NPR news boss: ‘We won’t tolerate legal or personal attacks on journalists’

During last week’s confirmation hearings for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Sessions whether he would affirm a Justice Department guideline not to prosecute journalists for doing their job if he is confirmed.

“Senator Klobuchar, I am not sure,” Sessions reponded. “I have not studied that, those regulations. I would note that when I was the United States Attorney, we knew, everybody knew, that you could not subpoena a witness or push them to be interviewed if they’re a member of the media, without approval at high levels of the Department of Justice. That was in the 1980s. So I do believe the Department of Justice does have sensitivity to this issue.”

That’s got NPR’s news boss declaring “we cannot tolerate legal and personal attacks on journalists for doing their jobs, as the president-elect did last week when a CNN reporter tried to ask him a question.

“Not you,” Trump told the reporter. “Your organization is terrible.”

In a letter to NPR’s news staff today, but clearly intended as an op-ed, the network’s senior vice president of news, acknowledged that journalism’s low standing among Republicans gives President-elect Donald Trump cover to attack reporters.

“It is up to journalists to rebuild that credibility,” Michael Oreskes said. “To demonstrate to conservatives that, as the vice president-elect says, our role is to hold all governments to account, regardless of party, ideology or personality.”

The Obama administration also repeatedly threatened journalists with prison under the guise of investigations into leaks that allegedly threatened national security. When I was senior managing editor of the Associated Press, the Obama administration secretly seized the wire service’s phone records in order to reveal AP’s sources. A New York Times reporter, James Risen, was kept under threat of jail for years to pressure him to reveal his sources. An FBI agent accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of possible espionage for basic reporting. NPR and other news organizations reported on these actions and protested vehemently. These were chilling threats to obstruct journalism and even criminalize it. I and many other journalists said so. Risen described the Obama administration as the most antagonistic to the press of any since Nixon.

As a result of our protests, the attorney general pledged that the Obama administration would never prosecute a journalist for doing her or his job. That commitment should be embraced by the incoming administration and written into law by the new congress.

Oreskes said the incoming administration should study up on why news organizations fought the Obama administration to win the Justice Department rules.

“The president-elect has an opportunity to separate his anger over specific coverage (which he is always free to express) from a commitment to fundamental American rights of free press and expression,” he said. “These aren’t partisan questions.”

Related: President and press: the roots of a feisty, complex relationship (MPR News)

Donald Trump’s Real Threat to the Press (Politico)

  • Will

    Here’s an idea, is it time to ask about the political bias from media organizations? Can we as consumers request the political balance of the newsrooms of MPR, CNN or Fox News…if you want to suggest you are “fair and balanced” then by all means publish the political make up of your newsrooms. Let us, consumers of your product have the transparency to decide for ourselves.

    • I couldn’t tell you the political affiliation of most of the people in the newsroom.

      Also it’s none of your business.

      You can still decide whether you want to believe what’s on the news. So you still get to decide.

      There’s also another more practical reason. I voted for Republicans and Democrats in the last election. What does that make me? Not everyone has the same one-size-fits-all political identity that the far right and far left have.

      • Will

        If you want my business and you want me to buy your product, I think it’s fair to ask for transparency. Just like a business has to release donations to political groups, media outlets have the same power to influence people…why not offer consumers a more informed choice, more transparency is a good thing.

        MPR/NPR are a bit different, they accept public dollars so as a tax payer I am paying for that product, I don’t get to decide… I do appreciate the work MPR does but I see the bias from my perspective too. That’s why transparency is especially important in public institutions.

        • John

          One person’s bias is another person’s fair and balanced.

          What I mean is when I look at what the more conservative members of my family/social circle consider politically balanced reporting is considered right wing craziness by the more liberal parts of my family/social circle.

          The converse is also true.

          • Will

            I agree there is disturbing segment of the right who believe completely untrue things, like the idea that Trump won the popular vote, which is 100% wrong.

            I’m trying to reassure those on the right with hard numbers to show balance or at least an attempt at balance.

          • John

            I ask you to define balance in a way that is acceptable to those on either side of that balance.

            I never said anything about specifically what one side or the other believes – so I don’t know what you’re agreeing with in your reply to my comment.

            To pick something that I find extreme and ridiculous as an example – there are people who believe the earth is flat. To be balanced in reporting, if you are interviewing a scientist, do you have to interview and include statements from someone who believes the earth is flat in order to be giving what would be considered a balanced story? Someone who believes the earth is flat would claim that you do, in order to be “showing both sides of the argument.” The rest of us would be likely to view that as “giving voice to a fringe theory.”

            So, how do you define balanced reporting in a way that everyone finds acceptable? Most people appear to define balanced as any reporting that supports what they believe or want to believe to be true. It’s a bias we all have – we’re more likely to believe that which supports what we already believe.

          • Balance for what?

          • Will

            To understand and see issues from all perspectives, why do we demand diversity in business and government?

          • MrE85

            Clearly, we do not have diversity in business and government, so if we are demanding it, no one is listening to us.

