The NPR Ethics Train Wreck

Ethics train wreck scholars take note: when an organization’s image and existence is based on multiple lies, an ETW is inevitable.

Oh NO! It's another Ethics Train Wreck!

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.”

Schiller continued:

“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.

24 thoughts on “The NPR Ethics Train Wreck

  1. This reminds me of a time in history. WWII is over and the Cold War is beginning to brew.

    Russia is ramping up and America is responding. Propaganda abounds in all forms from both America and Russia. Nothing and no one can be trusted. Your next door neighbor could be a spy! Your own dog could have hearing devices in its collar.

    I’m being mostly serious here. I don’t believe this is going to become as stressful or crazy as the Cold War had become.

    Everyone will eventually become suspicious to the point that no one can feel safe.

    “OMG! That man is a Muslim! I’ve lived next door to him for twenty years! TERRORIST!”


    “Holy Nikes! That man is a conservative! BURN HIM!!! KKK!!! RACIST!!! CHRISTIAN!!! BURN THE HERETIC!!!”

    I’m exaggerating, but this seems to be the way it is going to end.

    NPR should have been defunded long ago. Government should not EVER fund a news organization. If you cannot understand why, go look into the history books. Go back about a hundred years to the early 20th century.

    I find news organizations that cannot admit their own bias to be extremely unethical and incapable of anything other than making flat out lies. It’s why I prefer Fox News if I ever pay attention to news. It’s easy to see their bias so you can get to the core of the news instead of wondering what part of the story is being fibbed.

    Until journalists are able to follow an ethics code, I wouldn’t trust any reporting as far as I can throw Michael Moore’s fat ass.

    I won’t hold my breath until the vitriol, spitefulness, and attacks on people stop. There is never a reason to personally attack someone in the way some programs do. The one that comes foremost to my mind with this is Keith Olbermann’s Worst Person award he was doing. I’m sure there are some on the right as well. I just do not watch the news; so I do not get to see it unless it is in an article online.

  2. I actually kind of like NPR and PBS, but yeah, they’ve basically become almost completely beholden to one point of view, probably inevitably, since that one point of view is what helps keep their funding. I certainly think that a lot of their listeners/viewers would be complaining if these stations were conservative mouthpieces instead; this is a good time as any to end this farce, especially with the free-for-all that is the Internet, where many good reporters and analysts of all sorts of political stripes are working, along with the resources to help fact-check them.

    I do generally agree with your point about O’Keefe, though I’m a little conflicted on whether that general rule should be always applied to higher level government officials as well (only with regards to discovering corruption and abuses of power, not on uncovering dirt on their private lives and thoughts, although the two unfortunately interact quite a bit), since those seem to be positions where we want as much oversight as possible, due to the fact that it’s the public that helped to select them in the first place (I’m no fan of O’Keefe or Assange’s worldviews by any means, and I understand that it could possibly backfire by making government officials even less open to direct communication with their public).

  3. What in the Constitution enables the Congress to fund a radio and television network in the first place? [I know that those media did not exist at the time of the passage of the Constitution]. If the first amendment freedom of the press can be expanded to cover the boradcast media (a position with which I firmly agree, by the way), where does the Constitution enable Congress to fund a print medium other than the Congressional Record?

    • It was originally funded as an educational resource, hence the long-time term “educational programming.” THEN they started doing news, and the Democrats ran Congress, so nobody complained. I agree with you.

  4. I have never understood the argument for funding NPR or any of the PBS stations. I stopped giving money to WETA when I saw the inside of their offices and realized that money was going to support a staff that doesn’t produce a single show.

  5. Jack, great article! I’m sure it was funded as an educational resource, but the Constitution doesn’t allow for that kind of funding either. I also thought that the public was supposed to fund Public TV and radio, which is to say…”Us” not the government. Isn’t that why they pre-empt the shows that we want to watch so they can fund-raise? I also read that they receive about 20% of their funding from federal dollars, so shouldn’t they be able to compensate for that with the other 80%?

  6. Jack,
    I agree with your arguments that NPR is a vestigial program, however, its idiotic to argue that NPR only caters to older wine and cheese liberals. NPRs reporting (particularly “All Things Considered”) is far more fair and balanced than one is likely to find on any of the major networks. I’m about as libertarian as they come and its seldom that I find their programming to be overly biased or preachy on any particular ideology.

    This isn’t state propaganda. Calm down ..


    • Both NPR and PBS have always catered to the older audiences, who give them their money. The 18-25s don’t watch or listen to news, period—they favor NPR a little because it is reliably liberal, but they are hardly its core audience. 18-25s are big Car Talk fans? Jazz? Reports from Belgium? Come on. Daniel Schorr? A Supreme Court reporter who wears her pro-abortion, anti-conservative wing sentiments on her sleeve?

