NPR: Love ya, but you’re wrong

NPR has told its staff they may not attend the Stewart/Colbert rallies in Washington at the end of the month. I think they’re terribly wrong here, following the journalistic worldview Jay Rosen calls the view-from-nowhere to its extreme and forbidding employees to be curious.

Or as I tweeted: So I guess NPR reporters aren’t allowed to be *citizen* journalists.

Oh, I understand the argument: NPR reporters are supposed to be objective and express no political opinion and do nothing political. I went to J-school, too. And we could argue the point as if in a freshman seminar. I say 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).

Of course, it’s amusing that NPR had to backpedal and explain why a similar memo didn’t go out about Glenn Beck’s rally. That, the network explained, is because Beck’s was overtly political. Oh, come on, we’re not that dumb. It’s because NPR people are not Beck people. NPR people are Stewart people. They have a sense of humor. Oh, and they’re liberal. No guessing needed.

And that’s OK. It’s time for reporters to be open and honest.

But my real problem here is, again, that NPR is forbidding its employees to be curious. There’s a big event going on in Washington. It could — just could — be the beginning of a movement mobilizing the middle. But NPR people are not allowed to even witness it, to go and try to figure it out, to understand what’s being said and why people are there. No, they can do that only if they are *assigned* to do that. Otherwise, it might seem as if by merely showing up they might have a forbidden opinion.


In its effort to be hyperjournalistic NPR is being unjournalistic. Journalists, properly empowered, are curious. They want to know things. NPR is telling them not to ask questions.

And there’s something more. A few years ago in Washington at the Online News Association confab — which this year, it so happens, is being held the same time as the Stewart rally [coincidence? or liberal journalistic conspiracy?] — I was on a panel back in the good ol’ days when we all still yammered on about “citizen journalists” and a newspaper person came the mic in tears — I swear — saying, “I’m a citizen, too.” Right, I said. So act like one. Citizens are involved in their communities, part of their communities, so they can understand and serve those communities. Journalists tried to separate themselves from their communities (and opinions) and that is much of the reason why journalists lost touch with how to serve them. It is time to get off the fucking pedestal and return to the streets. And the Washington Mall.

I suggest that NPR journalists should protest this order from above. Use social media, folks, and have an opinion about opinions … or at least about curiosity. Start a Facebook page. Start a Twitter meme. Use all those new tools your bosses are teaching you to tell your bosses about this new world you should be part of.

More: Michael Calderone reprints a Washington Post memo that says employees are allowed to watch the rally from the sidelines. Does that mean they’re not allowed to talk to people there? And the New York Times advises staff to avoid such events. Ridiculous. It’s as if the people they serve and cover have cooties.

  • randulo

    Too true, Jeff. I recall in Berkeley a waitress telling us “They keep going on about ‘the people’. I’m the people too!” Citizen journalism, for better or worse, is here. So is crappy pro journalism and circus journalism, so what changes? More choice.

  • Dennis Tracz

    Hopefully the NPR brass will relent and allow their people to be people!

  • David

    So I wonder, then, if NPR is going to outfit all of it’s journalists with GPS locaters to ensure none of the unassigned visit the Stewart / Colbert rallies. Otherwise, I view the order, if it is indeed such, as a rather asinine infringement of personal freedom.

    I say to all NPR journalists: Who gives a damn whether you’re assigned to cover the event or not? If you want to go, go. If you don’t, don’t. But to allow your employer to forbid you to attend a free and public rally because you might care to have an opinion on the subject matter is a violation of the very first amendment rights you, as journalists, are supposed to help uphold.

    That’s my argument and I’m sticking to it. :)

  • Derek

    If NPR is willing to give up their public funding…

    • Marcotte Anderson

      I won’t rehash the argument about how little public funding the CPB actually gets, and instead just ask, why is this relevant?

      Also, did Fox News forbid their employees from attending the Beck rally? If not, should they have?

    • Andy Freeman

      If the amount of public money that NPR gets was actually insignificant, giving it up would be no big deal.

      Public funding is relevant because if you’re on the govt teat, you have a financial interest in keeping the milk flowing.

      • Marcotte Anderson

        “if you’re on the govt teat, you have a financial interest in keeping the milk flowing.”

        Ok, I understand this in the context of itself, but not in the context of NPR forbidding journalists from attending the Stewart rally.

        I repeat, how is NPR’s government funding relevant to NPR’s decision to bar journalists from attending the rally on their own time? Does attending the rally help insure that the government funding will continue?

      • Andy Freeman

        > Ok, I understand this in the context of itself, but not in the context of NPR forbidding journalists from attending the Stewart rally.

        One might reasonably guess that the Stewart/Colbert rallies will be aimed primarily at Tea Parties and the like. Yes, there will be some jokes at Obama’s expense, but they’ll be personal, not attacking his competence. After all, that’s where they’ve come down so far.

