National Public Radio (NPR) was the first out of the blocks to tell its reporters to stay away from the upcoming Washington events hosted by comedian commentators Jon Stewart (Rally to Restore Sanity) and Stephen Colbert (March to Keep Fear Alive). Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s senior vice president was shocked — shocked — at the interest in the network’s warning its reporters away from the events.
Maybe it’s because by warning your reporters away from the Stewart and Colbert events you’re solidifying the reputation for elitism that you’re trying so hard to shed. After all, you didn’t tell your reporters not to attend Glen Beck’s million moron march, right? But all three were performances posing as political action, so why single out Stewart and Colbert?
Davis Rhem, in a follow-up memo responded, “It’s different with the Colbert and Stewart rallies; they are ambiguous. But their rallies will be perceived as political by many, whatever we think. As such, they are off limits except for those covering the events.”
When queried by Michael Calderone, writing for Yahoo!’s The Upshot, ABC, NBC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, all indicated similar policies in place. Although the Post allows its staffers to “observe” but not “participate in” such events.
This is enforcing a view from nowhere worldview in an absurdly nontransparent way. As Jeff Jarvis notes, this isn’t corporate media’s vaunted objectivity, “… this is merely a lie of omission, telling reporters to conceal their viewpoints and making listeners guess where they’re coming from (the audience knows that can’t be nowhere).”
That would be bad enough, but NPR couldn’t resist picking the scab. “One never truly knows what a lousy job the blogosphere is capable of until one is at the center of a story” is the slug for Alica G. Shepard’s ombudsman report for NPR on the matter, “NPR Employees and Political Rallies: Facts Behind the Controversy.” It just gets worse from there. Shepard acknowledges that the initial memo failed to mention that NPR would, of course, be covering the rally and that NPR has had these rules in place since 2004, and that the initial memo was in response to staffers queries about whether the comedic performance was to be considered political. Shepard goes on to acknowledge that NPR singled out the Stewart and Colbert performances. In between snipes and snarks at the bloggers (none of which are substantiated with so much as a link), Shepherd winds up with the old chestnut that journalists are privileged professionals and as such, must be devoid from voicing an opinion or even exercising curiosity.
Shepard is flat wrong about this. It’s not the blogosphere’s fault that NPR self-admittedly screwed the pooch with a poor communication that was wrong-headed to begin with. To try to shift attention to the nutty responses to an ill-conceived memo is a disservice to NPR’s audience and NPR itself. As Jeff Jarvis writes, “Shepard acknowledges that management’s memo failed to say that NPR would cover the rally and then she gets all high and haughty that people wondered whether it would. That fails a pretty basic test of journalism: Does the story answer the obvious questions? And if it doesn’t, who’s to blame for confusion, pray tell?”
Jarvis takes strong exception to Shepard raising the cloak of journalistic invisibility: Objectivity. “If you really mean that, then you should follow Washington Post ex-editor Leonard Downie’s vow of voting chastity and order that staff may not cast ballots,” writes Jarvis. “For that is taking sides. Except it’s done in private. So it doesn’t create perceptions. That, then, is what this entire episode is really about: Perceptions, the PR in NPR.”
Bob Collins, writing for Minnesota Public Radio, zeros in on the problem when he writes Shepard missed “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.”
“… 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.”