NPR’s new policy on activism is smart — but will inevitably lead to confusion

Bonita Yarboro of Hamden, Conn., at the Boston demonstration against racism in August 2017. Photo (cc) 2017 by Dan Kennedy.

Four years ago this summer, I walked alongside upwards of 40,000 demonstrators in Boston who were protesting their anger and disgust at Donald Trump over his racist response to the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and to a few cranks who had gathered on the Boston Common to express their racist views. The crowd chanted; I did not. The crowd held signs; I did not. I was careful to keep my press pass visible as well.

I wasn’t there to be “objective,” to invoke a much-misunderstood word. Besides, as an opinion journalist, I’m free to say and write what I believe. But the tradition in journalism is that all us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for. (I’ve made one exception during my career, making it clear that I would vote for whoever was opposing Trump.) And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.

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Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that old rule has been subjected to new scrutiny. Last July, for instance, The Boston Globe announced that it would amend its ethics policy to allow staff members to take part in Black Lives Matter rallies.

Although I have no affiliation with the Globe, the change did affect my thinking. Since then, I’ve participated in a local Black Lives Matter march and, just last week, a demonstration on behalf of transgender dignity.

And on Thursday, a large and overdue hole was punched in the wall when NPR public editor Kelly McBride wrote that its journalists could now participate in certain activities that had long been forbidden — not just by NPR but by practically all news organizations. She wrote:

NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.

The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues….

The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

As McBride describes it, the policy is going to lead to a lot of friction and questions in NPR-affiliated newsrooms. Taking part in demonstrations on behalf of a political candidate or a piece of legislation will still be forbidden, leading some to question whether the changes go far enough.

And though McBride cited Black Lives Matter and Pride as obvious causes that staff members would be allowed to support, there are plenty of causes that you could argue are related to “the freedom and dignity of human beings” that are also cultural hot buttons. For instance, what about pro-choice or pro-life rallies? Or Palestinian rights versus support for Israel? This isn’t going to be easy.

The irony is that NPR is probably the most balanced of our major news organizations. I don’t mean that as praise. Its devotion to both-sides-ism and false equivalence during the Trump years and their aftermath has at times driven me to distraction. Of course, in a large and diverse news organization like NPR, there are many exceptions, as well as an admirable devotion to truth-telling journalism. But, all too often, NPR has been at the forefront of normalizing the profoundly abnormal.

All things considered (see what I did there?), the new ethics policy strikes me as a smart move, despite the disputes it will inevitably lead to.

A Vermont newspaper dispute raises questions over nonprofit ethics

Meeting house in Charlotte, Vermont. Photo (cc) 2018 by Nicholas Erwin.

The Vermont nonprofit VTDigger has a fascinating story about another nonprofit, The Charlotte News. Although it’s not entirely clear what happened, James Finn reports that the editor departed after the publisher and the volunteer board apparently tried to interfere with her coverage.

There are some big names involved in the controversy, including high-profile journalists who quit the board in support of the former editor, Chea Waters Evans. There’s also a discussion about new ethical dilemmas that have arisen as more and more community journalism is being provided by nonprofits. Poynter’s ubiquitous Kelly McBride weighs in.

All worthwhile topics, of course. But I have to wonder if these people ever worked for a small paper. A publisher who meddles in coverage? Pass the smelling salts! Anyone who’s ever had a story killed so as not to offend an advertiser (and yes, I have) will probably roll their eyes over this.

Still, it sounds like a good, dedicated editor-reporter was pushed into resigning when she should have been given a raise. I hope this is resolved so she can come back.

With Trump gone and his allies in revolt, what’s next for the media?

Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston

Previously published at GBH News.

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, his detractors have complained bitterly that he was being enabled, or “normalized,” by the mainstream media. For the extremely online Resistance in particular, Twitter became a place to rail against the press for failing to point out that Trump’s every utterance, gesture and action was an outrage against decency and a threat to the republic.