          • Will

            You aren’t aware of the federal requirements larger businesses and the federal point system for the government? If you’re a veteran, disabled or of a minority group you get special points and that increases the likelyhood of being hired…in fact I have a friend who works for the federal government who said if you’re a minority veteran and you apply to an open position they literally have to hire that person.

        • I don’t argue with your right to ASK for transparency. But I’ve never lost a minute of sleep worrying over whether you’ll “buy my product.” Here’s the news, believe it, don’t believe it. Listen. Don’t listen. It’s always your choice. If something is skewed and facts aren’t correct, there are already myriad ways that it comes to light.

          What you’re actually asking for is a reason to ignore facts based on your assumption that a Republican journalist can’t cover Republicans without bias or a Democratic journalist can’t cover Democrats without bias. And we’ve seen how well that works.

          And, again, as I’ve already indicated, your suggestion assumes journalists only vote one party. I presume they’re not much different than most voters who frequently split their ballots.

          There’s also the reality that people are more than their politics — a fact that, again, gets lost in the “can’t get a life so all I care about is politics” crowd (the AM Talkradio people). Also, most reporters don’t cover politics.

          • Will

            Actually I am asking for balance and diversity of thought, the argument you’re making is the same one people used to make about race. There’s a reason we have diversity standards in business and government, that diverse element does bring a unique perspective that even the most fair minded white person may not. The same is true with diversity of thought.

          • What you’re describing is the Fairness Doctrine.

        • Anna

          When was the last time you visited a physician office or were hospitalized with a serious illness, Will?

          Medicare and Medicaid are paid for with public tax dollars but we don’t demand transparency from our doctors and hospitals regarding their political party affiliation.

          In fact, in the case of physicians more than half of them don’t vote at all.

          MPR/NPR are no different in that they receive funding (less than 2% of their budgets) from public funds but the overwhelming majority of their budgets comes from paying members like me and large corporate donors.

          Bob is correct in that my political affiliation or even the affiliation of large corporate donors is none of your business.

          I have also split my vote in past elections.

          My burning question is—are you a paying member of Minnesota Public Radio?

          • The funding of public broadcasting doesn’t come with a quid pro quo for the kind of thing Will is looking for because the funding of public broadcasting is ALREADY a quid pro quo in exchange for restrictions placed upon the broadcasters.

            The “but… tax dollars!” crowd never mentions that. I suspect because they don’t know that.

          • Will

            Since I’m a tax payer I am paying member of MPR.

          • At the 22-cent level.

            $70 million CPB direct grants to public radio stations. 318 million people in the U.S.

            Thanks for your support. It pays about 20 seconds of my salary a year, or about 1/100,000,000 of the time I spend answering your questions here annually.

            I suppose you want a totebag?

          • Will

            I’ll tell you what, I’ll become a $20/month member if your public funding gets cut.

            I may do it anyway if I see some meaningful move towards diversity of thought, I’ve seen some good steps in the right direction in past couple of months.

          • I have written numerous times that I favor cutting government funding , assuming that the government would then lift all restrictions on revenue generations and content regulations. I doubt they will for the same reason they won’t remove baseball’s anti-trust exemption: As soon as they do, they lose influence over that which they control.

            Historically, however, “Boogeymen” have been good for public broadcasting fundraising. The Gingrich years followed by Jesse Ventura motivated people to become members.

            Ventura, you may recall, was fervently anti-public radio because he worked in commercial radio and the digs weren’t as good. Public radio didn’t need the money, he said.

            When Ventura announced he would not run again, he did so with Gary Eichten on MPR, acknowledging that he was wrong (name one other time that happened with Ventura) . He said he came to appreciate how good MPR is through regular appearances with Eichten and also watching the state house crew. This is, remember, a guy who positively hated the media.

            You and I both know you’re not going to become a member, Will. You’ve posted this “diversity of thought” comment at least 24, 25 times in just the last few months and not once — not once — did you bother with any specifics about your complaint.

            That’s what makes you like the early Ventura.

            And yet: here you are.

          • RBHolb

            Interestingly, MPR was the first major media outlet to pay serious attention to the early Ventura. It was something of a shock when he returned the favor by looking to cut state funding.

          • I was in the meeting when then news director Bill Buzenberg told us we had to cover Ventura’s announcement that he was running and that his announcement would get package treatment on All Things Considered, just as all the people who’d announced they were running got. There was a fair amount of resistance because you have to remember that most people viewed it as a publicity stunt for a failing radio talk show, and that it would be like covering perennial presidential candidate Vermin Supreme.

            Buzenberg was right. And that sort of editorial ability is what you pay your membership money for.

            I was also just creating the MPR News website there as the first and only news staff member. Ventura was page view gold right from the start.

            Sadly, our collection of history has become tattered via page redesigns and eclipsing audio player technologies.

            http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/1998/11/ventura/index.shtml

          • Also he and Keillor feuded back then. That fight, too, was page view gold.

          • Will

            I’d like to read an op-ed from you published in the Star Tribune requesting all public funding of MPR stop ASAP.

          • I have a personal opinion. I’m not interested in leading a movement.