        You’ll have to ask the folks at NPR why they think that being associated with that is a bad thing. I assume that they have some competence wrt the public perception of NPR.

        BTW – I note that you didn’t bother to refute my existence proof that NPR’s govt funding is significant….

      • Marcotte Anderson

        BTW – I note that you didn’t bother to refute my existence proof that NPR’s govt funding is significant….

        You have a fair point regarding it’s significance to the entire budget – 10% is not insignificant I suppose – but you have still failed to link the government funding of NPR to this particular policy.

        Is it your argument that forbidding reporters from attending these events will “keep the milk flowing”?

        You say, “You’ll have to ask the folks at NPR why they think that being associated with that is a bad thing.”

        I would agree that a journalist being seen at this event (or Beck’s, fwiw) could create a perception of bias in the eyes of the public, and I can see why this would be undesirable to NPR brass. Likewise with any news organization. What I don’t see is how the public funding is relevant to this position on the part of NPR.

        “not attacking his competence. After all, that’s where they’ve come down so far.”
        I’ve seen Stewart attack Obama’s competence several times, and I don’t even watch the show that regularly.

      • Andy Freeman

        > but you have still failed to link the government funding of NPR to this particular policy.

        So what?

        You don’t keep govt funding by just supporting govt when it’s talking about you. You build coalitions, etc.

        “this rally has nothing to do with NPR funding” may be your best argument, but that doesn’t make it a good argument.

        > Is it your argument that forbidding reporters from attending these events will “keep the milk flowing”?


        My argument is that NPR has a vested interest in reasonably large govt and works to maintain that. It also has a vested interest in maintaining an illusion of objectivity. It knows that it can lose the latter through lots of little incidents, like reporters cheering candidates or particular political movements.

        Since the latter is the kind of evidence that MSM uses to damn others as biased, do you really want to argue that it doesn’t apply to the MSM?

        > 10% is not insignificant I suppose

        It’s leveraged quite a bit and it provides some legitimacy, so it’s more significant than its dollar share. That’s why NPR defends it so vehemently. If it was “just 10%”, they’d have replaced it by now, because there is cheaper money.

  • ozmos

    I don’t know, but would guess, that NPR, like many companies these days, also has a Social Media Policy that forbids employees from using Twitter or FB to make negative comments about the company.
    Agree with you, Jeff, but FYI this kinda stuff has been going on at NPR for a looooooong time. Just less publicly.

  • Roger Davies

    One of the things I always liked about being an unabashed liberal was that we were supposed to be nutso about out support of those basic freedoms like speech and assembly. To have any employer feel they can dictate what legal activities an employee may or may not do when not ‘on the clock’ offends me.

    I appreciate a news organization being sensitive about officially supporting one political (sexual, recreational, professional) choice. But to pretend that such a preference doesn’t exist shows a blissful, head in the sand sort of attitude. If we can’t see it, it must not exist.

    This is why, though often repetitive, I enjoy your ‘full disclosure’ asides, forcing us, the media consumer, to pay attention and apply our own filters to your words of wisdom.

    Man I wish I hadn’t read this. I find NPR a sort of escape which is becoming harder and harder to indulge in. I want MY head back in the sand….

  • Stan Hogan

    Those “citizen journalists” at NPR are receiving paychecks at least partially funded by the government. They have different pressures when it comes to fairness and objectivity, especially when the right constantly accuses them of pushing a liberal agenda.

    Curiosity can be cured by watching the thing on TV. It is, afterall, a political rally and attending sends a personal message. It is silly to say it is an effort to pull together the middle. Stewart and Colbert, while funny and entertaining, clearly are camped in left field, not center.

    It is still possible to break down barriers that have disconnected journalists from their communities. Activism can take forms that are not blatantly political.

    And as mentioned, attacking your bosses and their rules and decisions through social media is a fool’s game. I can’t believe you are encouraging that.

    • Marcotte Anderson

      “Curiosity can be cured by watching the thing on TV.”

      Can it? After the Beck rally, some (liberal) people said, “There weren’t a lot of minorities there” to which some (conservative) people replied, “Where you there? You can’t tell that from seeing it on TV.”

      It seems to me that television news coverage, especially from the likes of MSNBC, FoxNews, and to some extent CNN, is pretty heavily filtered and doesn’t usually give a very accurate portrayal of political events.

      “Those “citizen journalists” at NPR are receiving paychecks at least partially funded by the government.”

      As I asked Derek, why is this relevant? Should public employees not be allowed to attend any political rally? Should the not be allowed to put campaign signs in their yards? To take it to the absurd extreme, should they not be allowed to vote? Where would you draw the line as to what political activity public employees can partake in, in their private lives?

