NPR Explains Bush Interview Decision, Slaps Williams For “Violating NPR Policy”

FishbowlDC has obtained a staff email sent by NPR News Vice President Ellen Weiss, in which she explains “our decision regarding White House interview.

    As many of you know, I was out of town all last week — visiting colleges with my oldest son and then attending the Public Radio Program Directors’ annual conference in Minneapolis, where the work of NPR News was very well-received by Member stations.

    During that time, I made the decision to decline the interview opportunity we were offered with President Bush, under the specific terms the White House required. I apologize for being unable to respond to some of your questions and comments about it last week, and I want to address them here.

    Let me reiterate why we passed. Shortly after NPR’s interview with President Bush in January (the first this President had granted to NPR), we advised the White House that while NPR would appreciate future interview opportunities, the next interview had to be conducted by a program host. This has been standard practice on the six other major broadcast and cable news outlets during the Bush presidency. We articulated that position with the White House in the subsequent requests we’ve made since January, and we restated it September 22 when they approached us for another opportunity with Juan Williams. While Juan is an important contributor to our news organization, he is not a program host. We asked that they honor our policy; but when they said they would not reconsider, NPR chose to decline.

    As I said to press inquiries last week, NPR has submitted numerous requests for interviews with President Bush and we would welcome him to any of our programs. Yet efforts by any individual or institution to control the terms of our journalism strike at the core of the American right to freedom of the press. If we sacrifice that freedom due to pressure or opportunity, we risk damaging our hard-won credibility, objectivity and reputation. And this doesn’t just apply to the White House. Recently, Senator Hillary Clinton’s representatives offered her for an interview on health care with Julie Rovner. Because we had a similar longstanding network request to speak with Mrs. Clinton, under the same policy, NPR News management required it be conducted by a program host. The Senator was interviewed by ATC host Melissa Block on September 18.

    Finally, as you also probably know, Juan was quoted publicly criticizing this decision. Juan is a valued member of our staff but this was a violation of NPR policy as well; any media requests that come to you for interviews about NPR, our activities or decisions must be forwarded to the Communications division to handle. This is standard practice in news organizations. Juan and I have spoken at length about this situation and he offered me the following to share:

    “I respect NPR and as a member of the NPR news staff I know first-hand my colleagues’ commitment to world-class journalism. I respect NPR’s management. They have the right to refuse any interview opportunity. The integrity of NPR management is without question and the process for making decisions reflects their principled stand on journalistic independence. While I strongly disagree with NPR’s decision on this matter, I understand their need to make such decisions. Further, if my comments left the impression that NPR, as a news organization, disrespects this President — or any President – that was not my intent.”

    I cannot imagine a newsroom where everyone agrees with every assignment, booking, angle or other decision made by management — it would be a pretty dull and probably unproductive place to work. Every NPR employee has the right to disagree with our decision-making, and the right to express those opinions to management directly; an open door policy on all issues exists throughout the organization. But those disagreements are to remain where they are taken up, internally. I appreciate your interest and thoughts on this.