NPR Updates Ethics Code; Allows Mara Liasson To Continue Fox News Association

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

National Public Radio's newly unveiled Ethics Handbook discourages its news employees from forming contracts with "other media outlets." NPR notes that such requests will likely be denied. However, NPR is going to allow national political correspondent Mara Liasson, one of the few NPR employees who has a contract with another media outlet, to continue her long-running appearances on Fox.

The unlikely pairing of an NPR commentator regularly appearing on partisan Fox News has bedeviled the radio network for years. Its Ethics Handbook was revised because of the controversy that erupted in 2010 when NPR fired Juan Williams for controversial comments he made about Muslims while appearing on The O'Reilly Factor. Even prior to the 2010 tumult, NPR bosses were so uncomfortable with Williams' public association with O'Reilly's show that they reportedly insisted he remove his NPR identifier when he appeared on The Factor.

An NPR ethics task force was designed to address dilemmas such as the one surrounding Williams' high-profile Fox News affiliation. Previewing its recommendations last year, the 14-person advisory group singled out the need for NPR to do away with long-term contracts with outside media companies.

According to a report last year in Current, which covers public broadcasting, the task force was clear that NPR should "have its journalists phase out any long-term contracts for appearances on other media outlets." The task force recommended those media appearances be approved on a case-by-case basis. The task force made its formal presentation to the NPR Board last September and the Ethics Handbook was then formalized over the winter.

Following that task force recommendation, the handbook makes clear that NPR employees are unlikely to be granted permission to enter into new, long-term arrangements (emphasis added):

We don't enter into contracts with other media outlets without approval from senior news management and NPR's legal department. Understand that in most cases permission will not be granted.

One of the concerns stated in the handbook for the get-tough policy about regular outside work is that those arrangements subject NPR "to the editorial agenda of producers who may not share our standards." That includes the editorial agenda of Fox News.

However, an NPR spokesperson informs Media Matters that Liasson will be allowed to maintain her long-term association with Fox News and its unique set of "standards."

In an email, NPR's Anna Christopher Boss stated:

The Handbook makes it clear that, while rare, outside contracts require approval from senior news management and legal.

It's good for NPR journalists to make media appearances. It provides exposure for NPR, our people and their work. Mara and others will continue to make regular appearances on other media.

By not removing Liasson from Fox, NPR most certainly avoided yet another battle with the conservative media, which have ferociously targeted the radio network for years, claiming it's guilty of liberal bias and that it should be cut off from federal funding.

Liasson's association with Fox News has long been a topic of debate within NPR as well as a topic of consternation among critics who view Fox as a Republican propaganda outlet and not a news organization, and who see Liasson's role as simplyvalidating it.

The pointed criticism about NPR employees moonlighting on Fox News is one fellow journalists have also noted for years.

From Jacob Weisberg, in 2009:

By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations. Respectable journalists--I'm talking to you, Mara Liasson--should stop appearing on its programs.

That same year, Politico reported Liasson's bosses at NPR approached her and asked her to reconsider her association with Fox. The managers had become increasingly alarmed at Fox's partisan programming under Obama, according to the report. Liason though, rebuffed the advice, telling her bosses that she hadn't noticed any change in Fox's programming, and that because she appeared on the more serious Fox news programs, such as Special Report With Brett Beier and Fox News Sunday, her association with the channel did not pose a problem for the radio network.

Meanwhile, the new NPR Ethics Handbook makes this point of emphasis:

We go on TV to talk about our reporting and the news of the day, not to offer opinions.

However, rather than referencing NPR's reporting on the news of the day during her Fox roundtable appearances, Liaison routinely offers up her opinion about politics. (And often does not mention NPR reporting at all.)

Indeed, Liasson regularly appears on Fox as part of round table discussions where the entire point is the offering up of opinions. And most often she appears opposite conservative writers, such as Stephen Hayes and Bill Kristol. Meaning, on Fox News Liasson is seen as giving the 'liberal' perspective on the political events of the day, even though she's paid to be astraight news reporter and even though NPR does not present itself as a "liberal" news outlet.

As one NPR insider told Politico in 2009, "There has been a concern in the upper regions of NPR that Fox uses Mara and Juan as cover" to counter arguments that the cable channel is filled with right-wing commentators.

Liasson's association with Fox has become even more unusual in the face of the network's recent harassment campaign against NPR, which culminated in Fox chief Roger Ailes denouncing Liasson's NPR colleagues as "Nazis."

More recently, Fox News launched a relentless campaign to get NPR defunded and to destroy public radio's reputation as a reliable news source.

In the meantime, NPR's Mara Liasson will remain a Fox News pundit.

Mara Liasson
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