Judge Journalists On Their Work, Not Perceptions
Allow me to defend NPR, something that does not always happen.
As you may have heard NPR’s All Things Considered host Michelle Norris is taking a leave from hosting and policy reporting because her husband has taken a top position with President Obama’s reelection campaign. NPR and Norris say the move is to remove all doubt that she and the network can report fairly on the Obama Administration and campaign. Some argue that NPR should completely sever its relationship with Norris because they have cut ties with others – Juan Williams and recently opera host Lisa Simeone- for political statements or activism. That would be ridiculous.
NPR is handling the Michele Norris situation appropriately. Norris has done nothing but report fairly on every story she’s covered, regardless of her husband’s long career in Democratic politics and lobbying. To fire her because she’s married to a high profile political operative would be unfair and would not serve the NPR audience. It is hard enough to monitor and control the actions of your employees, but to extend that to the actions spouses, significant others, children, parents is impossible.
From a practical standpoint, the chances of a Washington, DC or state capital based journalist being married to a government official, lobbyist, activist or advocate are extremely high. Should we disqualify every journalist for the profession of their spouse? (See the below list of possible “conflicts” and judge for yourself.)
The rule should be the employee should not actively participate in any activity that has as its primary focus to make or influence public policy. That’s the rule for WOSU journalists. No campaign work or donations, no yard signs, lapel pins or bumper stickers. They can give money to the Red Cross, but not to MoveOn.org or the NRA.
These rules have to be in writing, they have to be articulated clearly to affected employees and enforced consistently. As in Michele Norris’ case, NPR has a “spouse” safeguard in place and is using it.
As for the controversy surrounding World of Opera host Lisa Simeone and her participation in the Occupy Wall Street protest, it’s a totally different matter. From a philosophical stand point you cannot hold music hosts to the same standards as journalists. Music hosts are not reporting on public policy. You can prohibit them from working for or charitably contributing to an organization or artist on which they report, but to ask them to refrain from policy activism goes too far.
However, if an organization does decide to hold every employee to the same standard, put it in writing and enforce it consistently.
Finally, organizations need to stand by their employees who are doing good work, acting professionally and adhering to the organization’s policies. Firewalls work both ways. They keep policy makers and corporate interests from influencing reporting AND they free journalists to aggressively report on policy makers and corporate interests regardless of perceptions.
As Abe Lincoln is said to have said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
Complaints be damned, at least the irrational ones.
I would argue ALL of the below journalists represent the profession well:
NPR host Robert Siegel’s wife works for the US Department of Commerce.
NPR and ABC analyst Cokie Roberts is the daughter of not one, but TWO democratic congresswomen (men)..
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was a top advisor to a former President Bill Clinton.
NBC’s Pete Williams was an aide to Congressman Dick Cheney and worked for Cheney as Pentagon Spokesman.
Diane Sawyer worked in the Nixon Administration
Brian Williams worked as a White House intern for Jimmy Carter and Likes NASCAR.
There are countless others.
Full disclosure: I’m a male, white, Roman Catholic, Red Sox fan, prefer Dunkin’ Donuts to Krispy Kreme