It seems as though the issue of NPR journalists casually airing personal opinions on other media outlets has drawn complaints from many listeners and caused a bit of an internal ruckus, so much so that the news service is reviewing its ethics policies.  

A recent column by NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin refers specifically to an episode last fall in which NPR correspondent Mara Liasson, speaking on Fox News, chastised Congressmen Jim McDermott of Washington and David Bonior of Michigan for visiting Iraq and suggesting that President Bush was misleading the nation about Iraq's weapons capabilities in order to win support for an military invasion.

Here, exactly, is what Liasson said: "These guys [McDermott and Bonior] are a disgrace. Look, everybody knows it's 101, politics 101, that you don't go to an adversary country, an enemy country, and badmouth the United States, its policies and the president of the United States. I mean, these guys ought to, I don't know resign."

Dvorkin reports that he only began receiving complaints about Liasson's remarks last month after media critic, and Free Press contributor, Norman Solomon quoted them in a July column ("Media's War Boosters Unlikely to Voice Regret"). In part, Solomon used the quote to illustrate NPR's, and mainstream journalism's, uncritical support for Bush's claims about Iraqi WMD and ties to Al-Qaeda during the build up to war. Solomon also raised this intriguing question: "If a mainstream political journalist like Mara Liasson was so quick to suggest 10 months ago that McDermott resign for inopportunely seeking to prevent a war, when will she advocate that the president resign for dishonestly promoting a war -- or, failing resignation, face impeachment?"

Good question indeed. I haven't heard Liasson or any of the regular shouting heads at Fox calling the President "a disgrace" or asking him to resign. Why so much deference to the President and so much contempt for two members of Congress who made a fact-finding trip and attempted to avert a war because they concluded that Iraq didn't pose an imminent threat to the U.S? Perhaps Liasson's comments reveal that, with regards to foreign policy, there aren't fundamental differences between the views of the pundits at Fox News and those of many mainstream journalists/pundits. Oh sure, there are a host of superficial differences and a number of policy disagreements, about which they will argue endlessly, but by and large, both the Fox crew and their mild-mannered mainstream counterparts readily accept the idea of American exceptionalism and adhere to the same form of "patriotism" (as defined as the uncritical acceptance of what those in power do and say, especially in times of national crisis). It's just that the Fox hosts are so rabid about expressing it.

As to the question of whether or not NPR correspondents should be freely expressing their opinions:

Dvorkin admits that in this case Liasson "appeared to abandon her role of reporter" by expressing her personal opinion. He also quotes NPR's VP of news saying that reporters should maintain a "firewall between their private opinions and professional performance." According to Dvorkin, NPR is now writing an ethics guide to set out clear rules for dealing with such issues.

I actually find it somewhat refreshing that Liasson "put her cards on the table," as the expression goes. As a viewer/listener it's nice to know how she really feels about members of Congress criticizing the, uh, I mean the President. I also think it's unrealistic for NPR to expect reporters to erect a "firewall" between their political views and what they do on the job. Why should they pretend not to have any opinions about a subject they regularly cover?

To be sure, personal biases and tastes should be set aside as much as possible when working on a story. I would even argue that reporters should constantly test their own assumptions and question their own ideologies (that is, if they even acknowledge them). This, of course, is just part of being a healthy skeptic, a good journalist. Actually, such a critical frame of mind suggests that a reporter may have a bias-a "bias for the truth," as University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen calls it. "Journalists should be biased toward the frameworks of analysis that emerge from honest and engaged reporting," Jensen argues.

At the same time, it seems likely that one's professional experiences will inform one's personal opinions. Conversely, it makes sense to acknowledge that a journalist's personal beliefs, among other factors, will play a part in their professional activities-like influencing their decision to pursue a particular story in the first place. As former journalism professor and media critic John McManus argues, reporters "can't divorce themselves from the particular 'lenses' of their own histories and purposes." So why pretend otherwise?

I'd rather see reporters, be they from NPR or any other outlet, say: "Here's what I believed going into this story; here's the framework I used to investigate it further; here's what I learned after that investigation; and here's how that changed, or even reinforced, my thinking." This approach, I believe, would liberate journalists from the constraints of the "he said/she said" style of reporting that dominates mainstream journalism and, consequently, muddies, rather than clarifies, important issues and arguments. It would also make the craft of journalism more transparent, giving the public an opportunity to understand the reporter's process. As Jensen cogently puts it, "If news media bosses would give journalists the latitude to be honestly biased, journalists would be a lot happier and write better stories, and the public would have some basis for critically evaluating the news, instead of being asked to pretend that it is all objective."

  Chris Shumway is a former broadcast journalist and meteorologist. He is the co-author (with Robert I. Berkman) of Digital Dilemmas: Ethical Issues for Online Media Professionals, which has just been published by Iowa State Press.