Off-duty reporters, political rallies and NPR

What does it mean to “participate” in a rally? It’s a question I’m asking myself after reading a memo from NPR management (via Romenesko) warning journalists to stay away from the Oct. 30 rallies being organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The memo, from senior vice president for news Ellen Weiss, includes this:

NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming John [sic] Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.

Most of Weiss’ admonitions are a matter of common sense. Journalists should not put bumper stickers on their cars, donate money to political candidates or do anything else that would amount to political involvement. But if I were an off-duty NPR reporter, I’d be offended at being ordered not to attend a rally, whether it be Colbert’s “Keep Fear Alive” event or Glenn Beck’s recent gathering.

Good journalists want to check things out whether they’re working or not. There’s a proper role for a reporter on a busman’s holiday, and it neither requires staying home nor involves waving fists and posters while chanting along with the crowd.

It’s called attending, observing, learning.

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14 thoughts on “Off-duty reporters, political rallies and NPR

  1. BP Myers

    I wonder if indeed similar memos went out about Glenn Beck’s rally. Because if they didn’t, it underscores everything the tin-foil hatters believe about them.

  2. Gene Cassidy

    Good catch Dan. One of the most fun things about no longer being a reporter is being able to participate in politics from somewhere other than the sidelines. Even after years, I forget it’s OK, in the same way that when I worked for Whole Foods Market, I would stand looking longingly at family buffets, waiting for someone to distribute the plastic (non-latex of course) gloves.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Gene: But even if you were still a working reporter, did you ever think it was wrong to mosey on over to something interesting on your day off?

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  4. edward allen

    What authority does this woman have for this chilling warning?
    You do not give up your rights as a citizen by becoming a reporter, and I see nothing wrong with reporters signing petitions on referendum issues or otherwise involving themselves in political activities local or national. What right does an employer have to impose their views on an employee? And what law is broken if the reporter does not comply?
    I could even argue that it is a clear violation of federal voting laws for anyone to interfere with reporters who want to exercise their rights by participating in demonstrations, right or left or in the middle. Would this incredible prohibition cover demonstrations by black reporters for civil rights, or Latino reporters favoring immigration reform?

  5. L.K. Collins

    Unfortunately there are a sufficient number of “journalists” that do not understand the difference between “observation” and “participation” to make such memos advisable.

    This misunderstanding is not a left-wing thing or a right wing thing. It’s a personal and professional judgment thing.

  6. Jim Naughton

    “Participate” in a rally may be different from “observe” a rally, and it would be worth an NPR staffer’s while to ask Ellen Weiss if she makes the distinction. If not, it is because what really is involved is an appearance of bias, and standing in a crowd of people at someone’s rally, when photographed and posted on the Web, probably would be hard for an “observer” to explain.

  7. Brad Deltan

    What confuses…and alarms…me is that the memo seems directed at ALL staff at NPR, not just their journalists, which seems exceedingly fascist to me.

    One exception, I suppose…and I further suppose this would apply to any off-duty journalists…are any NPR staff (journalist or not) whose image is publicly shown by NPR and thus is visually recognizable as a “NPR journalist” by the average NPR listener on the street. Most of the top- and mid-level journalists (and a handful of non-journalist staff/managers) have public profiles that include pictures of themselves. If you’re going to have that high-profile a job, it’s hard to have a truly “private” life at public events. For those folks, I don’t have too much sympathy if they don’t like that – they chose to have high-profile careers.

    But the career techs who labor in anonymity deep in the bowels of the studios to craft the perfect driveway-moment sound? That’s not a high profile job. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to go to rallies on their day off? Who’s going to recognize them? I mean, if they went and publicly identified themselves as NPR employees? Sure, that’s a no-no. But otherwise? What’s the big deal?

  8. Brad Deltan

    @Dan: first, there’s no requirement that they speak a single word at these rallies. Short of wearing a ski mask, it’s a little harder to disguise your visual identity.

    Second, like many voice actors, most NPR hosts sound remarkably different in person than they do on the air…it’s partly their personal style and partly the audio processing that all radio stations put their broadcast through. Yes, you can usually identify them if you’re really familiar with their voices, but usually you have to listen for more than just a few sentences before you have a real chance of recognition.

    Third, anyone who works at NPR *and* on-air regularly enough for you to recognize their voice is almost certainly one of their top- or medium-level journalists who has a public profile that contains their picture and thus, by my definition, is subject the restrictions of the memo.

  9. Guy Lucas

    Since NPR is telling employees to stay away from a free rally by comedians who poke fun at politicians of all stripes, I wonder whether NPR also forbids employees from buying tickets to go see comedians who are known to lean heavily on overtly partisan political material (Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, Dennis Miller …).

  10. Jim Russell

    This issue actually arose a few years ago at Marketplace Radio, when its owner Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media sent a similar memo to staff. Turned out that such a prohibition against political activity by reporters was a violation of the law in California, where Marketplace is located. MPR quickly withdrew the order for its staffers in California.

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