As Juan Williams settles into his $2 million-a-year job as a Fox News talking head, and his former bosses and National Public Radio continue to take heat for the way Williams' contract was terminated, it's worth noting that NPR still faces a Fox News conundrum in the form of Mara Liasson's long-running, on-air affiliation with the cable channel.
When I raised that point last week, the GOP Noise Machine erupted in indignation, claiming Media Matters was trying to silence Liasson and was "targeting" her.
I'm not ominously targeting anyone and I'm not suggesting NPR fire Liasson. (Why would they do that?) All I'm doing now, as I did last year, is highlighting the rather inescapable fact that Liasson's continued on-air association with Fox News runs counter to NPR's own code of ethics.
Indeed, two of the three reasons I'll give for why Liasson's shouldn't be on Fox News come straight from NPR's own newsroom guidelines, which clearly states that staffers should not make outside media appearances in forums that promote punditry, or with media outlets that could be "harmful to the reputation of NPR." In both instances, Liasson's association with Fox News violates both those guidelines. And specifically, her status as a contributor with the uber-partisan, uber-reckless Fox News that's emerged during the Obama administration.
The third reason I offer is more of a common sense/common decency one in that right when the Juan Williams controversy broke, Fox News unleashed a nasty attack campaign against Liasson's employer, spreading all kinds of smears and misinformation about NPR and its staff in an effort to defund and destroy a jewel of public broadcasting. (Fox News' Brit Hume basically called NPR racist for firing Williams.)
Given Fox News' current crusade, I don't see why Liasson, who's been cashing NPR paycheck for two decades, would want to continue to work with a media outlet that now seems bent on discrediting and destroying her employer; and destroying it with a vicious smear campaign. From a professional or personal point of view, why would Liasson want to have anything to do with Fox News and its band of NPR haters who now relentlessly ambush NPR's chief on the street?
But back to the code of ethics. And it was that code that finally prompted NPR brass to terminate Juan Williams' contract. Why? Because he had been warned again and again about going on Fox News and making controversial comments about public issues.
Here's how NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller described the reasoning behind his firing:
News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that's what's happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts.
My question is this: If NPR was uncomfortable with Williams in his role as an news analyst going on Fox News and giving opinions, why would NPR be okay with Liasson in her role as a full-time NPR reporter going on Fox News and pontificating? If anything, wouldn't NPR be more concerned with a straight-up news reporter like Liasson, whose title is national political correspondent, clouding news consumers' perception of NPR by expressing her opinions in a rabidly partisan forum outside of public radio?
As I recently noted, Liasson does not have the same track record as Williams in terms of showing up on Fox News and making incendiary comments, like describing the First Lady as "Stokley Carmichael in a designer dress," or expressing his fear of flying with Muslims. So in that sense, Liasson has not put NPR managers in a bind the way Williams has done in the past.
But in terms of being consistent, how can public radio object when one of its news analysts expresses his opinion on Fox News, but not be concerned when one of its reporters regularly does the same? And please note that according to NPR's code of ethics, staffers should not take part "in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis." So even if Liasson's comments on Fox News remain within the confines of "fact-based analysis," and I'm a sure defenders would argue they do, it's obvious that the programs she appears on do not. Therefore, the programsare deemed off-limits by NPR's own guidelines.
As the Juan Williams controversy broke last week, NPR's Schiller was asked about Liasson's ongoing relationship with Fox News:
Q: As you mentioned, Mara Liasson appears on Fox News. Is there an issue with Fox News?
A: No. She behaves on Fox as a journalists. I have no issues with anything she has said on Fox. This is not about Fox News. It's not about a political agenda. This is not about even validating or invalidating [Williams'] feelings.
But Liasson does not act as a reporter on Fox News. She does not assemble facts and provide context the way a journalists would. Instead, she takes part in classic cable TV bull sessions and she sits in while an extraordinary amount of right-wing misinformation is shoveled onto the airwaves. So there's no question that the Fox News programs Liasson appears on "encourage punditry and speculation."
The second ethics no-no is even more clear-cut: Being associated with Fox News harms NPR's professional reputation. It's the same reason that the recent Fox News Sunday appearance by New York Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller raised objectionsfrom former Times staffers. (i.e. "It's just a bad idea.") They thought it was ill-advised to help legitimize Fox News' openly partisan programming by having respected Times reporters appear on Rupert Murdoch's programs.
The same situation holds true for NPR. And it's the same point Slate editor Jacob Weisberg addressed last year:
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.
Indeed, how does being associated with wildly partisan and habitually irresponsible Fox News not harm to NPR's reputation? Or, how does being aligned with Fox News today help NPR's reputation? It doesn't.
And keep in mind that NPR's code, written "to protect the credibility of NPR's programming by ensuring high standards of honesty, integrity, impartiality and staff conduct," also forbids NPR journalists from participating in appearances that "may appear to endorse the agenda of a group or organization." Fox News today quite clearly endorses a political agenda. Hell, it endorses specific candidates.
According to the ethics code, the solution to such transgressions is quite simple:
Permission for such appearances may be revoked if NPR determines such appearances are harmful to the reputation of NPR or the NPR participant.
What's frustrating is that it's clear NPR's top news managers understand Liasson's Fox News affiliation runs afoul of the network's guidelines and have tried to reign her in. That was revealed last year in a Politico report [emphasis added]:
Executives at National Public Radio recently asked the network's top political correspondent, Mara Liasson, to reconsider her regular appearances on Fox News because of what they perceived as the network's political bias, two sources familiar with the effort said.
According to a source, Liasson was summoned in early October by NPR's executive editor for news, Dick Meyer, and the network's supervising senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. The NPR executives said they had concerns that Fox's programming had grown more partisan, and they asked Liasson to spend 30 days watching the network.
At a follow-up meeting last month, Liasson reported that she'd seen no significant change in Fox's programming and planned to continue appearing on the network, the source said.
The third reason Liasson shouldn't be on Fox News is because it's viciously maligning her NPR colleagues and casting the venerable news organization as an tool for the Democratic Party. I would think that some sense of loyalty to NPR would preclude Liasson from wanting to continue her Fox News affiliation.
But if that doesn't stop her from showing up for duty at Fox News, NPR managers ought tell Liasson enough is enough.