When Brandividuals Violate Organizational Reputation: Ethics, NPR and Fox News

by cv harquail on December 15, 2009

Media Watchdog Eric Boehlert blasts out of the gate this morning with an incisive critique of a longstanding, problematic relationship between NPR and Fox News. Please go to Eric’s post “According to its ethics code, NPR still200912151112.jpg has a problem” at MediaMattersForAmerica to read the entire story, which he has been covering for several years. The elements of the story are complex and the implications of the story are quite damning.

A Problem of Brandividuals

In addition to many other important points Boehlert raises about news vs. politicized rhetoric, about the politics that deter NPR from right action, and more, the NPR vs. Fox “News” conflict demonstrates the downside of Brandividuals.

Brandividuals are employees who represent their personal reputations/brands as well as the organization’s reputation/brand to establish their expertise and credibility. As employees, brandividuals are effective because they draw on either their personal brand, their organization’s brand, or both, to establish their relationship with stakeholders.

InAuthentic Ethical Commitment by the Organization

At the meta-level is NPR’s ethical problem. Boehlert outlines how NPR, an organization with well-defined non-partisan identity and a clear ethics policy, allows two of its well-known journalists to appear regularly on Fox “news” programs as paid contributors. These two journalists, Mara Liasson and Juan Williams, are usually identified as NPR correspondents when they appear on Fox News.

Boehlert takes NPR to task for allowing this ongoing violation of its own ethics polices:

Public broadcasting guidelines clearly state that when appearing on outside programs “journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.” And, “They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”

The activity of these two brandividuals, Liasson and Williams, violates their main and original employer’s ethics policy. Yet, their employer is doing little to resolve this problem. This raises the question:

Is NPR really committed to being an ethical news organization? Is NPR being authentic?

Lack of Accountability & Responsibility by the Employees

Boehlert emphasizes the responsibility of NPR for the behavior of its own employees. Yet, in addition to the organization’s reluctance to act responsibly, we also see a lack of responsibility by the employees.

Consider this situation from the perspective of brandividualism and the ongoing challenge of balancing of the individual’s personal brand/reputation and the reputation of the organization that employs them:

200912151110.jpgThe brandividuals owe their professional skill development, in part, to NPR.
Both Liasson and Williams have earned their high profiles through their employment relationship with NPR. Were it not for their employment by NPR and the cultivation of their journalistic skills within the NPR professional community, they might not have become the well-skilled journalists they are.

The brandividuals owe their national name recognition, in part, to NPR.
Both Liasson and Williams earned their high profiles through the significant, national exposure they received on the NPR network. Were it not for this significant exposure, they would not have become high-profile enough for Fox to want to hire them.

200912151109.jpgSelf-promotional behavior by these brandividuals is damaging NPR’s reputation.
Both Liasson and Williams are earning additional name recognition and additional money by appearing on Fox “News”, by representing themselves as NPR employees. They are trading on the reputation of NPR for their own career advancement.

Worse, in this case their personal individual career advancement is not independent of NPR’s reputation.

By having NPR employees appear on Fox “News” programs, Fox “News” is able to devalue the brand of its “news” competitor NPR. Every time these NPR journalists appear on Fox “News” as ‘journalists’, they diminish and damage the other brand (NPR) that they (also) supposedly represent.

Brandividuals are not being paid for the ‘value’ they bring.

Both Liasson and Williams ‘add value’ to Fox “News”. But, I’ll bet my totebag that they are not being paid any kind of premium by allowing Fox “News” to free-ride on NPR’s reputation for ethical, balanced journalism. Although Fox “News” gets the halo affect of association by having “the same” journalists as the real news organization, Fox “News” is probably not paying either contributor for this particular “added value”.

[Note, Boehlert explains how the brandividuals’ association with Fox News might allow NPR to avoid some criticism from the far-right. So, one could argue that the brandividuals’ appearance on Fox “News” has some value to NPR.]

Can Anyone’s Brand Reputation Be Saved?

Boehlert takes NPR to task, arguing rightly that NPR should uphold its own ethics policy, either by firmly prohibiting NPR employees to appear as regular contributors on Fox or by asking these journalists to resign from NPR.

And what about the brandividuals themselves?

  • Shouldn’t Liasson and/or Williams feel more responsible to NPR, and more responsible for NPR’s reputation?
  • Shouldn’t these brandividuals act responsibility, either sever their ties with Fox “News” or resign from NPR?
  • Shouldn’t Liasson and/or Williams feel more responsible to their own personal brands as journalists, and chose either to protect their personal reputations for professional journalism by severing their ties with Fox “News”?
  • Alternatively, should they try to change their personal brands from “journalist” to “opinion-vendor”, by resigning from NPR and upping their profile on Fox “News”?

