Ethics train wreck scholars take note: when an organization’s image and existence is based on multiple lies, an ETW is inevitable.
National Public Radio is now in the middle of a massive, six-months long ethics train wreck that began with the hypocritical firing of Juan Williams on a trumped-up ethics violation. The disaster exposes the culture of dishonesty and entitlement at the heart of NPR, and by extension, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. To the extent that their supporters blame anyone else, it is evidence of denial. This is a train wreck, however, and the ethics violators drawn into the wreckage are many:
The Fraud: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting: The once valid rationale for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System vanished with the availability of cable and satellite television and the explosion of new technologies, including VCR’s and the Internet. You can read my enumeration of their arguments for continued government funding and refutations here; suffice it to say that those who deny man-made global warming have infinitely more logic and honesty behind their much-maligned case than the defenders of NPR and PBS have behind theirs. Ultimately, these defenders are reduced to nonsensical statements like “the $420 million this costs is a drop in the bucket compared to the budget” and Harry Reid’s risible (and hilariously muddled) statement yesterday that eliminating public broadcasting was “mean-spirited.” The words he was looking for were “long overdue” and “responsible.”
Meanwhile, though taxpayer-funded programming would seem to demand representing a broad spectrum of political views and tastes, NPR and PBS have always spoken for the white wine and brie set, older upper middle class liberals who disdain popular culture (until it becomes “classic”: last weeks PBS fundraising appeal featured “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In”, a show that we were told in 1968 represented the kind of low-brow drivel PBS existed to counter),vote for Democrats, oppose U.S. wars, approve of abortion, cheer affirmative action and applaud political correctness. Although this is immediately obvious upon even brief visits to NPR or PBS, its executives continue to ridicule the notion. When the truth slips out, as it did in the actions of NPR Vivian Schiller when she fired Williams, or the comments of outgoing NPR exec Ron Schiller when he was surreptitiously taped, the institutions implausibly deny it.
The Leader: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. Schiller was responsible for creating the arrogant culture of deceit, political correctness and double standards that led to the Williams debacle, cynically citing the NPR Code of Ethics while selectively defying it.
As I wrote in October, 2010:
“Here are the sections of the Code as they were explicitly cited by Schiller:
“…these specific comments (and others made in the past), are inconsistent with NPR’s ethics code, which applies to all journalists (including contracted analysts): ‘In appearing on TV or other media. … NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows … that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
Oh…you mean like NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, who engages in reliably liberal punditry as a regular panel member on the public policy program “Inside Washington”? Why isn’t this part of the Code applied to her? Answer: because the Code isn’t there to be applied, followed, or even read. It is there for management to use when it wants to denigrate a fired employee as “unethical.” Totenberg’s punditry follows the NPR script, so she’s “ethical.”
“More fundamentally, ‘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.’”
Oh? Williams writes that he would have made the same comments about Muslims on NPR, and told the woman firing him (by phone) as much. Schiller is, therefore, calling him a liar. Why wouldn’t he express the same views on NPR? There are only a couple of possibilities: he wouldn’t because a politically incorrect opinion would upset NPR listeners, who really don’t want to hear “all important views on a topic,” as the NPR Code supposedly commits NPR to presenting, or because his bosses have made it clear that non-conforming opinions will have dire consequences for those expressing them. Either way, this code provision has nothing to do with ethics, and everything to do with intimidation and enforced conformity with a predetermined message.
Which Schiller more or less admitted with her final line:
“Unfortunately, Juan’s comments on Fox violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so.”
What “standards?” Surely not the NPR Ethics Code standards of “fair, unbiased, accurate, complete and honest!” Williams was accurate. He was honest. His opinion is essential to completely understanding the dynamics of the story. He was not giving a biased opinion but expressing his feelings, and there is not a thing wrong or unfair about admitting that he has the fears he expressed, rational or not. He “offended many”? So what? NPR offends people every day; truth offends many; opinions offend many.”
The Enablers: NPR’s Board. CEO Schiller “resigned” yesterday (she was fired) because NPR’s mask of objectivity and political neutrality has been yanked off by current events, revealing the arrogant, self-satisfied, smug mess Schiller tolerated. The board, however, refused to be candid to the public, making this indefensibly dishonest statement:
“The Board accepted her resignation with understanding, genuine regret, and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years.
“Vivian brought vision and energy to this organization. She led NPR back from the enormous economic challenges of the previous two years. She was passionately committed to NPR’s mission, and to stations and NPR working collaboratively as a local-national news network.”
