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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:19 PM ET, 10/24/2011

Michele Norris and NPR: Tough call

If the Erik Wemple Blogger could promulgate his own Defense of Marriage Act, the public law would read as follows:

A journalist’s assignment or beat shall not be determined, amended, structured, or otherwise influenced by the employment of his or her spouse. Except when the spouse is serving as a senior adviser to the 2012 Obama campaign and his wife is a host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Michele Norris is in a bind. As “ATC” host, she weighs in on all the topics of the day, and these days that means heavy involvement in the 2012 presidential race. Heavy involvement in the presidential race also describes the role of her husband, Broderick Johnson, who is now signing on as a senior adviser to the campaign of President Obama.

In a statement announcing that she’ll be leaving her hosting duties temporarily, Norris writes:

Given the nature of Broderick’s position with the campaign and the impact that it will most certainly have on our family life, I will temporarily step away from my hosting duties until after the 2012 elections.

Let’s leave aside the question of the Norris-Johnson family life; this, after all, is not a parenting blog. Love often ignores professional conflicts.

Norris is a career journalist; Johnson is a career political operative. Every time the country gets around to electing a president, it seems, these roles clash. In 2004, Johnson worked as an aide to the campaign of John Kerry, and Norris recused herself from political stories at NPR. No recusal took place in the 2008 race, as Johnson did unpaid work for the Obama people.

In a righteous world, no journalist should have to adjust job responsibilities on account of a spouse’s work. Yet a real conflict sits in the middle of this relationship: How could Norris be expected to cover the 2012 Obama campaign in a neutral fashion if her husband is all tied up in it? How could she be expected to cover Obama’s opponent’s campaign given those same considerations? NPR guidelines require its employees to disclose all such potential conflicts.

Remember: Conflict-of-interest disclosures don’t work on radio. If they’re a bit of a distraction in print, they sound like static on radio. Give this a try:

Good evening, I’m Michele Norris and this is NPR’s All Things Considered. Today, the Obama campaign, acting on advice from senior adviser-slash-my-husband Broderick Johnson, attacked Republicans for practicing “crony capitalism.”

Consider that if Norris sat tight in her host position, she’d have to be issuing such disclaimers and disclosures all the time. She’d become the radio industry’s full-disclosure machine. Every time she issued a disclosure, NPR’s funding opponents would pounce and denounce, saying that the awkward moments merely shore up the outlet’s reputation as a liberal mouthpiece.

Of course, they’ll do so anyhow.

By  |  04:19 PM ET, 10/24/2011

 
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