“Trump has been at war with an unraveling America for years,” wrote the liberal press critic Eric Boehlert a day after Trump supporters staged a deadly riot inside the Capitol. “The parallel reality has been that the American press corps has not figured out how to deal with that frightening scenario. It hasn’t properly grappled with the idea that our commander-in-chief would purposefully try to harm America’s security and undo its democratic traditions.”

Boehlert’s not wrong. A year into Trump’s presidency, I took The New York Times to task for what I saw as its overly passive, both-sides approach, which I contrasted with The Washington Post’s sure-footedness.

And yet I find that I’ve grown impatient with these complaints, mainly because I can’t see how a different, harsher approach would have changed the course of the last four years. Never mind the 2016 campaign, which was a travesty of anti-Hillary Clinton bias that helped propel Trump into office. Overall, mainstream coverage of Trump’s time in the White House has been good enough, which is the most we can expect of a diverse, flawed institution.

Trump has been historically unpopular, yet a weirdly large minority continues to say he’s doing a good job no matter what. Take FiveThirtyEight’s average of approval ratings. The Battle of Capitol Hill sent Trump’s ratings sharply downward. But as of Tuesday afternoon, he was still at nearly 41% — pretty much where he always is.

Politically, at least, the story of the Trump years has been simple: He’s detested by a majority of the public, and they voted him out by a decisive margin the first chance they got. Explaining this isn’t rocket science.

Does anyone really believe that the mainstream media haven’t been largely negative in their coverage? Yes, there have been moments when The Times has been overly deferential, as befits a news organization that still thinks of itself as the nation’s paper of record and the presidency as an august institution. But investigative reporting by The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal have kept Trump back on his heels continuously for the past four years.

There have been a few exceptions — The Times on occasion and, sadly, NPR consistently. All too often I’ve turned on NPR and thought President George H.W. Bush was still in office and that the Democrats were working to stymie his legislative agenda. Last fall, NPR’s mild-mannered public editor, Kelly McBride, went so far as to complain that “there are moments, like the coverage of the first presidential debate, when NPR’s presentation is so understated that some in the audience feel they’ve been handed a distorted picture.” No kidding.

And yet another public media outlet that I had long criticized as a bastion of false equivalence, the “PBS NewsHour,” somehow managed to find its voice during the Trump presidency. Anchor Judy Woodruff, White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor and congressional reporter Lisa Desjardins rose to the moment, chronicling each day’s events with a calm but pointed devotion to seeking the truth and reporting it.

Through the Mueller investigation, Ukraine, impeachment, COVID-19, Trump’s blizzard of lies about the election results and now what looks very much like a failed coup attempt, mainstream coverage has, for the most part, been appropriately critical.

The one massive media failure has been something the mainstream can’t do anything about — the weaponized pro-Trump propaganda put out every day and night by Fox News, which more than anything has kept Trump’s approval rating from cratering. Fox now seems determined to get its mojo back after losing some of its audience to the likes of Newsmax and OANN, as it has switched from news to opinion at 7 p.m.

And let’s not overlook the role of Facebook and Twitter in amplifying Trumpist lies — a role with which the social-media giants are now rather ineptly coming to grips.

Longtime media observer Jay Rosen of New York University recently gave the media some credit for asserting themselves in recent months and warned that a slide back into the old paradigm of giving weight and authority to both political parties would prove disastrous.

“Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back,” he wrote, adding that the press “will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case.”

The rise of what may become a sustained right-wing resistance — a Tea Party armed with guns and brainwashed by QAnon — pretty much guarantees that the media won’t be able to slide back into their old habits once Trump is gone and the exceedingly normal President-elect Joe Biden takes his place.

As for whether the media are up to the challenge, I think we ought to take heart from the Trump era. Much of the press did what it could to hold Trump accountable and to shine a light on his repulsive words and actions. I’m hopeful that they’ll bring the same energy and sense of mission to covering whatever is coming next.