If you were these brandividuals, what would you do?

See also:
What’s your *personal* ROI as a Brandividual?
How are Brandividuals special?
Why We Want Brandividuals on Social Media

[Disclosure: My brother-in-law appears on NPR as a humorist. Eric Boehlert is a Montclair neighbor. ]


Joseph Logan December 15, 2009 at 9:25 pm

I’m having a problem teasing a coherent thought out of my muddled brain to address the questions above. This “is Fox News a legitimate news outlet?” debate is (to me) roughly akin to asking whether Goofy is a real dog, and yet people who otherwise manage to perform simple activities like brushing their teeth and dressing themselves dissolve into babbling idiots if anyone dare question their infotainment of choice. I realize that’s not what you’re asking, but it’s where every damn debate about Faux News ends.

I suppose Williams and Liasson should be held to the same standards of affiliation as representatives of CBS, ABC, BBC, and whomever else might appear on the network, but let’s be clear: they aren’t even held to the same standards as each other. Is it because Williams, who has been at this longer, is a partisan hack, while Liasson, the relative newcomer, is perceived as a more legitimate journalist? Is it because one of them has a “Y” chromosome? I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s a sorry mess. Here’s an idea–why don’t we figure out what Fox’s policy would be if Glenn Beck started appearing on al Jazeera, then do that?

To the question of where the responsibility lies in all this, it absolutely starts with Williams and Liasson. Full disclosure is a tenet of responsible journalism, and they should absolutely state at each appearance that they do not speak for NPR. The fact that anyone from any outlet should have to say so on any other outlet, though, indicates how much Fox News has fouled the water for everyone else.

NPR also has responsibility here, primarily for maintaining its own standards. I believe the journalists are both under contract to Fox as well as NPR. NPR should protect its name by forcing a choice. Unfortunately, that probably pulls NPR people off of shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation, but NPR can’t wait for Fox to do the right thing. There’s a reason Woodward and Bernstein wrote for the Washington Post and not Teen Beat.
.-= Joseph Logan´s last blog ..Walt Disney’s org chart =-.

cv December 15, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Hi Joseph-

Just so I’m clear, “News” in in quotes, b/c it isn’t an actual news organization.

Glad that you agree that both the organization and the journalists are responsible and able to fix the conflict… I just wish that I’d included Fox “News” as a culpable agent rather than only as a beneficiary of the conflict.

Don’t you think that, if we make a distinction between news and incite-tainment, then NPR journalists could appear alongside Wall Street Journal Journalists– oh wait, let’s make that journalists from the Tribune — on Sunday morning news shows that are actually about news, without creating a conflict? I think it is more the context that is “Faux News” than it is the act of appearing on another news program, that causes the real problem here.

But all this to say, it really really does disappoint me, and so many other NPR listeners, to see NPR continue with this self-deception. They aren’t fooling listeners, and even worse they are bowing to the pressure of the bullies at Fox.

Joseph Logan December 16, 2009 at 12:42 am

Yep, that was clear. It’s also clear to me that the culpability of Faux News would in no way change their ethics or actions. Oddly, they are in one way the most authentic organization in the mix–they are reliably and unabashedly jingoistic, hyper-partisan, and irresponsible. They were yesterday, they were today, and they will be tomorrow.

Each time I mention a verifiable instance of deception or bias by Faux News, my mother-in-law responds (defensively) that MSNBC does the same thing. People who trust Faux really do believe that MSNBC is its liberal analogue. For that reason, I’m not sure a distinction between news and incite-tainment is possible. Were there some authoritative voice or body to make the distinction, there would be reflexive distrust of that body. One weakness of incite-tainment and its fans is their inability to engage with the central issues in a discussion, instead hiding behind cherry-picked examples and outright lies.

I’m disappointed as well, but not just in NPR–I’m disappointed that all news outlets taking pride in their journalistic integrity do not collectively shun those outlets failing to meet accepted standards. The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, PBS, NPR, and scores more do the global public a disservice and jeopardize their own reputation and future when they fail to expose violation of the accepted norms of journalism, among them full disclosure, named sources where possible, and, above all, honesty and integrity.
.-= Joseph Logan´s last blog ..Walt Disney’s org chart =-.

Anonymous December 30, 2009 at 1:50 pm

you are nothing but a far lefest so stop all the poison you have on your site and dont give npr a one sided vliew of your propanga!!!

Col. Mustard January 5, 2010 at 1:09 am

No more PROPANGA in 2010!!!

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