A journalist, a dying husband, and talk show ethics

Elizabeth Jensen, the new NPR ombudsman, is tackling a favorite subject for us today: At what point is a journalist unable to function as a journalist because of first-person experiences with an issue?

She’s writing about Diane Rehm, a talk show host at WAMU in Washington, whose husband, John, recently died from the complications of Parkinson’s Disease. Rehm’s show airs nationally under a distribution agreement with NPR (MPR does not carry the program).

The couple had asked for a Maryland doctor’s help in ending his life, which is illegal in Maryland. So he stopped eating and drinking until he died.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post ran a story about Rehm, indicating she’s now a leading voice in the right-to-die debate.

Now 78 and pondering how to manage her own death, Rehm is working with Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life organization run by Barbara Coombs Lee, a key figure in Oregon’s passage of an assisted-suicide law and a previous guest on the show.

Rehm will appear on the cover of the group’s magazine this month, and she is telling John’s story at a series of small fundraising dinners with wealthy donors financing the right-to-die campaign.

If asked, she said she would testify before Congress.

She missed the moment of his death by 20 minutes.

“That’s all I keep thinking about,” she told the Washington Post. “Why can’t we make this more peaceful and humane?”

Jensen notes NPR’s guidelines don’t apply to hosts of shows that are distributed by — but not produced by — NPR.

Unfortunately, that leaves the question on the table: Is Rehm capable of fairly discussing end-of-life issues since she’s experienced one. And if not, what other life experiences by journalists disqualify them from participating in the storytelling thereof?

Rehm told me she believes “the ethical standards apply pretty much across the board, namely that we will be honest, that we will be open about what we do and that we will be fair on the air, and that is certainly something I’ve tried to do for 35 years.”

As a talk show host, she said, “I gather I am not put into the same category as a reporter,” and therefore is allowed to express her own opinion on the air occasionally. But, she added, she makes sure to have “numerous perspectives in the studio” and for the recent program was even contemplating counting up to the second the airtime given to each perspective, to make sure everybody had equal time.

If she addresses the subject again, she said, she would make a clear upfront disclosure of her viewpoint.

As to the fundraising dinners — small discussion gatherings, the first of which took place Monday night — she said: “Mind you, I am walking a very careful line. I am there to tell my own story, to tell John’s story, and to hopefully help to facilitate discussion among the attendees. I am not being paid a dime for doing any of this. I am doing it because it’s what I believe I want for myself and I believe that talking about it is something that is crucial within our entire society, no matter what side you come out on.”

The line she will not cross is “to ask people to do or give anything” and no solicitation of funds took place in her presence, she said.

Jensen’s ruling:

My own view is that Rehm’s participation as a celebrity guest of sorts at fundraising dinners for an organization that does extensive political lobbying, as compelling as her personal story is and as careful as she is being, is a step too far for someone associated with NPR.

Rehm does not believe she has crossed any line, but my view is she should be counseled against future participation in fund-raising events for the organization.

Meanwhile, NPR and WAMU will meet on the issue next week. I’ll report back when there is a resolution.

What if we weren’t talking something as controversial as right-to-die? What if we were talking about research for Parkinson’s, something that also requires lobbying. Does that cross the line? If not, where is that line?

  • Paulc

    really interesting topic, and sadly I don’t haven sufficient background…. I think in Rehm’s favor is thought she is talking at fund raising gigs, she is not getting paid for them (o.k. I assume they cover transportaion, lodging, and food. which is reasonable). So, for me, that would be one step too far… like being a paid lobbyist and reporter, to much conflict of interest.

    But yeah if it was a chronic disease I don’t see NPR being as stringent.

    I’m willing to bet, like other professional organizations, that NPR takes the level of potential controversy into account. Not just the ethics of the situation but can her outside work damage the reputation of NPR and therefore hurt possible funding. (and not suggesting this as an evil/bad thing, any major corporation has to look at the risk to it’s reputation in terms of affecting profits etc.)

    • I know a lot of Twin Cities TV anchors end up hosting a lot of fundraiser/dinners etc for organizations that also engage in lobbying (how do you NOT engage in lobbying anymore?). I wonder what their ethical guidelines are?

      • jon

        I personally don’t engage in lobbying… well not with money at least… I do occasionally write my congressional representatives, and I’ll admit it isn’t to just say hello (maybe I should start writing just to say hi, and ask how everything is going?)

      • Jack Ungerleider

        I suspect that famous people, and in many localities that includes the local TV and radio news people, are invited to host these events specifically if they have a personal connection to the cause.

        • Like Rehm does. I would tend to give her more credibility on the subject than less. And she’s entirely transparent in her endeavors, which counts for something.

          So much of these guidelines (and MPR has substantially the same) is less about not being personally involved with an issue than it is making sure you don’t know about a journalist being personally involved in an issue.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    Bob, I think your last paragraph is the most important in this story. If it were a cause with no controversy would there be a story here? If there isn’t then there shouldn’t be one for a cause that has controversy surrounding it.

    Unless Ms. Rehm is shilling for the cause during her show then she should have the right to do what she want’s on her own time. Does her celebrity, earned from years on a public radio talk show, give her employer the right to control her private dealings? How much has NPR gained by having her show available to its member stations? What does WAMU think of the activity she is involved in?

    Should NPR “drop” the show and WAMU continue to produce it then NPR may suffer more than Rehm or WAMU. In the age of the Internet over the air broadcast is less important. If it can be streamed then it can reach almost anyone.

  • John O.

    \(Disclosure: One of my friends often speaks on behalf of Compassion & Choices and advocates for its cause, but we have not discussed this post or Ms. Rehm’s work.)

    Add to that the Washington Post’s own descent into journalistic mediocrity and I am left thinking NPR is scared of the sun rising in the morning. When NPR’s ombudsman takes NewsBusters seriously (The Onion has more credibility, IMHO) AND throws in that caveat at the end, I’m just left shaking my head.

    All of us eventually die. As we get older, these are important and complex issues that need to be discussed without hiding behind the façade of talking points and the desire to generate tweets and clicks. If Ms. Jensen knows that her friend “speaks on behalf of…and advocates” on this same topic and feels compelled to disclose this at the end, how would she know otherwise if they hadn’t discussed this? Please.

    • This gets to what I was saying on the roundtable a couple of weeks ago. Journalists are scared TO DEATH of any journalist with an opinion.

      I get the concerns about a conflict of interest, but, really, I think we reveal what journalists think of the public in the debate.

      To me, it’s like watching a jury being selected. The most ill-informed and least news conscious get to judge others. That process rarely inspiries me.

  • kennedy

    It seems that causes become controversial when they are linked with politics. Look what happened with Susan G. Komen when their message strayed from breast cancer research. I’m not sure that perceived political association of a cause is the right line to draw, though. It seems like more and more things are becoming politicized. Immunization is an example, especially the HPV vaccine.