Strong opinions from NPR personalities raise questions about limits on editorializing

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When Scott Simon spoke in Seattle in March, half the crowd stood and cheered, half sat resolutely in their chairs, and at least one listener wasn’t sure what to think.

The NPR host had just shared his views of the impending war in Iraq with an audience of 300 gathered to support area libraries. To Marcie Sillman, a reporter at Seattle’s KUOW-FM moderating the event, he went too far.

While journalists can have opinions, she says, “I wondered at the time whether somebody who was going to be covering the situation should be making that opinion public.”

The speech, which Simon defends as nuanced and balanced, was just one appearance that poses the question: when should journalists speak their minds?

Another NPR reporter, Mara Liasson, attracted attention when she criticized two congressmen in a Fox News appearance.

NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin tackled the topic in a July column on NPR’s website, and a forthcoming update of a public radio ethics guide takes up the subject.

At stake, say Dvorkin and others, is the reporter’s integrity in the public eye. The concern is that journalists who share their opinions might be seen as biased by a wary public.

“It’s a potential mine field,” says Alan Stavitsky, a University of Oregon communications professor who, with Dvorkin, is revising the ethics guide.

Pubcasters have also been scrutinizing Bill Moyers’ dual roles of host and opinionated liberal commentator on his PBS show, Now with Bill Moyers. Stavitsky says the problem extends through all of journalism, given punditry’s surge on cable news and in televised journalists’ roundtables.

Several ‘lines of thinking’

The Seattle appearance was not Simon’s first time sounding off about war in public. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the Weekend Edition Saturday host addressed the annual convention of the United Church of Christ, where he discussed his Quaker faith and how reporting from war zones shook his pacifist beliefs.

The speech was later adapted for “Even Pacifists Must Support This War,” an Oct. 11, 2001, op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. “It seems to me that in confronting the forces that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, American pacifists have no sane alternative now but to support war,” he wrote. “I don’t consider this reprisal or revenge, but self-defense: protecting the world from further attacks by destroying those who would launch them.”

The journalist spoke in Seattle on March 15, four days before the U.S. began strikes on Baghdad. As Simon recalls, he challenged opponents of war to consider the fate of Iraq’s society without military intervention but did not endorse war explicitly.

“I hoped to be thought-provoking and informative,” he says. “I think I acknowledged the elements against war in Iraq.”

Both in Seattle and in the Wall Street Journal, Simon says, he “presented several lines of thinking” and reviewed the range of opinion both for and against war. He does not believe either incident undermined his image as an objective journalist.

But some Seattle listeners heard a pro-war message. Simon “thought it would be a good thing to remove Hussein and liberate the people of Iraq,” reports Claire Wilkinson, a development specialist at the King County Library System Foundation.

Wilkinson, who had enlisted Simon because of his stepfather’s work with Chicago libraries, hadn’t expected to hear the radio host’s views on war. “We were kind of hoping he’d get them all pumped up about libraries,” she says. “It didn’t quite turn out that way.” Half the crowd gave Simon a standing ovation. The rest stayed seated.

The Seattle Weekly, an alternative newspaper, said Simon “delivered an impassioned and, in trademark fashion, both eloquent and mawkish speech for war in Iraq.”

“He felt that U.S. military intervention was justified because of the horrible atrocities that Saddam Hussein had committed against his own people,” Sillman says.

Sillman says that as a journalist she would not have delivered such a speech. She later raised the issue with Kate Concannon, a West Coast bureau chief for NPR.

She also talked with KUOW Program Director Jeff Hansen, who aired their concerns at a meeting of news/talk station PDs at the Public Radio Conference in May. “It affects you as an honest broker,” he said.

Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming, and Assistant Managing Editor Peggy Girshman said they were unaware of Simon’s remarks. “We’ll whack him,” Kernis joked.

Simon later reported from Iraq after the U.S. military captured Baghdad. Sillman had trouble hearing his reporting as unbiased. When Simon reported on Iraqis who had suffered under Hussein and were celebrating their freedom, she wondered whether he was seeking out the stories to prove his point.

Wilkinson, on the other hand, had no ethical quibbles with Simon’s speech.

