Twice in the past month, NPR (National Public Readio) has found itself in hot water over the application of its ethics policy. Two weeks ago, they drew criticism over a memo sent from the news department to staffers reminding them, among other things, that they were not allowed to attend Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s upcoming rallies. Then, last week, they fired long-time news analyst Juan Williams after some remarks he made on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. In both cases, the network came under fire for political bias and for stifling free speech.
The thing is, neither of those accusations holds much water. It’s hard to really accuse NPR of being overly partisan when the two incidents fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum. And as for free speech, that is and always has been an issue of government censorship, not of whether a non-government organization is required to provide a platform for all types of speech.
No, in both cases, it comes down to a question of ethics. In particular, it’s a matter of conflicts of interest.
If you examine NPR’s ethics code, you’ll see that they go to great lengths to make sure that the organization’s journalistic integrity remains unblemished. Staff members, for example, are not allowed to donate to political campaigns, run for elected office, or participate in political events that might be covered by the network.
Journalists must recuse themselves from covering stories in which they might have a real or perceived conflict of interest. In short, no one who works for the news division should do anything that might call into question the organization’s ability to fairly and accurately report the news.
Now, on the face of it, that’s actually quite laudable. The business of news is an important one, and news organizations have a responsibility to do everything they can to ensure that the stories they disseminate are complete, correct, and as impartial as possible. Conflicts of interest are a big deal here — can you imagine how problematic it would be for a journalist to cover a story on, say, a company in which he was a major stakeholder, or an election in which he was a participant? It only makes sense to keep a reporter from reporting on events in which he has a vested interest in the outcome.
What do you do, though, with a story where everyone has a vested interest in the outcome? Who isn’t affected by the result of a presidential election, for example? Who has no stake at all in national security, global economics, or any number of other political topics? When no one is truly objective, who can be trusted to give an impartial analysis of current events?
And this is where policies like NPR’s ethics code become problematic. Really, such a code can’t deliver true impartiality; it can only deliver the appearance of impartiality. NPR can keep its employees from revealing their biases, but at the end of the day — as the Juan Williams incident proves so handily — those biases exist whether or not anyone in the audience knows about them.
I’m left to wonder: might it not be better to go the other way entirely? Instead of aiming for the appearance of neutrality, what if NPR went for a more transparent reality? What if, for example, they hadn’t fired Juan Williams? Williams would have presumably gone on to provide the same sort of news and analysis that he always did, only now listeners would have a greater insight into where that news and analysis were coming from. True, we might not see him the same way that we used to, but the question is whether we should have seen him that way in the first place.
By moving towards transparency, NPR might lose the appearance of impartiality. I can’t help thinking, though, that that might be just what we need.