NPR's Liasson opines again, despite ombudsman admonishment: in exchanges with Bush like Helen Thomas's "the press corps generally loses"

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

On Special Report with Brit Hume, NPR's Mara Liasson, again asserted, in defiance of NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, that "whenever there's any kind of a contest or a contrast between the person at the podium in the White House briefing room and the press corps, the press corps generally loses. ... I think that happened in this case, too." Dvorkin has previously admonished NPR reporters for going on programs "that are looking to appear fair and balanced" and expressing their opinions rather than simply recounting what their reporting shows.

On the March 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Mara Liasson, the national political correspondent for National Public Radio and a member of Special Report's "All-Star Panel," again asserted, in defiance of NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, that "whenever there's any kind of a contest or a contrast between the person at the podium in the White House briefing room and the press corps, the press corps generally loses. ... I think that happened in this case, too." Liasson was referring to the testy exchange between President Bush and Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas at Bush's March 21 news conference. Liasson offered this opinion despite repeated criticism by Dvorkin, who recently admonished NPR reporters for going on programs "that are looking to appear fair and balanced" and expressing their opinions rather than simply recounting what their reporting shows.

This is not the first time that Liasson has claimed that the press looks bad in televised confrontations with the administration, nor is it the first time that Liasson has offered an opinion in defiance of admonitions by Dvorkin. On the September 7, 2005, edition of Special Report, discussing a heated exchange between NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory and White House press secretary Scott McClellan, Liasson said: "Look, any time there's a contentious exchange in the White House press room, it makes the press look bad." She made this comment despite Dvorkin's July 2003 admonition that "NPR reporters ... should not be in the business of making their own opinions known about matters of public controversy. When they do, the public quickly senses that NPR compromises its ability to report in a fair manner."

On March 21, Liasson was discussing that day's White House news conference with the "All-Star Panel." The discussion focused on the president's verbal clash with Thomas, who asked the president this question at the conference:

THOMAS: Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes, who was also on the show, stated that "reporters are not supposed to fire accusations at the president or anybody else they are interrogating, and that [Thomas's doing so] was wrong." In response, Liasson said, "You know, whenever there's any kind of a contest or a contrast between the person at the podium in the White House briefing room and the press corps, the press corps generally loses, if that's the race that we're judging. I think that happened in this case, too."

Liasson made these comments despite criticism by Dvorkin, who on the February 16 edition of WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show, stated that "NPR reporters have an obligation to stay reportorial, and not be asked for their personal opinions by programs that are looking to appear fair and balanced by hauling in someone from NPR to be the token lefty. I think it's a disservice to NPR, and I think it's a disservice to NPR listeners to ask NPR reporters to be in that role."

From the first hour of the February 16 broadcast of WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show:

NNAMDI: On to [caller] in Silver Spring, MD. [Caller], you're on the air, go ahead please.

CALLER: Hi. Longtime listener. Thank you very much for my -- taking my call. What I wanted to ask, I was -- on a follow-up to another caller, who asked about the left-leaning of the NPR -- I've been in many houses over the years, and listened, with my customers -- I'm a contractor, and I'm sure that there are some of them listening now -- and, I've always been impressed with the juxtaposition of The Diane Rehm Show on her Friday night -- Friday roundup, and the Fox News Sunday show. And the Fox News lineup has three or four very right-wing people and then they have their token Juan Williams there to really spark the show. And Diane Rehm does the same thing. She has two or three people who agree with her, 80, 90 percent of the time, and then they have somebody like [Weekly Standard editor] Billy Kristol there to again spark it up and give them --

NNAMDI: Here's Jeffrey Dvorkin.

DVORKIN: Well, I mean, you raise a really important issue, which is: Should NPR journalists appear on highly partisan programs on -- in other media? And I think they shouldn't, actually. I think that NPR reporters have an obligation to stay reportorial, and not be asked for their personal opinions by programs that are looking to appear fair and balanced by hauling in someone from NPR to be the token lefty. I think it's a disservice to NPR, and I think it's a disservice to NPR listeners to ask NPR reporters to be in that role, and I have suggested to management on a number of occasions at NPR that we need to, if -- if -- if our people are going to be on those programs, they have to remain reportorial at all times, so that if they're asked, "Bill Clinton: guilty or guilty?" The proper answer is to say, "I don't know, but here's what we've been reporting," and to stay in that role.

Dvorkin also previously stated his disapproval of Liasson's participation on the Fox News panel. In his July 23, 2003, online "Media Matters" column (which has no relation to Media Matters for America), Dvorkin noted listeners' and critics' complaints about an October 3, 2002, statement Liasson made concerning "the arrival of Congressmen [David] Bonior [D-MI] and [Jim] McDermott [D-WA] in Baghdad, prior to the start of the [Iraq] war." She made the statement as part of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday discussion panel:

LIASSON: These guys [Bonior and McDermott] are a disgrace. Look, everybody knows it's 101 -- Politics 101 -- that you don't go to an adversary country, an enemy country, and badmouth the United States, its policies, and the president of the United States. I mean, these guys ought to, I don't know, resign.

Dvorkin wrote that he did not think that the statement and the participation of NPR reporters on panels like the one on Fox News, were appropriate:

NPR reporters, hosts, and ombudsmen should not be in the business of making their own opinions known about matters of public controversy. When they do, the public quickly senses that NPR compromises its ability to report in a fair manner.

In this pundit-crazed media culture, there are more than enough people who opine as soon as the klieg lights come on. NPR and its listeners deserve a better form of public discourse.

Dvorkin also noted former NPR vice president for news and information Bruce Drake's comments regarding the situation; as well as Liasson's subsequent acknowledgement that "she shouldn't have said it":

Bruce Drake as vice president of news is responsible for NPR's journalistic standards.

My guidelines are simple: an NPR News reporter should not say something on a television talk show, the Internet or a public speech that they could not say on-air for NPR in their own reporting. NPR listeners need to know that the journalists they hear on our air are committed to accuracy and fairness. Our listeners need to know that our journalists do not come to the stories they cover with an agenda, meaning that they must maintain a firewall between their private opinions and their professional performance.

Liasson realizes that her spoken words can't be retracted:

I certainly shouldn't have said it. I don't believe it is in any way representative of remarks I make anywhere, on Fox, PBS, NPR or in person about the news. I would encourage people to read the entire transcript from 10/3/02.

From the March 21 broadcast of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, which featured Fox News Washington managing editor -- and host -- Brit Hume:

BARNES: Brit, all that stuff's not going to be remembered. It'll be remembered the president sparring with Helen Thomas after she didn't really ask any questions. She had three accusations is what she leveled at the president.

HUME: Well, she asked the question: What was your real reason?

BARNES: Well, OK, I know, but, I mean -- I mean, reporters are not supposed to fire accusations at the president or anybody else they're -- they're interrogating, and that was wrong.

LIASSON: You know, whenever there's any kind of a contest or a contrast between the person at the podium in the White House briefing room and the press corps, the press corps generally loses, if that's the race that we're judging. And, I think that happened in this case, too.

Posted In
Government, The Presidency & White House
Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel, NPR
Person
Mara Liasson
Show/Publication
Special Report with Brit Hume
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