It seems a little convenient that NPR and The Washington Post only felt it necessary to discuss the media ethics of Nina Totenberg’s close friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg after she died. “Reporter’s closeness to Ginsburg raises questions” was the Wednesday Post headline.
Media reporter Paul Farhi found liberals who had been concerned:
“While it’s one thing to occasionally have coffee or lunch or drinks with someone you cover to further develop that source, the friendship between Totenberg and Ginsburg went far beyond that,” wrote Tom Jones, senior media writer of the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization, in his daily newsletter on Monday.
The problem with the “appearance” of a conflict, Jones noted, is that readers and listeners can’t say whether the personal relationship had any affect on Totenberg’s decisions about what to cover or ignore. What’s more, he wrote, the relationship furthers the cynical public view that the news media is “in cahoots” with the people they cover, especially liberals.
“The friendship should not have happened,” concluded Jones. “Or if the friendship was that important, Totenberg should have recused herself from covering Ginsburg or the Supreme Court. In addition, NPR should have an issue with the relationship between Totenberg and Ginsburg, which was no secret.”
It wasn’t a secret. It was the opposite! Ginsburg officiated at Totenberg’s second wedding in 2000. In 2010, Totenberg hosted “her friend” Ginsburg for a conversation at George Washington University, and in 2012, Totenberg gave the tribute to Justice Ginsburg at Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year awards: Ginsburg “quite simply, changed the world for women.”
Of course it came through on NPR itself. Witness Totenberg’s six-and-a-half-minute promotional segment on NPR promoting the book The Notorious RBG and Ginsburg’s ascension to “cultural icon” status.
On Thursday, NPR Public Editor Kelly McBride wrote an article strangely headlined “NPR Should Have Revealed Totenberg-RBG Friendship Earlier.”
Totenberg’s tribute to Ginsburg did have a record-scratch effect on some listeners. “The story about her long friendship with RBG made me uncomfortable,” wrote James Linnane. “As far as I am concerned both women practiced their professions with complete integrity, an old time value that is being questioned these days. The thing is, how much of this social incestuousness exists in DC?”
By not discussing its views publicly, NPR leaves open the possibility that there is one set of standards for senior, elite journalists, and another set of standards for the rest of the staff. After all, why is it OK for Totenberg to be close friends with a key source on her beat, but it’s not OK for a journalist to march in a Black Lives Matter protest? Blazing the ethical pathway through “social incestuousness” and leaving trail markers that others might follow would have been a service to the broader public radio community.
Everyone paying attention to NPR — and Totenberg’s attempts to ruin the Douglas Ginsburg nomination (successful) and the Clarence Thomas nomination (unsuccessful) — knows she’s an activist and not just a reporter. Older citizens remember her wishing AIDS on Jesse Helms and his family in her side career on weekend opinion TV. It’s just that NPR is a network by liberals and for liberals, so her chumminess here fits right in.
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