A journalist, a dying husband, and talk show ethics

Elizabeth Jensen, the new NPR ombudsman, is tackling a favorite subject for us today: At what point is a journalist unable to function as a journalist because of first-person experiences with an issue?

She’s writing about Diane Rehm, a talk show host at WAMU in Washington, whose husband, John, recently died from the complications of Parkinson’s Disease. Rehm’s show airs nationally under a distribution agreement with NPR (MPR does not carry the program).

The couple had asked for a Maryland doctor’s help in ending his life, which is illegal in Maryland. So he stopped eating and drinking until he died.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post ran a story about Rehm, indicating she’s now a leading voice in the right-to-die debate.

Now 78 and pondering how to manage her own death, Rehm is working with Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life organization run by Barbara Coombs Lee, a key figure in Oregon’s passage of an assisted-suicide law and a previous guest on the show.

Rehm will appear on the cover of the group’s magazine this month, and she is telling John’s story at a series of small fundraising dinners with wealthy donors financing the right-to-die campaign.

If asked, she said she would testify before Congress.

She missed the moment of his death by 20 minutes.

“That’s all I keep thinking about,” she told the Washington Post. “Why can’t we make this more peaceful and humane?”

Jensen notes NPR’s guidelines don’t apply to hosts of shows that are distributed by — but not produced by — NPR.

Unfortunately, that leaves the question on the table: Is Rehm capable of fairly discussing end-of-life issues since she’s experienced one. And if not, what other life experiences by journalists disqualify them from participating in the storytelling thereof?

Rehm told me she believes “the ethical standards apply pretty much across the board, namely that we will be honest, that we will be open about what we do and that we will be fair on the air, and that is certainly something I’ve tried to do for 35 years.”

As a talk show host, she said, “I gather I am not put into the same category as a reporter,” and therefore is allowed to express her own opinion on the air occasionally. But, she added, she makes sure to have “numerous perspectives in the studio” and for the recent program was even contemplating counting up to the second the airtime given to each perspective, to make sure everybody had equal time.

If she addresses the subject again, she said, she would make a clear upfront disclosure of her viewpoint.

As to the fundraising dinners — small discussion gatherings, the first of which took place Monday night — she said: “Mind you, I am walking a very careful line. I am there to tell my own story, to tell John’s story, and to hopefully help to facilitate discussion among the attendees. I am not being paid a dime for doing any of this. I am doing it because it’s what I believe I want for myself and I believe that talking about it is something that is crucial within our entire society, no matter what side you come out on.”

The line she will not cross is “to ask people to do or give anything” and no solicitation of funds took place in her presence, she said.

Jensen’s ruling:

My own view is that Rehm’s participation as a celebrity guest of sorts at fundraising dinners for an organization that does extensive political lobbying, as compelling as her personal story is and as careful as she is being, is a step too far for someone associated with NPR.

Rehm does not believe she has crossed any line, but my view is she should be counseled against future participation in fund-raising events for the organization.

Meanwhile, NPR and WAMU will meet on the issue next week. I’ll report back when there is a resolution.

What if we weren’t talking something as controversial as right-to-die? What if we were talking about research for Parkinson’s, something that also requires lobbying. Does that cross the line? If not, where is that line?