holy grandeur). You have lost your compass and given the right wingers new fodder.

    How about some humility, Ms Schiller?