            But again you focused only on half of the quid pro quo. Do you even know what the other half is. I’m not in favor of ending one without the other.

          • Anna

            Sorry. I don’t buy your argument. If public television and radio solely operated from tax payer funds, they would almost cease to exist.

            But perhaps that is what you want to happen because you feel they are biased somehow in their coverage of the news.

            Follow the Politico link at the end of the article. You might be surprised at what you’ll learn from it.

        • Kassie

          From a post a few days ago, you said, “So much overreaction, if I disagree with you politically that’s not going to enter into my decision on whether or not to buy your product. If you make a good product or provide a solid service at a reasonable price then I will buy from you no matter your political beliefs.”

          So, you don’t care about politics if you are going to buy a product unless is a newspaper or radio broadcast? Why is it any different than any other product?

          • Will

            Because of taxes… I’m being asked to be support it no matter what I think of the product. Also, when the product itself involves a political bias then it’s different than buying a truck or an ice auger.

          • If you send me your address, I will mail you the 23 cents, a full rebate of the taxes you spend on CPB. Will that ease your pain?

    • John O.

      The phrase “fair and balanced” is a qualitative one–not quantitative. How you view any of the three news organizations you mentioned compared to me or the guy waiting at the bus stop at the corner are all probably very different.

    • RBHolb

      Which is more important: balance, or accuracy? Accuracy tells us, for example, that anthropogenic global warming is an idea supported by the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists. A goal of “balance,” however, dictates that dissenting voices are given equal prominence, even when their dissent is based on incorrect facts, or even irrelevant to the topic.

    • KTFoley

      Transparency is desirable when the information being revealed gives a reliable explanation for what takes place.

      However, the notion that a person’s political affiliation is a sufficient predictor of what and how they report doesn’t really work. We know that because reliable media outlets find themselves simultaneously accused of being too conservative and too liberal, often for the same report.

      Demanding information that doesn’t correspond, and then treating that data point as necessary & sufficient for determining worthiness? I don’t know whether to file that under obtuse, lazy, or the ABCs of a witch hunt.

      Want to know a much more reliable predictor of whether a report will be considered credible? Compare the individual consumer’s affiliation to the report’s content. If the two line up, they’re gonna call it balanced. If the report doesn’t match their perspective, they’re gonna call it biased.

    • Rob

      If a reporter is doing their job properly, their political persuasions aren’t evident or relevant in what they produce. For example, it’s a fact that the Obama administration did not focus enough on helping homeowners as part of its economic recovery activities. It’s also a fact that Trump has done little or nothing to make sure he has no conflicts of interest when he becomes President.

      Whether reported by NPR, Fox, or Slate, and no matter what the politics are of any of the reporters writing about these issues for those media outlets, those facts about Obama and Trump are still the facts. That’s why your continued urging that some notion of “balance” requires media outlets to show the public what each of their reporters’ politics is, is so off-base.

  • MikeB

    Covering the Trump administration will require new practices, and perhaps new legal strategies. Trump’s boundaries are raw power, and he now has the DOJ in his arsenal. He talked about opening up libel laws which may be just rhetoric but he is temperamental and obsessed about his media coverage.

    When harassment fails to work, expect ginned up prosecutions

  • MrE85

    Legit question: Just what does Mr. Oreskes plan to do, if his reporters are prosecuted or persecuted?

    • Al

      I know what I, as a consumer of news, would do. And it’s not sit idly by.

      • MrE85

        I know what I would like to do, if I owned a newspaper and had a backbone of steel. Unfortunately, I have neither.

  • Al

    “A robust, even rambunctious, press is one of American democracy’s signal achievements. Citizens depend on independent journalists to give them information needed to hold our leaders to account. Those journalists should be free to do their work without fear of personal or legal attacks. As Vice President-elect Mike Pence said when he was in Congress, “the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press.””

    I love the idea of a rambunctious press. Go get ’em, reporters.

    • Will

      I agree I’m glad there’s some level of dislike between government and the press, investigate and inform. Where was the press the last 8 years?

      • It was running stories you weren’t bothering to read. Like Oreskes’ letter. What in particular did you miss?

      • Al

        I read plenty of good, solid, evidence-based journalism during the past eight years. And before that. And I anticipate more in the future.

      • kevins

        Will….really!

        • You guys realize the basis for the Justice Department rule comes from reporting on this administration, right?

          • kevins

            My position is that I have trouble believing that anyone gave Obama a pass. Bias is a fragile ornament, often hung on lean branches.

      • Rob

        I usuallly reserve these for Gary F., but YAWN.

  • Alex

    Are there any charitable organizations that provide legal aid to journalists in situations like this? I’d imagine the ACLU at least has fingers in that pie, but are there any that are specifically targeted at this issue?

    • Most news organizations have access to First Amendment attorneys.

    • crystals

      The org that Meryl Streep name dropped in her Golden Globes speech as needing support now more than ever is the Committee to Protect Journalists. I personally don’t know anything about their work, but it could be worth a look.
      https://www.cpj.org/