National Public Radio, or “npr” as it currently styles itself, was created by an act of Congress in 1967. Its purpose was to provide a channel through which higher culture could be provided the public that might never see daylight otherwise, for it wouldn’t enjoy the popularity of a sitcom or a Big Mac. Its purpose was to “constitute an expression of diversity and excellence” for “all the citizens of the Nation,” to take “creative risks” and “addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”
NPR appears to have taken this mission to heart.
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.
No reasonable person would argue that it’s wrong to advocate for the freedom and dignity of human beings. Many reasonable people will disagree about what that means.
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.”
This was a policy created by committee, as should be apparent by its combination of lofty rhetoric and internal conflicts. Does the “dignity of human beings” include the views of those who believe that life begins at conception, that a fetus is entitled to dignity? Does a “free and independent press” mean that they should support the promiscuous use of the “N-word” as protected by the First Amendment? And how will they simultaneously condemn discrimination on the basis of sexual identity and religion when they have the inevitable head-on crash?
This pressure on news companies to allow their journalists a wider berth to participate in civic activities has been building over the years, particularly as social media has made direct engagement with audiences — sometimes rich, sometimes messy — part of the day-to-day workflow. As social justice causes took to the platforms, journalists were often caught in a new gray area between longtime professional practices and mores around personal communication. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a younger generation of journalists pushed NPR to modify its traditional prohibitions.
“Our goal was to make NPR a place that employees felt they could be themselves at work, and they wouldn’t have to be one version of themselves outside of work and another version at work,” said Alex Goldmark, senior supervising producer for Planet Money and co-chair of the 22-member committee that handled the revision.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because NPR is facing the same demands as private media, the rationalizations for “moral clarity” rather than the “false god” of objectivity. On the journalistic side, the contention is that there is no such thing as true or perfect objectivity, so any claim to objectivity is a lie. On the personal side, journalists believe themselves entitled to be “authentic,” meaning that they need only report the news as it aligns with “their truth.”
The question isn’t whether this is right or wrong, good or bad. My view has long been that even if perfect objectivity can’t be achieved (which I’m not entirely sure is correct), that doesn’t mean journalists should quit trying, cry “fuck it” and take a deep dive into their personal bias.
The question is, if NPR, established by an act of Congress and funded to some extent with public monies, can no longer see its way to providing objective journalism, untainted by the emotions of the moment, then it no longer has a reason to exist, at least as far as journalism is concerned.
Show operas. This Old House. Some cooking shows and Downton Abbey. But if your reporters demand their right to be publicly biased, and when your ethical perspective allows tainted reporting to infiltrate your content, then NPR has no justification to continue in the news business. There’s no reason to publicly fund National Partisan Radio. There’s no shortage of that already.