NPR Ombudsman Responds to NB: Diane Rehm's Fundraisers for 'Death with Dignity' Activists 'A Step Too Far'

February 26th, 2015 10:12 AM

Elizabeth Jensen, hired by NPR as their new Ombudsman, picked up a question from NewsBusters on how NPR host Diane Rehm can do fundraisers for assisted-suicide lobbying group “Compassion & Choices.”

Jensen says she shouldn’t do this, that it’s a “step too far,” noting that NewsBusters picked up on the ethical issue.

NPR distributes Rehm's show nationally, so that paragraph drew particular attention inside NPR. It also drew the attention of Tim Graham, executive editor of the conservative media watchdog group [sic] NewsBusters, who wondered on Twitter: "Can an NPR host speak at fundraisers for Kevorkian-esque ballot initiatives now?"

It's a good question.

NPR’s ethics handbook clearly precludes its journalists from speaking at fundraisers, among other activities:

We avoid speaking to groups where the appearance itself might put in question our impartiality. This includes situations where our appearance may seem to endorse the agenda of a group or organization, as well as participation in some political debates and forums where the sponsoring groups or other participants are identified with a particular perspective on an issue.

In the past, NPR has banned newsroom employees from taking part in high-profile political events in their free time, including the 2010 Washington D.C. rallies by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and last year's climate marches. Many other major news organizations have similar prohibitions and the Society of Professional Journalists offers similar guidance.

For the record, NewsBusters isn't a group, but a blog for the Media Research Center, as the masthead's branding displays.

But – and this is a classic NPR tactic – the wrinkle is that Rehm is not exactly an NPR staffer, but merely hosts a show at NPR’s Washington DC station that is distributed by NPR to member stations, and therefore there’s some supposed degree of separation.

NPR distributes her show and allows WAMU to associate the NPR brand with it, but doesn't "own" or produce it. Listeners, however, can't be expected to know the difference and many don't.

But legally, and when it comes to NPR's ethics code, there is a real distinction. Journalists employed by NPR are expected to abide by its code of ethics. The code does not currently make any provisions for those who work at NPR's "acquired programs," such as Rehm's show, to use the internal terminology.

A past code of ethics did cover hosts of acquired programs, but when the guidelines were revised in 2012, "we said we'll figure it out," Eric Nuzum, NPR's vice president for programming, told me. While such hosts are in some ways a public face of NPR, "It is not clear that they should all fall under every element of an ethics code," he said.

Nuzum said he is not prepared to say whether Rehm's activities are in violation of the ethics code, until he has talked it through with WAMU. He added, "Diane's story of what she and her husband experienced, at least in my opinion, she is free to write about, to speak about. Where I get concerned is off-air activities around that."

J.J. Yore, the general manager of WAMU, said the fundraising aspect "is one of the thorniest parts" as all involved work through the situation. "It gives all of us pause. I've said to her, that 'obviously, it would be easiest if you were not involved in this movement in any way.'"

He said the rules may not be exactly the same for Rehm, the host of a talk show that delves deeply into difficult issues — and on which Rehm is free to express her own opinions — as for a reporter or host of a news show, where the ethics conflict would be more clear cut.

Yore's own view, he said, is that "claiming to be objective is not being honest, that humans aren't objective." Instead, he said, the goal should be to constantly "ask yourself whether you have a point of view that is obscuring your vision or your coverage. What you're really trying to do is ensure you're being fair and providing the audience with the full spectrum of views, regardless of whether you agree with them or not."

Jensen pronounced that while Rehm’s most recent program on assisted suicide was balanced, that doesn’t put away the issue of a conflict. Then she talked to Rehm, who claimed her show was quite fair and balanced. (No conservative who looked at half a year of guest lists would agree. There are occasional appearances by a conservative think-tank guest, but often conservatives are not included.)

Rehm told me she believes "the ethical standards apply pretty much across the board, namely that we will be honest, that we will be open about what we do and that we will be fair on the air, and that is certainly something I've tried to do for 35 years." As a talk show host, she said, "I gather I am not put into the same category as a reporter," and therefore is allowed to express her own opinion on the air occasionally. But, she added, she makes sure to have "numerous perspectives in the studio" and for the recent program was even contemplating counting up to the second the airtime given to each perspective, to make sure everybody had equal time. If she addresses the subject again, she said, she would make a clear upfront disclosure of her viewpoint.

As to the fundraising dinners — small discussion gatherings, the first of which took place Monday night — she said: "Mind you, I am walking a very careful line. I am there to tell my own story, to tell John's story, and to hopefully help to facilitate discussion among the attendees. I am not being paid a dime for doing any of this. I am doing it because it's what I believe I want for myself and I believe that talking about it is something that is crucial within our entire society, no matter what side you come out on." The line she will not cross is "to ask people to do or give anything" and no solicitation of funds took place in her presence, she said.

Notice that Rehm plowed ahead with participating in her assisted-suicide fundraising without anyone at NPR stopping her. It's quite silly to say "I'm unpaid" as an excuse, or to claim "no fundraising happened in my presence." Putting her NPR star on the fundraising invite was the attraction to get donors in the door.

Jensen brought up a previous conflict in October of 2011 – “before the ethics guidelines were revised, leaving out hosts of acquired programs.” NPR dropped distribution of World of Opera, produced by North Carolina member station WDAV, because of host Lisa Simeone's active participation as a publicist for “Occupy Wall Street.” NPR management decided to stop distributing the show, so WDAV distributed it instead. In other words, NPR stations continued running the show, just without the official imprimatur.

NPR's standards going forward should also apply to those at its acquired programs. And if those standards treat talk show hosts or opera show hosts in a separate category, they need to lay out specifically what standards those hosts are expected to abide by. It's notable that NPR officials resolved the Simeone situation almost immediately whereas Rehm's situation has percolated for more than a week; Nuzum said, "we are taking the time to gather information and make a thoughtful decision."

My own view is that Rehm's participation as a celebrity guest of sorts at fundraising dinners for an organization that does extensive political lobbying, as compelling as her personal story is and as careful as she is being, is a step too far for someone associated with NPR. Rehm does not believe she has crossed any line, but my view is she should be counseled against future participation in fund-raising events for the organization.

None of this discussion included our usual argument that NPR and PBS are taxpayer-subsidized networks, and should strive harder for fairness and balance and ethical propriety than the commercial networks. Instead, the history of public broadcasting in the last 45 years points to a ton of left-wing politicking, on the air and off the air.