March 15, 2016

NPR would have prohibited journalistic criticism of Hitler

Glenn Greenwald, Intercept - NPR media reporter David Folkenflik published a story describing the concern and even anger of some NPR executives and journalists over a column by longtime NPR commentator Cokie Roberts — the Beacon of Washington Centrism — that criticizes Trump. “NPR has a policy forbidding its journalists from taking public stances on political affairs,” he wrote. For any NPR reporter, Roberts’s statements — warning of the dangers of a Trump presidency — would be a clear violation of that policy.

An NPR vice president, Michael Oreskes, published an internal memo to NPR staff t highlighting Roberts’s non-reporting and non-employee role as a reason she would not be punished, but he pointedly noted, “If Cokie were still a member of NPR’s staff we would not have allowed that.” And in an interview that Oreskes “directed” Roberts to do this morning with Morning Edition host David Greene about the matter, the NPR host chided Roberts for expressing negative views of Trump, telling her:

"Objectivity is so fundamental to what we do. Can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed to hear you come out and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?"

Imagine calling yourself a journalist, and then — as you watch an authoritarian politician get closer to power by threatening and unleashing violence and stoking the ugliest impulses — denouncing not that politician, but rather other journalists who warn of the dangers. That is the embodiment of the ethos of corporate journalism in America, and a potent illustration of why its fetishized reverence for “objectivity” is so rotted and even dangerous. Indeed, Roberts herself agreed that it was justified for her to speak out only because she’s in the role of NPR commentator and not reporter: “If I were doing it in your role” as a reporter, Roberts told Greene, “you should be disappointed.”

... Contrary to what U.S. media corporations have succeeded in convincing people, these journalistic neutrality rules are not remotely traditional. They are newly invented concepts that coincided with the acquisition of the nation’s most important media outlets by large, controversy-averse corporations for which “media” was just one of many businesses.

This corporate, neutrality-├╝ber-alles framework is literally the exact antithesis of how journalism was practiced, and why it was so valued, when the U.S. Constitution was enacted and for decades after. As Jack Shafer documented in 2013, those who claim that journalism has always been grounded in neutrality demonstrate “a painful lack of historical understanding of American journalism.” Indeed, “American journalism began in earnest as a rebellion against the state”: citizens using journalism to denounce in no uncertain terms the evils of the British Crown and to agitate for resistance against it. He cites Judith and William Serrin’s anthology, Muckraking: The Journalism That Changed America, which “establishes the primacy of partisan, activist journalism from the revolutionary period through the modern era.” That is the noble journalistic tradition that has been deliberately suppressed — outright barred — by our nation’s largest corporate media outlets, justifying their meek and impotent codes under the banner of an objectivity and neutrality that are as illusory and deceitful as they are amoral.

Update: Regarding whether “neutrality” and “objectivity” are new journalistic concoctions, note that the two most revered figures in American broadcast journalism history — Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite — would have been fired from NPR and multiple other contemporary media outlets for their most notable moments: Murrow when he used his nightly news broadcast to repeatedly denounce Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and Cronkite when he did the same about the Vietnam War.

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