      Look, I like ATC; I enjoy most of what’s on NPR, I’ve been a guest on NPR many times, but if you can’t flag the bias, you can’t be listening too hard.

      I never said it was state propaganda. It is, however, a cadre of self-satisfied liberals who think they know all the answers, and feel entitled to enlighten us at our expense.

      • Correction; many/most 18-25 year olds don’t listen to news, but the ones that do are probably the ones that grow up to influence the political discourse the most, and a number of them do listen to NPR; some of their programs, particularly about music, do strike me as trying to appeal to particular and somewhat non-mainstream subcultures within American youth, particularly those that tend to lean more liberal.

  7. Here’s an interesting find:
    Guidelines for Hidden Cameras
    When might it be appropriate to use deception/misrepresentation/hidden cameras in news gathering?

    You must fulfill all of the criteria to justify your actions.

    ■When the information obtained is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great system failure at the top levels, or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.
    ■When all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted.
    ■When the journalists involved are willing to disclose the nature of the deception and the reason for it.
    ■When the individuals involved and their news organization apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of time and funding needed to pursue the story fully.
    ■When the harm prevented by the information revealed through deception outweighs any harm caused by the act of deception.
    ■When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decision-making process on the ethical and legal issues.

    Criteria that do not justify deception:

    ■Winning a prize.
    ■Beating the competition.
    ■Getting the story with less expense of time and resources.
    ■Doing it because others already did it.
    ■The subjects of the story are themselves unethical.

    From Doing Ethics in Journalism, The Society of Professional Journalists by Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney.


    So, was O’Keefe ethical, by the above criteria? Was the reporter who called Gov Walker posing as David Koch ethical?

    Jack, I’m not buying your argument that O’Keefe was a jerk because his “deception” fosters mistrust. I think the mistrust was already there, and because of that mistrust, he felt the “deception” was the only way to get to the “truth”, in this case, how NPR management REALLY felt about their journalistic “responsibilities”. If those charged with presenting the truth, are themselves biased past blindness, how else except by the open light of day, can that bias be exposed? I think his action qualifies under the System Failure criteria above.

    Besides, the bigger problem is an overall LACK of ethics in those who say one thing to the camera and another thing in private. While I recognize that each of us has a public and private persona, I was raised that these should be consistent, that the the public persona is just an extension of the private persona, not two entirely different moral/ideological stances. And “you can’t handle the truth” isn’t a valid defense (elitist view), no more than “you’re the bad person for catching me in a lie” (you made me say that defense) is any kind of excuse.

    There is too much BS being shoveled these days. I’m all for starting an “No Clothes on the Emperor” society….

    • Yes, by those criteria, the scam was unethical. After all, all Schiller did was confirm what most already assumed—it wasn’t even news. O’Keefe was on a fishing expedition, and was also using unethical bait, by making all the provocative comments he was making to suck Schiller in.

      You’re giving an unscrupulous, publicity-seeking, yes, jerk “ends justify the means” permission. Very unwise. When O’Keefe is willing to try similar scams on conservatives, then you can re-open the discussion. Don’t make the defender of the truth out of someone who is interested only in political/ideological hit jobs. That’s O’Keefe.

      • Why is it a “scam” when O’Keefe does it, but investigative journalism when 60 min does it? Or when the reporter representing himself as David Koch does it? Or when Planned Parenthood is caught violating laws on sexual exploitation of minors?

        Investigative journalism is, to my understanding, an effort to uncover what is really going on, versus what is being promoted. That is ideologically neutral – if conservatives lie, cheat and steal, then it should be exposed. And, as the criteria suggest, there should be clear guidelines about HOW such journalism is to be done. No editing of video/audio tapes to slant the story, but rather full release of unedited versions.

        Is O’Keefe making a name for himself? Absolutely. Is he making up stories and defaming people to do it? Doesn’t look like it. Is he responsible for Schiller’s downfall? No. The person who is responsible for Schiller’s downfall is Schiller. No one MADE him say what he said. He showed poor judgment, and lousy management skills. Actions (and ideas) have consequences.

        We may have to respectfully disagree on this one!

        • No, you’re wrong. And you’re putting words in my mouth too. The fake Koch? Unethical, no question. The Planned Parenthood scam? Ditto. Michael Moore? Double ditto. “60 Minutes” used to do a lot of these “stings”, but cut back, because of criticism of their methods. These are all fishing expeditions, using dishonesty and deception in the hopes of uncovering wrong doing in order to discredit and embarrass an ideological opponent. The result of an unethical act cannot and does not retroactively make unethical conduct ethical, and that’s what you are arguing.

