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.