National Public Radio's Board of Directors will meet this week to discuss the news organization's ethics code, which is being revised in the wake of the controversy surrounding Juan Williams' firing. Earlier this year, an NPR task force working on the code recommended that the new guidelines move away from long-term associations between NPR employees and outside media outlets. National political correspondent Mara Liasson, who regularly appears on Fox News, is among the very few NPR employees who currently enjoy such a long-term pact.
An NPR spokeswoman tells Media Matters that no final decision regarding Liasson's Fox News job has been made, but that the type of on-going media contract Liasson has with Fox was reviewed by an NPR ethics task force.
According to a report earlier this 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." Instead, those media appearances should be approved on a case-by-case basis.
The task force was created in the wake of the Williams firing, prompted by his comments on Fox's O'Reilly Factor that he felt uncomfortable flying with passengers dressed in "Muslim garb." NPR executives, who had long been unhappy with William's association with Fox News, terminated his contract.
The move sparked a wide controversy, with the right-wing media responding with special indignation, echoing Williams' claim he had been unfairly fired. Conservatives also claimed, often hysterically, that NPR's personnel move highlighted what they saw as the network's embedded liberal bias. Indeed, Fox News unleashed a nasty attack campaign against Liasson's employer, regularly ambushed its CEO, and spread all kinds of smears and misinformation about NPR and its staff in an effort to defund and destroy public broadcasting. (Fox News' Brit Hume essentially called NPR racist for firing Williams.)
Liasson, who has been an NPR employee for two decades, maintained her Fox News association in spite of the network's harassment campaign of NPR, which culminated with chief Roger Ailes denouncing Liasson's bosses as "Nazis."
Earlier this year, another controversy erupted when right-wing activist James O'Keefe videotaped a lunch he set up between NPR fundraisers and phony, would-be donors. O'Keefe's videos, which were later discovered to have been dishonestly edited, caused a firestorm, which led to the resignation of NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller.
The contentious issue of Williams and Liasson regularly appearing on Fox News has been an ongoing point of conflict for NPR. Responding to the constant questions he received about why the two NPR commentators were allowed to appear on Fox, Corporation for Public Broadcasting ombudsman Ken Bode once conceded he "never had a good answer for that," adding that he "always believed that the credibility they bring to Fox was acquired and paid for by the regular reporting and research they do for NPR."
Executives at NPR became so uncomfortable with Williams' appearances on The O'Reilly Factor that they insisted he not be indentified as NPR employee when he was invited on the program. They also repeatedly asked him to avoid making controversial statements on Fox.
As for Liasson, in 2009, NPR bosses reportedly approached her and urged that she reconsider her regular Fox News appearances, given how openly partisan the cable channel had become. She declined, insisting she appeared on Fox news programs (Special Report and Fox News Sunday), and not on commentary ones, and that she had not noticed any change in Fox News' programming since Obama had been inaugurated.
But Liasson regularly appears on Fox as part round table discussions whose entire point is punditry. And most often she appears opposite conservative pundits, 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 a straight news reporter on NPR. Liasson's role on the Fox shows also works to reinforce the conservative mantra that NPR is a left-leaning news organization.
Revising and implementing the new NPR ethics code has taken longer than expected in part because of O'Keefe-generated controversy in March, according to a network spokeswoman. The task force's work, overseen by media ethics consultant Bob Steele, is now set to be presented to NPR's Board this week.
The new rules should eliminate any doubt about if, and when, NPR employees can make appearances on media outlets outside of NPR.
Here's what the guidelines currently state: [emphasis added]:
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.
Also, NPR's current ethics code, written "to protect the credibility of NPR's programming by ensuring high standards of honesty, integrity, impartiality and staff conduct," forbids NPR journalists from participating in appearances that "may appear to endorse the agenda of a group or organization."