I was really troubled by a recent op-ed coauthored by NPR reporter Cokie Roberts on trade and labor issues. What I found so troubling about this piece was that not only did Roberts - an NPR reporter who is closely identified with NPR - advocate a particular position on a controversial topic currently before Congress, she did so in a way that clearly demonstrated contempt for one side of the debate and an unwillingness to fairly consider the issues raised by that side of the debate.
The op-ed is here.
As an individual citizen, of course, it is Ms. Roberts' right to hold these views, and to advocate them. But as someone associated with NPR, it raises two troubling issues.
First: Cokie Roberts is well-known in the United States based on her role as a reporter for NPR. To the extent that she uses her stature to advocate for a particular position, it compromises NPR.
Second: Cokie Roberts is still affiliated with NPR, and is identified on the NPR website as a "Contributing Senior News Analyst." As a "Contributing Senior News Analyst," she is reporting on issues before Congress in which labor unions have an interest. This raises the question of whether Ms. Roberts can provide reporting on these issues which is free of bias, or is perceived to be free of bias.
I know that as an NPR listener, having read her opinion piece, I would regard any reporting by Ms. Roberts on any issue related to organized labor as extremely suspect.
It's one thing to advocate a particular view, and to regard an opposing view as incorrect. It's quite another to regard one side of a debate as contemptible and illegitimate interlopers, whose views should be completely ignored. It's this latter view that is expressed in Ms. Roberts' opinion piece:
"That's why Democratic leaders cannot afford to listen to the labor movement as the country approaches a major debate over trade policy. "
"However, those losers, and their labor bosses, should not be allowed to dictate trade policy."
Imagine that this was a piece on some other topic, and some other constituency was treated with such contempt. Wouldn't this raise questions of bias?
"That's why Democratic leaders cannot afford to listen to the civil rights movement as the country approaches a major debate over election reform."
"That's why Democratic leaders cannot afford to listen to the environmental movement as the country approaches a major debate over energy policy."
What's really striking about this is that the people that Cokie Roberts believes should be excluded from the debate represent a mainstay of the support of NPR. NPR is funded, in part, by U.S. tax dollars. U.S. taxes are paid by trade unionists, and trade unionists are a core constituency for higher government domestic spending in general. Trade unionists and supporters of trade union rights contribute to NPR stations, which in turn pay fees to NPR. It's odd that trade unionists would be treated with such contempt by someone who is one of the most prominent people in the United States associated with NPR.
NPR posts an "ethics guide" on its website. There are several passages that seem to be relevant to the question of whether Ms. Roberts' advocacy on this topic is appropriate under NPR guidelines. Emphasis mine.
Starting on page 18:
"Just as public radio as an institution must be independent from external influences, so too must individual public radio journalists be free of conflicts that impair their ability to gather and present the news in a fair, accurate and balanced manner. Put another way, not only must we be fair, accurate and balanced, our listeners must be confident that we are."
Might my activities and relationships compromise my ability to produce fair,
accurate and balanced journalism?
Might anyone reasonably think my activities and relationships could influence my
ability to report?"
"Public radio journalists may not use their professional affiliations to advocate for political or social causes. While we all have a stake in the well being of our communities, the line should be drawn where journalistic credibility may be affected. Well-known personalities must be especially sensitive to the appearance of advocacy."
"Remember that your public radio affiliation will follow you. When appearing on other media, public radio journalists must adhere to the editorial standards of public radio. Don't say anything you wouldn't say on your own station or network. Remain reportorial!"
"When speaking to outside groups, public radio journalists should refrain from taking sides on public issues."
It's hard to reconcile these guidelines with a) Ms. Roberts' views, as stated in the opinion piece and b) allowing her to continue to report for NPR on topics in Congress that concern labor unions.
At a minimum, NPR should exclude Ms. Roberts from future NPR reporting on trade issues in Congress or any other issue (e.g. labor law reform, worker safety legislation or regulations, raising the minimum wage) that significantly involves or impacts organized labor.
You can write to the NPR Ombudsman here:
Follow Robert Naiman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/naiman