“I don’t expect someone who’s a journalist in that particular situation, as a speaker, to be speaking as a journalist,” she says. “I expect them to be speaking as an author and individual. . . . Talking to 300 people at a fundraising dinner in suburban Seattle is not quite the same thing as using the airwaves to present a particular point of view.”

NPR’s policy says news staff “should not say anything on subjects they cover that they would not be able to say under their own ‘byline’ on NPR,” said Bruce Drake, v.p. of news, in an email. Staff “always must keep in the forefront of their minds that they are guardians of NPR’s credibility and reputation for fair journalism.”

“I think I abide by the same general rules as anyone on staff here,” Simon says, adding that some may have disagreed with his comments not because he crossed ethical lines but because they disliked what he had to say.

“The problem we always have with so much of what we do is that people who have strong viewpoints one way or another often don’t hear the other side,” he says. “And I don’t know what to do about that.”

Dvorkin didn’t hear Simon’s speech, but says the Wall Street Journal editorial was “inappropriate.”

Liasson regrets Fox remark

The issue surfaced again in July when Dvorkin addressed the Liasson incident. Left-wing critics challenged an Oct. 3, 2002, appearance on Fox News Sunday in which the NPR reporter said two congressmen should step down for traveling to Iraq and criticizing Bush.

“These guys are a disgrace,” she said. “Look, everybody knows it’s … Politics 101 that you don’t go to an adversary country, an enemy country, and badmouth the United States, its policies and the president of the United States. I mean, these guys ought to, I don’t know, resign.”

Liasson regrets the comment. “I have no excuse for what I said, and I wish I hadn’t,” she says. Liasson says she respects NPR’s policy and, except for that case, has stayed on the appropriate side of the line between analysis and punditry.

“Being a pundit is when you give your personal opinion. Being an analyst is when you bring your collective experience” to shed light on events, she says.

Dvorkin worries that TV producers push journalists into punditry. “I’ve been on a show where a 20-something producer comes on and says, ‘We want you to yell at each other,’” he says. “I don’t want to do that. It’s a televised food fight. It’s apparently good television, but it’s lousy journalism.”

In his column on about Liasson’s criticism of the congressmen, Dvorkin pointed to a general problem for NPR reporters who, like Liasson, appear regularly on Fox. “Fox hosts often imply that NPR reporters are the embodiment of liberal journalism by placing them against openly conservative personalities,” he wrote. “This may confirm in the minds of some viewers that NPR must be as ideologically committed in its own way as Fox is to the conservative cause.” Fox also taps NPR reporter and former Talk of the Nation host Juan Williams for roundtables.

In response, Drake says NPR “should be judged by what’s on our air. And I’m confident that what’s on our air is solid journalism.”

Protecting the ‘coinage’

Dvorkin says many readers inside and outside NPR responded to his July 30 column. News staffers told him “it was about time that this was addressed,” he says. “I’m hopeful that this will encourage NPR management to make sure that its own rules are followed closely by all employees,” he says.

The Fox appearances need not end, he says, but adds, “If NPR journalists are there being reportorial, as opposed to being bloviators, I’m not sure Fox will want them.” Reporters veer into punditry less often than in the past, Dvorkin believes, because NPR’s management has made it a bigger issue.

Concern about ethics is rising both at NPR and at stations, Dvorkin says. “There’s a lot of doubt now in the public’s mind about the value of journalism in general—a level of scrutiny that may be as great as at any other time in our history,” he says.

Journalists in all media are worried about public cynicism toward their work. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in June and July found that two-thirds of the public think the media tends to favor one side of an issue.

The same study found half of television viewers, especially young ones, like watching strongly opinionated news hosts — possibly fueling the tide of punditry that Dvorkin and reporters want to beat back.

Stations have fewer problems reining in their reporters because they’re asked to speak publicly less frequently, says Connie Walker, president of the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Reporters are most at risk, she says, when asked to predict how a news story might develop.

“You can be speaking off the cuff and saying the implications are such and such, and start to talk about what you think should happen, versus what you think might happen,” Walker says.

Vigilance is crucial, Dvorkin says of NPR. “Our credibility is our currency,” he says. “We lose that, we debase the coinage. We have nothing left.”

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