      • Stan Hogan

        You’ve done a pretty good job at drawing some of the lines, Marcotte. No political signs in your yard. No political rallies, unless you are covering that rally. You might add no donations to political campaigns, no buttons on your jacket and no driving the car for a candidate in a parade.

        Yes, you can vote. It’s a private process and cannot be denied, unless you are a felon, which is another story.

        It’s all about objectivity in your reporting. Absolutely, reporters have political opinions. Good reporters keep them to themselves and do not let those biases into their reporting. Even if the public’s trust in media is eroding you don’t just throw up your hands and abandon your ethics.

        As far as being funded by government, it gives you even greater cause for objectivity or shifting political winds will one day blow those funds away. And that would be a shame in the case of NPR.

        Stewart and Colbert are holding political rallies. They are timed too energize Democrats for a key election that could alter dramatically the political landscape. The fact they’re funny and entertaining doesn’t change that.

  • Hans Ibold

    Great points, especially in the last two graphs. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s description of the journalist as “committed observer”: interdependent with the community’s needs, part of the glue that defines and adheres a community together, not ashamed of this commitment, and not aloof from society.

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  • David

    NPR is worried about being branded liberal. Funny, NPR could sit on their hands all day; every day, and they will still be branded liberal because the branding suits Fox’s agenda. Fox needs a counter party to live out it’s marketing strategy, so Fox will create one even if it doesn’t exist. And Fox viewers will believe it and get all fired up. Totally orwellian. SO, I say go to the rally; don’t go to the rally…NPR’s branding is not up to them anyway. Their actions (or even words really) don’t matter. All that matters is Fox’s business model.

    • Tex Lovera

      No, FOX is popular precisely because of the liberal bias that already existed for decades at NPR, CBS, NBC and ABC. FOX leans to the right. Why? Because nobody else did. They found a huge “niche” and filled it.

      As for NPR telling its employees not to attend the Stewart rally, yeah, that’s amusing. That’s not really the problem. The real problem was pointed out by Jeff: “NPR people are Stewart people”. They are overwhelmingly liberal. That is unacceptable in a news organization that accepts government funding.

    • Fox paranoia bullshit is getting really old. At first it was ironically funny and everybody took it with a wink. Then Fox was officially pronounced the anti-Christ and evidence of its foulness was spread far and wide, and now it’s responsible for everything. Raw sewage dump at the wastewater treatment plant – well that’s what the Fox people wanted. At this point people like you are warning that Fox anchors are going to come around and let the air out of your tires at night.

      Frankly, it’s a “tell” at this point. It’s like those whackjobs that are hard-line against homosexuality, and it turns out they’re gay. People who are ultra-paranoid about Fox are secretly latent Conservatives, and they’re worried as hell that their worldview is going to be upset and all their friends are going to find out. At first they’re like “hey, I’m cool, you know, I supported that health care bill,” but then they inevitably get caught drunk-quoting Cato studies or making late-night comments on milblogs, and their secret is out.

      So, people have all kinds of different news sources, and some of them disagree with yours. Get the fuck over it already. People have different opinions. Maybe some of yours are wrong too.

      • Marcotte Anderson

        “but then they inevitably get caught drunk-quoting Cato studies or making late-night comments on milblogs, and their secret is out.”

        LOL. I disagree with you, but this is some funny shit right here.

  • I added my comment to the NPR post: “Are NPR journalists prohibited from attending Catholic mass if the church is anti-abortion?”

    I work for an NPR affiliate and the station is using NPR’s memo as a guide for its own policy. There has been some disagreement internally; they haven’t made it official yet. I’m very curious to see where it lands.

  • Rick

    I wish NPR was liberal. We could use a good liberal radio network with wide coverage. In fact since huge multinationals now fund NPR I find NPR mostly irrelevant (Fresh Air excepted). As NPR distances itself from its homegrown roots, it becomes just another radio network that fades into the background noise. A sad loss for the audience.

  • Gerry

    How do you defend the concept of objectivity post Einstein/Heisenberg?
    Journalists’ work can only be evaluated if their prejudices are made known.
    I used to listed to NPR daily, but haven’t for years, since they worked so hard at toning down their liberal image that they became bland.

  • They should go but wear bags over their heads so no one will know who they are.

  • Sol Freunberg

    When will the mainstream media finally get it? Stewart and Colbert are COMEDIANS. The Daily Show and Colbert Report are COMEDY shows. They don’t hold themselves to journalistic principles like “objectivity” because they are not journalists. I don’t know what the people who show up to these rallies are expecting to see. But if they think Stewart’s rally is anything but comedy or performance art, they really need to take a step back and consider whether they get the joke or whether they are the butt of it.