          When one of these journalistic scammers (though O’Keefe and Moore are not journalists) who DOESN’T get his prey and then reveals himself to his target, apologizes, and writes up the encounter to show that the target behaved appropriately, then I’ll begin considering the possibility of an ethical practice.

  8. Jack / Julian,
    Re-read my initial post, I said they draw MORE 18-25 than most cable news .. I never said it was a majority or even large percentage of their listenership.

    I found Daniel Schorr to be incredibly informative.
    I dig (some) car-talk.
    I love (pre 1980s) jazz.
    Recent polls suggest most Americans are “pro-abortion” (though “pro-abortion RIGHTS” would be more accurate).
    Stop generalizing.

    I’m not suggesting their isn’t a leftist bias at NPR, only that it’s far less evident, and much more even-handed than one gets from MSNBC or the conservative angle of FOX News. In other words, I’d rather listen to even the worst of the NPR talking heads than even the more moderate conservative commentators on PRI. These are NOT fanatics.


    • Hey, I thought I was agreeing with you, at least in part. I’m a 20 year old jazz fan who finds Car-Talk amusing myself.

    • “Re-read my initial post, I said they draw MORE 18-25 than most cable news .. I never said it was a majority or even large percentage of their listenership.”

      I know—then why mention it at all? The issue was who the main audience for NPR was. “More 18-15 year olds than most cable news” is like saying that the Tea Party has more black members than most Klan groups.

      “I found Daniel Schorr to be incredibly informative.”
      The point is that he was 1) not exactly a rock star, and
      2) as Left biased as they come.

      “I dig (some) car-talk.”
      So do I. But a specific case doesn’t prove a generality. In general, these shows do not attract younger listeners.
      “I love (pre 1980s) jazz.”

      “Recent polls suggest most Americans are “pro-abortion” (though “pro-abortion RIGHTS” would be more accurate).”

      Recent polls suggest that support for abortion is falling. And abortion rights mean more abortions…if you want one, you want the other.

      “Stop generalizing.”
      About what? There’s nothing the matter with generalizing when it is a fair characterization, and this was.

      “I’m not suggesting their isn’t a leftist bias at NPR, only that it’s far less evident, and much more even-handed than one gets from MSNBC or the conservative angle of FOX News. In other words, I’d rather listen to even the worst of the NPR talking heads than even the more moderate conservative commentators on PRI. These are NOT fanatics.”

      Neil, this is not consistent with your earlier comment, and not relevant to anything I wrote. I never said they were fanatics, I never said they were as bad, or even close, to MSNBC. I said that they do not meet their ethical standards which commit them to presenting “all sides” equally, and they DON’T.

  9. Neil,

    Gallup polls of the last 12 months show that in fact more Americans consider themselves pro-life than pro-choice. May of last year states that 50% believe that abortion is morally wrong and 38% believe that it’s morally acceptable. (I’m not sure which polls you are referring to…)

    BTW, our Rights come from God, not the government so you can’t speak of pro-choice or abortion as being a Right. If the government can give you Rights, then the government can take them away. Hardly what the Founders meant when they said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

  10. I disagree that Schiller’s silence in response to the Zionist media claim “conveys consent.” Your rule seems to be that one must speak up every time somebody states an offensive or objectionable opinion, otherwise he agrees with the opinion. That is unrealistic and unfair.

    • Maybe, but its the maxim of the law. “Silence gives consent.” Latin, “Qui tacet consentire vidétur;” Greek, “Auto de to sigan homologountos esti sou” (Euripides); French, “Assez consent qui ne dit mot;” Italian, “Chi tace confessa.” I said it conveyed consent; I didn’t say he actually consented. The notion of consent is rebuttable. That’s the trap; the same thing was used on Gov. Walker, when the fake caller said outrageous things and he didn’t contradict him. It conveys consent, just as Barack Obama sitting in Rev. Wright’s church while he said things like “God damn America” created a rebuttable presumption that he agreed.

  11. Pingback: The NPR Ethics Train Wreck | Ethics Alarms | U.S. Justice Talk

  12. Dear Jack:

    I can’t agree fully with your evaluation of James O’Keefe, as I’m sure you’re unsurprised to learn! But your analysis of NPR and its “ethics” is nothing I’d dispute to any degree at all. As I see it, one lesson of this is the non-viability of modern professional “codes”. They have become such a farce as to be laughable to anyone who’s looked into their words in comparison to the deeds. “No controlling legal authority”, as Al Gore infamously put it.

    When organizations are run by those who have no scruples, unscrupulous activity can only result. That’s criminal enough. But when, in partnership with equally despicable political rings, these people likewise milk the taxpayers of their money to help fund such activities, “criminal” becomes an inadequate term.

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