Translation: “It’s a crying shame. Vivian did nothing wrong, but we need a scapegoat if we are going to get that Neanderthal Tea-bagging Congress to write us another fat check.”
If the board wanted to earn the public trust, it should have linked Schiller’s exit to a new organizational commitment to finally exhibit some integrity and meet the NPR standards of being fair, unbiased, accurate, and honest. From the NPR Code:
“Fair” means that we present all important views on a subject. This range of views may be encompassed in a single story on a controversial topic, or it may play out over a body of coverage or series of commentaries. But at all times the commitment to presenting all important views must be conscious and affirmative, and it must be timely if it is being accomplished over the course of more than one story. We also assure that every possible effort is made to reach an individual (or a spokesperson for an entity) that is the subject of criticism, unfavorable allegations or other negative assertions in a story in order to allow them to respond to those assertions.
“Unbiased” means that we separate our personal opinions – such as an individual’s religious beliefs or political ideology – from the subjects we are covering. We do not approach any coverage with overt or hidden agendas.
“Accurate” means that each day we make rigorous efforts at all levels of the newsgathering and programming process to ensure our facts are not only accurate but also presented in the correct context. We make every possible effort to ensure assertions of fact in commentaries, including facts implied as the basis for an opinion, are correct. We attempt to verify what our sources and the officials we interview tell us when the material involved is argumentative or open to different interpretations. We are skeptical of all facts gathered and report them only when we are reasonably satisfied of their accuracy. We guard against errors of omission that cause a story to misinform our listeners by failing to be complete. We make sure that our language accurately describes the facts and does not imply a fact we have not confirmed, and quotations are both accurate and placed properly in context.
“Honest” means we do not deceive the people or institutions we cover about our identity or intentions, and we do not deceive our listeners. We do not deceive our listeners by presenting the work of others as our own (plagiarism), by cutting interviews in ways that distort their meaning, or by manipulating audio in a way that distorts its meaning, how it was obtained or when it was obtained. The same applies to text and photographs or other visual material used on NPR Online. Honesty also means owning up publicly and quickly to mistakes we make on air or online.”Respect” means treating the people we cover and our audience with respect by approaching subjects in an open-minded, sensitive and civil way and by recognizing the diversity of the country and world on which we report, and the diversity of interests, attitudes and experiences of our audience.”
The Possessed: Ron Schiller. Outgoing executive Schiller was tricked into sucking-up to a fake Muslim billionaire and offered, on a video recording, his uncomfortably Code of Ethics-defying opinions of Red State America, proclaiming how contemptible members of the Tea Party and the Republican Party are, calling Tea Party members “seriously racist,” praising the firing of Juan Williams, exalting liberals and their causes and condemning conservatives as fools and dolts for believing differently. When one of the fake Muslims said NPR stands for “National Palestinian Radio” because of its consistently sympathetic treatment of the Palestinian point of view, Schiller laughs. When the fraudsters say that the media is controlled by Jewish Zionists, his silence conveys consent. Worst of all (from NPR’s likely viewpoint) he suggests that NPR doesn’t need public money.
Schiller’s excuse? Why, that favorite of Helen Thomas, Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, the Pazuzu Excuse, naturally. How unoriginal. How cowardly. How dishonest:
“While the meeting I participated in turned out to be a ruse, I made statements during the course of the meeting that are counter to NPR’s values and also not reflective of my own beliefs.
Ron Schiller’s defenders are claiming that he was merely saying what he felt he had to in order to get big bucks from the bigoted billionaires. That’s some ethical defense, guys: “He wasn’t biased, he’s just willing to lie for money.”
The Jerk: James O’Keefe. I don’t care how many of O’Keefe’s unethical stunts successfully trap hypocrites, incompetents and frauds. He is creating a plague of dishonesty, with unscrupulous journalists and would-be culture warriors cutting a swath destruction through whatever good will and trust that is left in this country. Fake phone calls, fake pimps, fake Muslims, fake websites—it’s all lying and deception, and it has to stop. Stings raise enough ethical issues—like entrapment— when they are planned by the police with court approval. Having amateurs like O’Keefe running around pretending to be who they are not—or supposed professionals like the posers on ABC News’ “What Would You Do?”—is eventually going to make all of us pathologically suspicious of strangers. We don’t want to live in a world where every phone caller is suspect, every new acquaintance a possible spy, mole, or prankster. As a society, we should reject O’Keefe’s scams as not worth the cost to our society in trust and harmony. I have not considered all the ramifications, so I cannot confidently argue that laws are necessary to accomplish this—but they might be.
That’s the NPR Ethics Train Wreck as it appears today. I don’t think the carnage is over.