NPR's standards editor & ombudsman minimize and/or ignore NPR ethics requirements regarding David Brooks
In recent weeks I've phoned and emailed the NPR ombudsman's office several times about commentator David Brooks' conflict of interest – Brooks' son has been serving in the Israeli military while Brooks has been commenting on Israel without divulging that his son was in the Israeli army. Ombudsmen are charged with publicly addressing ethical breaches by a news organization's journalists.
Now I've also been in touch with NPR's Standards and Practices Editor, Mark Memmot, who is in charge of ensuring that NPR journalists adhere to ethics standards. Last week NPR's ombudsman's office sent me an email that contained a statement by Mr. Memmott. I discussed this statement in a previous post and now will expand on this a bit more, specifically including information about NPR's own ethics code.
Below is the email containing Mr. Memmott's statement:
Thank you for contacting the NPR Ombudsman. We appreciate your comments and your thoughts will be taken into consideration as we continue to monitor the reporting.
The Ombudsman is currently working on a blog post about this issue. You may be interested in this statement from our standards and practices editor:
David Brooks is primarily an opinion columnist for The New York Times. He appears on All Things Considered to offer his opinions, not as a reporter. His son's service with the Israeli Defense Forces is no secretWe [sic] agree with the Times' editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, that Mr. Brooks' long-standing views about Israel have been "formed by all kinds of things ... [and] are not going to change whether or not his son is serving in the IDF, beyond his natural concerns as a father for his son’s safety and well-being." We also agree with the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that Mr. Brooks should not be barred from commenting about Israel. She has recommended that he address the issue of his son's service in the IDF in a future column [see my comments on the Rosenthal and Sullivan statements here]. That strikes us as a reasonable suggestion. If a situation arises and we feel he should also mention it on our air, we still [sic] discuss that with Mr. Brooks at that time.
There are a number of problems with this statement, one of which is that it largely fails to apply NPR's own ethics requirements to Mr. Brooks.
The fact is that NPR's ethics codes place a strong emphasis on impartiality and transparency. They include the activities of family members among the activities that may interfere with impartiality, and decree that NPR journalists inform NPR of any potential conflicts of interest. And they apply these ethical requirements to analyses and commentaries, not just to reportorial activities.
NPR's full ethics handbook states:
"All NPR journalists, including those of us who work for the arts and music desks, must tell our supervisors in advance about potential conflicts of interest."
NPR's ethics handbook states:
"Our methods are transparent and we will be accountable for all we do."
"We are vigilant in disclosing to both our supervisors and the public any circumstances where our loyalties may be divided - extending to the interests of spouses and other family members - and when necessary, we recuse ourselves from related coverage."
The handbook has an entire section on the importance of impartiality. Below is a particularly relevant section:
Impartiality in our personal lives
Be aware that a loved one’s political activity may create a perception of bias.
Some of our family members — including spouses, companions and children — may be involved in politics or advocacy. We are sensitive to the perception of bias. So we inform our supervisors and work with them to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest [emphasis added].
NPR journalists recuse themselves from covering stories or events related to their family members’ political activities. We may go so far as to change job responsibilities (for instance, moving off the “politics desk” to an area of coverage well removed from that subject). “You have the right to marry anyone you want, but you don’t have the right to cover any beat you want” if the potential conflicts appear to be too great, as Tom Rosenstiel of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said to the Los Angeles Times.
The ethics handbook includes additional statements specifically about commentary, concluding:
Our commentaries must also hew to other Guiding Principles, reflecting honesty, accuracy and transparency.
In other words, NPR's own standards indicate that Mr. Brooks should have informed his editors of his son's employment in the Israeli military. They also suggest that he should recuse himself from commenting on Israel. If Mr. Brooks chooses not to recuse himself from this subject matter, and if NPR fails to require this, its ethics codes direct that he should at least divulge to the public the fact that his son is serving in the military of the foreign country he is discussing.
Yet, so far NPR
- has not informed listeners that Brooks had a close personal interest in a subject in which he was supposedly offering disinterested analysis,
- has not asked Mr. Brooks to recuse himself from future commentary on a subject in which he has a personal interest, and
- has not stated clearly that this conflict of interest will be divulged in the future (only saying that they might discuss this with Mr. Brooks "if the situation arises").
There are a number of factual errors and logical inconsistencies in Mr. Memmott's statement (which I also discussed in my previous post):
1. While Mr. Memmott claims that Mr. Brooks' situation is "no secret," in reality, the large majority of NPR listeners quite likely have no idea of Mr. Brooks' conflict of interest.
The only place the information about Brooks has appeared in print to date is a Hebrew version of an Israeli newspaper, and possibly the Los Angeles Jewish Journal (whose online article was the first place to reveal it in English; it was also on the New York Magazine website). It has not appeared on any mainstream radio or TV broadcast that I'm aware of.
2. While Mr. Memmott is correct in stating that Mr. Brooks is not a reporter, this does not exempt Mr. Brooks from the necessity of abiding by ethics requirements. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists' decrees that opinion writers should disclose potential conflicts of interest.
3. It is entirely correct that Mr. Brooks has "natural concerns as a father for his son’s safety and well-being," which is precisely why Mr. Brooks should recuse himself from commenting on matters that concern Israel.
The reality is that Mr. Brooks is a powerful and influential journalist whose commentary about Israel does indeed have the capacity to affect his son's "safety and well-being."
Commentary that defends Israel to the American public serves to help keep American tax money ($8-10 million per day) and American diplomatic support for Israel flowing, both of which are extremely important for his son's safety and well-being.
Commentary that pointed out the illegality and immorality of Israel's recent killing and injuring of thousands of Gazan men, women, and children by the Israeli military in which his son is serving would quite likely interfere with his son's well-being, as an increasing number of Americans would join those around the world calling for war crimes tribunals.
Since Mr. Brooks does the former and not the latter, his commentary, at minimum, gives a strong appearance of bias.
According to NPR's ethics handbook, NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos is also responsible for addressing ethical violations. In fact, the ombudsman is called NPR's Chief Ethics Officer. He is also responsible for informing the public about such matters.
Yet, so far Mr. Schumacher-Matos has failed to weigh in on this matter, most recently choosing instead to write about what to call the Washington DC football team.
Important as that issue is, it is hard to feel that it is more important than the life-and-death issue of Israel-Palestine and the recent killing and injuring of thousands of Gazan men, women, and children by the Israeli military that David Brooks' son was serving in while Mr. Brooks was praising Israeli actions on NPR.
I hope that Mr. Schumacher-Matos will eventually step up to the plate and call on NPR, which proclaims its dedication to honesty, transparency, and the highest principles of journalism, to inform the public that commentator David Brooks has been issuing opinions on an issue in which he had a hidden interest. I hope he will also recommend that NPR look for another commentator to replace Mr. Brooks – one who doesn't believe he is above ethical obligations.