October 22, 2010
Last week, after it was made public that NPR had ordered its reporters not to attend any political rallies, including the upcoming John Stewart "Rally to Restore Sanity," my inbox was filled with disgust from liberals. This rule, they felt, violated the reporters' right to free speech.
This week, after NPR dismissed Juan Williams for giving his opinion on Fox News regarding Muslims, my inbox is filled with disgust from Conservatives. They too believe that NPR is violating its former reporter Williams' right to free speech. (Interesting to note that upon Williams' firing, Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint immediately started calling for federal defunding of NPR; they were silent after the earlier NPR missive.)
Both the liberals and the conservatives are missing the point. National Public Radio is taking the correct stand to preserve journalism. Reporters have their own opinions and biases, of course; we all do. But if one is going to be an analyst for one of the largest and most respected news organizations in the country, it is important to remain emotionally detached and neutral. It means analyzing news, not offering personal opinions in the public arena - of any kind, at any time. Williams clearly crossed that line, and had been forewarned by NPR for years about so doing.
So far, NPR is the only news organization which has made this fundamental stand for journalism. They deserve our support.
Full Disclosure: I worked with Sacramento's NPR station, "Capital Public Radio" for six years until I embarked on making a documentary film that blows the whistle on broadcasting, "Broadcast Blues." Station management was always very careful to present both sides of the story and to follow CPB guidelines for fairness and equal time. (Because NPR receives public funding, they are required to follow rules very similar to the old Fairness Doctrine - see story below.) At this point, I do not believe NPR would allow me to report for them; I clearly have a point of view.
And that's okay. Facts are facts, opinions are opinions (although mine are at least based in fact.) But news organizations do their audience a public service by building a clear firewall between the two.
Bravo to NPR for taking the correct stand. Let's hope more do.
Great NYTimes article on this topic: