npr flap over news “objectivity”

So NPR fired one of its commentators for comments made elsewhere on the Fox News Network.  The case touches on a number of evolving ethical issues in the new mediaverse, as reported by Brian Stelter, who has been tracking the story in the Times.

Like other news organizations, NPR expects its journalists to steer clear of situations that might call its impartiality into question. NPR’s ethics code explains the rule this way: “In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”

The irony of course is that Fox is treating it as a First Amendment Issue, resigned Juan Williams to a new multi-million dollar contract.  The accusations of political correctness against NPR are also strange, given that Williams ostensibly plays a “house liberal” in his Fox role.  In any case, it shows the uneasy tension between traditional norms of objectivity (claimed by NPR) and more opinionated comments exemplified by Fox.

After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias.

Ultimately, NPR has only itself to blame for letting its journalists double-dip.  NPR as a publicly supported news organization should provide something not available elsewhere, but too often serves up the same menu of stories, sources, and opinions readily available elsewhere.  There should be enough journalists willing to play by the NPR rules of impartiality to not have to retain those offering their services to a number of outlets.  Now, it has given the critics of public media (and I would argue a, relatively speaking, quality journalism forum) a club to beat it with.

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