NPR: Stay away from Colbert, Stewart rallies

An intercepted memo from the boss of National Public Radio raises some significant questions, I presume, for newsrooms across the land.

Is there any “cause” or “rally” that reporters can participate in without being in violation of an ethical guidelines.

Jim Romenesko at Poynter has the memo from NPR execs to the minions, warning them not to attend the “rallies” by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert later this month, citing this clause in their policies:

NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming John Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.

Stewart is hosting the “rally to restore sanity” and Colbert is head of the “march to keep fear alive.”

There’s a case to be made that both amount to political rallies, but what should a reporter do who wants to take part in, say “Race for the Cure,” which might be considered a rally? (NPR reporting considers this a “cause.”) Or a vigil to show solidarity in a neighborhood in which they live, where several homicides have taken place?

Where’s the line in civic involvement? Is it actively engaging in a “partisan” event? Or is it being seen participating in a civic or partisan event?

  • Bob

    I wonder if Fox News has a similar policy? lol

  • Tyler

    So NPR employees cannot be a private citizen AND an employee of NPR? This seems unlawful, somehow.

  • Tim

    But a corporation has the free speech rights of a individual human citizen……

  • BJ

    I’m ok with it. Many work places have rules. Bus drivers and UPS drivers can’t have DWI.

  • Bob Collins

    I certainly don’t take issue with NPR’s right to impose whatever work rules they want. As usual, my interest is in the “whys” of it. We know, for example, that people have political leanings. The rule is not intended to prevent people from having those leanings. The rule is intended to keep you from knowing about that (although, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing that people in a newsroom are on the record that the political climate in America as presently constituted… stinks. There. I said it. Do you think worse of me?)

    There is, as I pointed out, the problem with dictates of a sweeping nature. Can I really not participate in a cause?

    How many journos in the TC, for example, host fundraisers for organizations that help the homeless, for example, Isn’t that a cause? I’ve been to a dinner or two organized by the National Alliance For the Mentally Ill. Who’s against that cause? The people who are against the mentally ill?

    It’s a slippery slope, this attempt to create a firewall between newsrooms and the communities in which people live.

  • Amy

    Besides, isn’t this going to end up being newsworthy? I suspect Stewart and Colbert will have a huge event–shouldn’t NPR cover that aspect of it?

  • Justin Heideman

    I certainly understand NPR’s policy on this, but I can’t help but find a bit of irony that they specifically mention the Stewart’s rally, which plans to promote reasonable discourse. It seems to me that might be compatible with NPR’s mission.

  • Bob Collins

    Justin: Exactly. Plus if you go to BOTH rallies, it seems to me you have your bases covered.

    Plus, I assume each rally will be an extension of each host’s show. So is it unethical for a reporter to go to a taping of the Daily Show or Colbert Report?

    Amy, the memo refers to people on their personal time; it’s not ordering them not to cover it as a news story.

  • Michael The G

    I think this is not much more than a poorly worded attempt to maintain the position of impartiality. I am quite sure that if a Journalist attended one of those rallies to COVER it that wouldn’t violate policy.

    You give several examples of non-political “causes” were it certainly seems the policy should apply but isn’t this a case of “written broadly, enforced narrowly”?

    For laws that is a BAD thing but for policies, it would appear that this gives plenty of discretion to individual news directors. Could it be abused? Well, sure but it doesn’t have to be. That the RTRS is seen as a partisan event by so many is probably more telling of our current media and political climate than any reflection of reality.

  • Heather

    How would they even KNOW if someone went to one of these rallies?

  • bsimon

    I’d resent that infringement on my personal time if my employer dictated the same to me. If journalists are paid what I think they’re paid, their employers don’t deserve the right to control what they do with their personal time.

  • Margaret

    Reporters are supposed to report the news, not BE the news.

  • Bob Collins

    //Reporters are supposed to report the news, not BE the news.

    No disagreement but who is suggesting they should BE the news? If a reporter — even one who doesn’t cover politics — goes to an event hosted by a comedian, in which the entire bit is a commentary on the bad state of political discourse, how does that make him an unethical journalist, especially when a recent poll showed only 11 percent of Americans surveyed think the tone of American political discourse has gotten more civil since 2008?

    There is a parallel with an event a few years ago in the Twin Cities. Bruce Springsteen was playing a benefit concert and some reporters from the Pioneer Press went on their own time. At least one was disciplined.

    Were they supporting a cause? Or did they just want to hear Springsteen?

  • Katie

    Does MPR have this same policy?? That is what I’d like to know before I contribute again.

  • Al

    \\NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers

    I rarely hear NPR devote a show to the issue of comedy. Except maybe the PHC joke show, and that’s APM, not NPR.