NPR Listeners Fret over Correspondents Appearing on Fox News

NPR ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin defends two NPR correspondents who go on Fox News regularly, Mara Liasson and Juan Williams. Many NPR fans, especially those inflamed by Media Matters, complain to NPR that for their reporters to go on FNC is merely to provide a fig leaf for Fox News's claim to be "fair and balanced."

Dvorkin says it's okay for NPR people to go on Fox because of "NPR's commitment to free speech and free inquiry," although reporters "have to stay reportorial -- not become editorial writers or opiners."

Nothing riles some public-radio listeners like NPR journalists appearing on FOX News television programs. Two prominent NPR correspondents, Mara Liasson and Juan Williams are regular panelists on FOX. What bothers those NPR listeners who complain to me is that the cable television network openly espouses conservative opinions as expressed by outspoken hosts. The FOX slogan, "fair and balanced" is deemed by many of the complainants as ironic, to say the least.

That's because NPR makes every effort to remain nonpartisan, and FOX, it appears, does not. Frustrated public-radio listeners tell me that the NPR presence only serves as cover for FOX's claim that it is "fair and balanced." And that frustration is further pumped up by some political blogs, seeking to trash both FOX for being conservative, and NPR for looking like FOX's willing agents whenever its news representatives participate on FOX's programs.

Media Matters started an email campaign based on a faulty transcript of Mara Liason's May 7 appearance on Fox News Sunday.
NPR's Mara Liasson reported (accurately, in my opinion) that the polls indicate the public sees the Abramoff scandal as being essentially bipartisan even though only Republicans took money from the now disgraced, but once well-connected lobbyist.

The FOX transcript did not initially record it like that. Due to a misplaced comma, it left the impression that Liasson said that both parties had profited directly from Abramoff. FOX soon issued an accurate transcript, but the correction was ignored by two blogs, Media Matters and Think Progress.

The blogs encouraged people to complain to NPR, and hundreds did, many with a surprising level of rancor and vituperation, which was shockingly intense, even in these times of "take-no-prisoners-and shoot-the-wounded" political debate.

The blogs got it wrong because FOX's original transcript was in error. But the blogs, unlike FOX, never bothered telling their supporters about the correction.

Listeners never have a problem with NPR journalists appearing on other networks.
At the same time, there is rarely any objection from listeners to NPR journalists appearing on or in other media. Political editor Ken Rudin is a regular on CNN. Reporters Nina Totenberg, Andrea Seabrook and Tom Gjelten, among others have often appeared on PBS.

The few complaints I receive about those appearances are minor compared with the astonishing level of anger, rebuke and personal attack whenever NPR journalists appear on FOX.....

First, for many in the blogosphere, the issue is FOX -- pure and simple. Many who write to me describe FOX as the "anti-NPR." They say that while NPR represents some of what is best about American journalism, FOX represents the worst.

Most of those who emailed NPR to complain had not even seen the Fox report.

In a free country, free expression should be a sacred trust. But when the blogs launch a campaign, there is a mean-spirited, venomous quality to the e-mails. Of the hundreds I received complaining about Mara Liasson’s putative error, many were as nasty and as personal in tone as I have ever seen.

Perhaps only three or four of those who wrote to me had actually seen the report on FOX. Those listeners thought Liasson might have made the argument in a less ambiguous way. While the tone of their emails was oppositional, they were reasonable and respectful.

It's okay for NPR journalists to appear on Fox, or any other network, as long as they are reporters, not commentators.
I think the answer must be yes because of NPR's commitment to free speech and free inquiry.

But at the same time, its employees need to be reminded that NPR's own ethics guide -- specifically section V.10 -- is quite clear:

10. In appearing on TV or other media, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as journalists on NPR's programs. They should not participate in shows that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis; that whenever they appear in public, they represent NPR and its journalistic standards and practices. They should not express their personal opinions on matters of public controversy because that impairs their ability to report credibly on those same matters for NPR. NPR journalists have, in my opinion, an affirmative obligation to remain reportorial at all times.
There is a small risk to remaining reportorial. Reporters have to stay reportorial -- not become editorial writers or opiners. Not expressing a personal opinion might make NPR journalists less useful to other media -- especially FOX, but that is what is required.