    If my computer isn’t broken, then for some strange reason NPR has taken down a blog posting explaining why it banned its people from these rallies and asking for comments. The roughly 20 comments were mixed but trending negative when I saw it this morning and posted a comment opposing the ban. Now the post and the comments can’t be found. The post, on the the network’s blog, was titled “Why Can’t NPR Staff Go To ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ Or ‘March to Keep Fear Alive’?” The link was:

    Searching for it now gets you to a “page not found” message on Anybody else seen a missing blog post?

  • Matthew

    Sorry Jarvis, but YOU’RE wrong. NPR, unlike other “news” outlets, actually has real integrity. That’s why it’s consistently considered the best and most trusted news source in the nation, perhaps rivaled only by PBS.

    One of the reason our country is so divided is because of “citizen journalists” on either side of the political divide who don’t know the first thing about objective journalism and everything about spouting off their half-witted “knowledge” on one issue or another. If NPR staff are fans of Stewart/Colbert, let them watch the show from home. Whether you like it or not, they are both now political actors, not just comedians.

    Good for NPR for remaining true to their journalistic standards in this era of bombastic blogging blowhards!

    • Andy Freeman

      > Sorry Jarvis, but YOU’RE wrong. NPR, unlike other “news” outlets, actually has real integrity.

      Juan Williams.

  • Saul Hansell

    What’s wrong with choice and diversity? It is great for America that British style opinionated journalism is taking hold here. The internet age’s focus on transparency and questioning of the limits of objectivity is healthy and good for readers, as you say so often.

    But why not encourage those organizations that want to nurture and preserve the ideas and traditions of twentieth century American journalism. I think any analysis would lead to the conclusion that those ideas produced successes as well as failures.

    Isn’t it possible that organizations that require their reporters to go through a ritualistic subordination of their political views produce content that is in some ways different from those that take other approaches?

    As a reader of news, I want the widest range of choices of information about the world produced by as many different methods as possible, so long as they meet basic standards of fairness and honesty.


    • Saul,
      Look at the trust numbers for newspapers. I do not think it has paid off. I think transparency is needed to gain trust today — all the more so. Disagree with that but that’s where my divide is.

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  • very true….NPR will concede later

  • Commodore_Perry

    Colbert is now encouraging costumes at the rally. I wonder if this is a response to the memo or just a coincidence?

    • If I lived on that side of the country and could easily go I would– wearing a tee shirt saying “Off-duty NPR reporter”

      • I think I’ll wear one that says “Not an NPR reporter”

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  • I wonder why the policy also doesn’t forbid employees from watching the event on TV or from reading about it or listening to the reports about it, even on NPR. You know. Like the sequestered jurors journalists are supposed to be …

    • Because it’s what they do in public, not private, that they are trying to exert some control over.

      I don’t agree with it, but that’s the answer you would get from the powers that be.

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  • Kyle X.

    Jeff, I come on behalf of the Internets. As representative for the Internets, I have come to advise you that Internets has met it’s quota for douchebags and douche-like rantings.

    Needless to say, your services are no longer required as a douche and are asked to leave the premisis within the next 24 hours or be escorted out by Internets Police.

    We are more than willing to give you a letter of reccomendation to any other media outlet, such as town crier or Morris code blogger.

    Yours in “Bob”,
    Kyle X.
    Internets Standards and Human Resources

  • LifesBeenGood

    While I think it is unfortunate that NPR feels it needs to sequester its employees from this event, I find it fascinating that our news outlets have this sort of policy, some of which include family members and it would appear that our Supreme Court doesn’t.

    From the AP: “Employees should avoid any conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest in the investments and business interests of their spouses or other members of their household with whom they share finances. They are expected to make every effort to assure that no spouse or other member of their household has investment or business interests that could pose such a conflict.”

    Clarence Thomas’ wife could not be more overtly political which I find to be much more disturbing than a news source being politically slanted. Any appearance of impartiality is nonexistent in my eyes.

  • MBorunda

    The question about phony media ‘objectivity’ is certainly worthy of debate.

    But Mr. Jarvis’ incessant and contemptuous calls for mainstream journos to get ‘the fucking pedestal’ can morph dangerously, in these fraught polarized times, into a full-on assault on any fact-based reporting and an embrace of unabashed partisanship. Myabe, in his estimation, that would be a good thing. But in that case, we’re back in the 1890s, with a combination of conspiracy theory babble and ‘bought’ reporters advancing the interests of robber barons of all ilks. (The modern iteration of this would be a public addled by anger-stoking shout-fests like those running on a endless loop on cable ‘news.’) Jarvis has a point here. But his scorn needs to be tempered with a reminder that we need more facts, not opinions in our journalsim–otherwise, he risks coming off as an evangelist, or carny caller.

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