A Bushel and a Beck

For news organizations, where’s the line between reporting the news and deciding what’s news?

Appearing on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show a couple weeks ago, NPR ombud Alicia Shepard engaged in a practice that’s becoming increasingly popular among media watchers: she talked about Glenn Beck. “When Glenn Beck is on NPR,” she said, “I can be assured there will be a lot of emails. I feel like, ‘Hey you should hear what Glenn Beck has to say. Like it or not, he’s influential.’”

In her ombud column yesterday—in response to a listener’s expression of ‘outrage’ at the Beck comment—Shepard clarified her thinking:

That quote does not indicate that I think Beck should be on NPR every day, nor do I think that sexism, racism or lying have a place on NPR. But if Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Sarah Palin or any other prominent conservative firebrand is making headlines, NPR should report that as part of the news — not to promote them but to include when putting news in context.

The same goes for prominent liberals such as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow….

I’ve said it before, and I will reiterate it. NPR is a mainstream news outlet. Its duty is to inform the public of all that is going on — and that means airing voices and stories that many listeners might not like or agree with.

While we agree with Shepard that outlets like NPR have a duty to report the news, essentially, ‘without fear or favor,” we wonder about the corollary to that claim: that outlets should report about Beck and similar “firebrands” across the political spectrum because they are “part of the news.” News outlets, after all, don’t simply follow the news; they create the news. They determine who and what become stories. Given that, are news outlets really obligated to cover particular figures or stories because they are “making headlines”? How should they balance their obligations both to follow the news and decide it?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.