< Public Radio Journalists and Political Expression

Transcript

Friday, November 04, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Last week, NPR's interim CEO Joyce Slocum joined us to discuss NPR's decision to end distribution of the show World of Opera because host Lisa Simeone was engaged in political advocacy.

As our show was being put to bed, unbeknownst to us, a similar drama was unfolding at our parent station, WNYC. The station ended its relationship with Caitlin Curran, a freelance web producer for The Takeaway, produced by WNYC and PRI, because she had participated in an Occupy Wall Street protest.

It was Curran herself who informed management when she proposed a story about how a photo of her brandishing a sign at the rally went viral. The sign, by the way, bore the uncontroversial message that it is wrong to sell worthless mortgage-backed securities.

Curran’s dismissal for violating the station's policy on advocacy was described by her boss as “a teaching moment.” The question is, what did it teach? Caitlin, welcome to the show.

CAITLIN CURRAN:

Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Tell me what you were doing at Occupy Wall Street that day.

CAITLIN CURRAN:

Well, I went down there because I just felt like it was a big major thing that's happening in our time and trying to observe a major news story that’s going on.

BOB GARFIELD:

I understand the impulse. I once went to the Million Man March under approximately the same circumstances. But I didn't prepare a sign beforehand.

[OVERTALK]

CAITLIN CURRAN:

Sure. You know, my boyfriend was holding the sign. He was tired and he wanted to take some photos. And so, I held the sign for literally just a few moments, and somebody took a photo of me. Later that day, the photographer posted the picture on Twitter. The next decade Boing Boing posted it as their Occupy Wall Street Photo of the Day, and it kind of blew up from there.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, I just want to clarify a couple of things. Your boyfriend didn't take you there at gunpoint. You – you know –

CAITLIN CURRAN:

[LAUGHS] Right.

BOB GARFIELD:

You know, you worked together on the sign.

CAITLIN CURRAN:

Sure.

BOB GARFIELD:

You were a participant in this rally. And clearly, in the ethics policy for WNYC, journalists are forbidden from publicly taking up political advocacy.

CAITLIN CURRAN:

You know, I think  I thought of it in the  moment when I was holding up the sign as the sign was something that wasn’t political. I didn't consider the Occupy movement to be a political thing, since it’s not been affiliated with a particular party.

BOB GARFIELD:

Nonpartisan maybe, but not non-ideological. Occupy Wall Street is almost entirely the province of the political left, is it not?

CAITLIN CURRAN:

I think at this point it's still developing. And there are so many different people involved in the movement all over the world, with different intentions for it. I mean, and that’s what’s gotten it some criticism, is that it's not specific enough. So I mean, I think it's too early to say whether it's on the left or right.

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, don't buy that answer but I’m gonna end the prosecution there, ‘cause I, I don't want to litigate your case.

What I do want to ask you about is whether the ethics policy that you were held to makes sense in the world we are now living in. There has been a lot of debate over the subject of whether it's fundamentally dishonest to pretend that journalists a) don’t have political opinions of their own and b) can't be professional in their jobs, while simultaneously having a point of view.

CAITLIN CURRAN:

Mm-hmm.

BOB GARFIELD:

How much have you thought about that issue over the last few days?

CAITLIN CURRAN:

I’ve thought about it a lot. I do think that journalists can publicly support something and they can still be trusted to report on things in a fair way. I think I’ve always exercised fair and balanced decision making in my role as a web producer at The Takeaway and in past jobs that I’ve had, as well.

In this age of Twitter and Facebook, journalists are just out there in public all the time. I think it's impossible to not express your opinions, at some point.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right, now let's talk about reality for a moment.

CAITLIN CURRAN:

Sure.

BOB GARFIELD:

A substantial number of Americans and a lot of them in Congress believe that public radio is a sump of leftist propaganda. Likewise, a certain number of Americans, many of whom you were probably rubbing shoulders with the other day at Occupy Wall Street, believe that public radio till toady up to our corporate masters at, at any moment.

The reasons for the ethics policies, it seems  to me, is to give people on both sides of that argument no reason to say ah-ha. You became a smoking gun by virtue of just being where you were that day. Does that not harm the cause of all public broadcast journalists?

CAITLIN CURRAN:

I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I mean, I – I – I’m definitely not advocating for Congress to de-fund a very important institution in our country. And, and I think that they do exercise a lot of balanced reporting, in terms of reporting from the right and left.

But, you know I think that the same standards aren't applied to all employees, and that's part of the problem, I guess.

BOB GARFIELD:

What is the solution?

CAITLIN CURRAN:

This is something that happened in my personal time, and I think that news organizations can allow its journalists to have opinions about things, but still present fair and balanced reporting.

BOB GARFIELD:

Caitlin, thank you very much.

CAITLIN CURRAN:

Thank you!

BOB GARFIELD:

Caitlin Curren was, until recently, a part-time web producer for The Takeaway, produced by PRI and WNYC, our producing station. WNYC declined our request for an interview, but a statement released by the station says, quote, “The Takeaway has covered the Occupy Wall Street story since its beginning, through active reporting on the protests and the positive and negative responses to those events. When Ms. Curran made the decision to participate in the protest and make herself part of the story, she violated our editorial standard.”