Friday, October 22, 2010

Freedom of press, speech, and religion

Juan Williams was fired from NPR this week because of comments he made on Fox News, where he’s a regular commentator.  His comments included the statement that he gets nervous when he’s on a plane with people who identify first and foremost as Muslim, as evident from garb.

I realized I have a particular perspective on this that might be different, and so is worth sharing. And I expect it is probably an unpopular opinion, as well. 

In this country we have a lot of freedoms, among them freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech.  Sometimes these freedoms come into conflict.  And sometimes we voluntarily choose roles that curtail these freedoms.  We’re free to not choose those roles and retain the full exercise of our freedoms, and usually we know in taking up these mantles that we are thereby giving up certain freedoms.

As a minister, I’m caught up by the freedom of religion that also requires churches, as non-profit agencies, to keep the government free from their influence.  What this means is that the church is not to take any partisan position, not involve itself in campaigning for a partisan political candidate in any way, and not urge its members to vote for a specific partisan candidate.  The way I interpret this, although some differ, is that as a representative of the church--the “face of the church” in many ways--I, too, cannot publicly take any position of endorsing a candidate or writing a letter to the editor in which I imply that one candidate is a horrible choice.  I can take stands on issues and even behaviors, but the line is drawn between that and publicly taking a stand for a particular candidate.  And, as a public figure, this applies even when I’m off the job.  If I’m appearing on the news on TV or if I’m appearing in a quote in the paper, I’m known as a public figure and as a minister, so anything I saw will be perceived to be from the perspective on the church.  It’s something you do when you take up a public life--you lose your ability to be just another voice, a private voice, in public forums.

Last week when I found a stack of political bumper stickers in the church for a candidate that I personally think is pretty darn wonderful, I handed that stack of bumper stickers to someone and said, "These need to be taken out of the church.  Immediately.  Can you see to it?"

Now, I still do have certain rights politically.  I can still vote.  My personal interpretation of things is to say that I can still have a bumper sticker or a yard sign for a candidate--my house and car are not only still more private than my public voice, but also they’re shared by my husband who retains his political voice.  I have been known to even wear a political button when out and about (NEVER in the church), and to attend a political rally.  But I don’t speak up publicly (i.e. at the microphone) at political rallies.

Now, back to NPR.  NPR journalists, NPR argues, have similar problems to what I face in ministry.  Because their job is to uphold an image of fair and impartial reporting, it is a necessary aspect of their job that they, like me, relinquish part of their freedom of speech in taking up this important role in our society.  Any speech they make in a public setting with a microphone will be taken as coming from an NPR journalist.  NPR journalists, like ministers, know that in taking up this public role of journalism they are bound by its code of ethics which requires them to be publicly neutral in order for NPR to have a public appearance of fair and unbiased journalism.  Because of this, they cannot attend any political rally, something that made headlines recently when they decided that the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rally counted as a political rally, and therefore their journalists who were not covering the event could not attend

Essentially, NPR's Ombudsman argued in the wake of the firing, the problem was not so much Juan Williams' recent comments, but that a role as a regular pundit on Fox News was incompatible with the role of an NPR journalist.  NPR's Code of Ethics says this in the section on outside speaking engagements:

8. NPR journalists may not speak to groups where the appearance might put in question NPR's impartiality. Such instances include situations where the employee's appearance may appear to endorse the agenda of a group or organization. This would include participation in some political debates and forums where the sponsoring group(s) or other participants are identified with a particular perspective on an issue or issues and NPR journalist's participation might put into question NPR's impartiality.

9. NPR journalists must get permission from the Senior Vice President for News, or their designee, to appear on TV or other media. Requests should be submitted in writing to the employee's immediate supervisor and copied to mediarelations@npr.org . Approval will not be unreasonably denied if the proposed work will not discredit NPR, conflict with NPR's interests, create a conflict of interest for the employee or interfere with the employee's ability to perform NPR duties. The Senior Vice President or designee must respond within seven days of receiving a request. 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 fact-based analysis.
 NPR's Ombudsman says:
It's not about race. It's also not about free speech, as some have charged. Nor is it about an alleged attempt by NPR to stifle conservative views. NPR offers a broad range of viewpoints on its radio shows and web site.
Instead, this latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values: NPR's values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum.
Some have argued that this is an archaic view of journalism.  Arianna Huffington has said that this view of journalism is both archaic and untenable and that what's needed is not objectivity but transparency.  There's an argument for that--we know that journalists all have their biases, so why not let them show clearly so that we know what they are?  Currently, however, we're seeing the results of that on the cable news networks, where prime time is taken up not by news reporting but by pundits expressing opinion rather than fact.  I think we need more news sources like NPR and fewer like Fox News or even MSNBC.  If maintaining this level of journalistic integrity requires their reporters to give up certain public freedoms, I think NPR has the right to expect this of their reporters.  And in talking about rights, NPR has the right to fire a reporter for violating the terms of his employment and breaking the code of ethics.

Perhaps this should change, and ministers should have the right to endorse politicians from the free pulpit and journalists should have the right to endorse politicians on the free news.  I think that point may come in both cases.  And of course public has the right to put pressure on NPR if they disagree with the firing of a journalist for something he or she said, or if they want a journalist fired for something he or she said.  Boycotts and letter-writing and other forms of persuading companies are time-honored methods of achieving change in corporations.  Right now, though, I'm happy to have a news outlet that tries to achieve impartiality.

5 comments:

Bill Baar said...

Juan Williams is an opinion Journalist. He gets paid and pays taxes to voice opinions.

A Minister, at the Pulpit, when he or she claims the tax status, is supposed to keep their political opinions to themselves to hold that tax privilige.

There's a huge diff between the roles.

Cynthia Landrum said...

I am not personally tax-exempt, and I do pay my taxes. And I'm paid to express my opinion. Yes, there's a huge difference--in my case it's the government that's curtailing my freedom of speech. In Juan's case it's his employer. He gets paid to "not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis." Any analogy when you stretch it to certain points breaks down. If ministers were exactly like NPR journalists, then this week NPR would be covering my sermon, I guess. I said similar, not the same. I offer my case up as an example where freedom of speech gets curtailed, necessarily, by my job.

Bill Baar said...

We'll, the payers can fire both Clergy and Pundits...I suppose that's the key...right now the payer in me says pull the subsidy from NPR and let them make their way on their own.

Cynthia Landrum said...

See, I'm going exactly the opposite here. If they wanted to go the Huffington route and have super opinionated journalists, then I'd say pull the funding. If they're trying to maintain the, albeit perhaps archaic, neutral press, then they're more worthy of government funding. In a sense, I think they had to fire him because they're government funded, not the other way around.

Bill Baar said...

If your Gov funded, you depend on the whims of the Gov and ultimately voters.

This voters going to vote for candidates to defund, and I think that's going to be the case.

NPR is toast. They'll have to stand on their own financial feet.