Isn't Juan Williams violating NPR's code of ethics?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

As CF highlighted yesterday, NPR management has finally taken steps to stem the damage that NPR's Juan Williams routinely does with his appearances on Fox News. NPR's ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote:

[I]n the end, NPR must decide -- as it apparently already has -- whether giving its listeners the benefit of Williams' voice is worth the cost of annoying some listeners for his work on Fox. As a result of this latest flap, NPR's Vice President of News, Ellen Weiss, has asked Williams to ask that Fox remove his NPR identification whenever he is on O'Reilly.

Frankly, that's not enough and here's why. As I noted back in 2007, when Williams again embarrassed NPR via his conduct on Fox News, and specifically, on an appearance he made on The O'Reilly Factor:

Real damage is being done to NPR by having its name, via Williams, associated with Fox News' most opinionated talker. In fact, Williams' recent appearance on The O'Reilly Factor almost certainly violated NPR's employee standards, which prohibit staffers from appearing on programs that "encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis" and are "harmful to the reputation of NPR."

To add fuller context, the NPR code of ethics clearly states:

9. NPR journalists must get permission from the Vice President for their Division or their designee to appear on TV or other media. It is not necessary to get permission in each instance when the employee is a regular participant on an approved show. Permission for such appearances may be revoked if NPR determines such appearances are harmful to the reputation of NPR or the NPR participant.

10. 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. They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than rather than fact-based analysis.

Yet here it is in 2009 and NPR finds itself answering angry listener emails because Williams said something stupid on The O'Reilly Factor; something I cannot imagine Williams would ever say on an NPR program. Isn't Williams clearly violating NPR's own standards by appearing on that program; a program that quite obviously encourages "punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis" and more importantly is "harmful to the reputation of NPR"? (If the show is not harmful to NPR's reputation than why don't more NPR staffers appear on it?)

Or put another way, how is Williams not violating the code of ethics by appearing on The O'Reilly Factor? And yes, I read the part where Shepard noted Williams is no longer on-staff and that he's paid by NPR to be an independent contractor:

Last spring, NPR's management put him on contract with the title "news analyst" largely to give him more latitude about what he says.

She later added:

[NPR managers] are in a bind because Williams is no longer a staff employee but an independent contractor. As a contract news analyst, NPR doesn't exercise control over what Williams says outside of NPR.

But here's how NPR's code of ethics defines who is covered by its rules:

This code covers all NPR journalists - which for the purposes of this code includes all persons functioning in the News, Programming and Online Divisions as reporters, hosts, newscasters, writers, editors, directors, photographers and producers of news, music or other NPR programming. It also covers all senior News, Programming and Online content managers. It does not cover administrative or technical staff from News, Programming or Online. The code also applies to material provided to NPR by independent producers, member station contributors and/or reporters and freelance reporters, writers, news contributors or photographers.

And what if a non-staff contributor violates the code of ethics? NPR has the option of simply stop using that person in the future:

Because contributors in this category are not NPR employees, the remedy for dealing with a conflict of interest or other violation of the principles of this code is rejection of the offered material.

According to the NPR standards, written to "to protect the credibility of NPR's programming by ensuring high standards of honesty, integrity, impartiality and staff conduct," there are three relevant guidelines that, in this situation, seem to apply to Williams:

1. Don't appear on programs that promote punditry.

2. Don't appear on programs that are harmful to NPR's reputation.

3. Don't say things on non-NPR programs that the journalist would not say on NPR.

It seems that NPR either needs to rewrite its standards, or it needs to take more forceful action regarding Williams' appearances on The O'Reilly Factor.

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