NPR distances itself from ‘founding mother’ Roberts

For the second time in a month, NPR is distancing itself from some of the pioneer reporters who built the news organization.

NPR clarified that Cokie Roberts, who wrote an anti-Trump newspaper column, is not a full-time employee of the network and hasn’t been for a long time. She’s a commentator.

“[Trump] is one of the least qualified candidates ever to make a serious run for the presidency,” Roberts wrote. “If he is nominated by a major party — let alone elected — the reputation of the United States would suffer a devastating blow around the world.”

“Our journalists have clear instructions,” NPR’s senior vice president for news and editorial director, Michael Oreskes, wrote to his staff. “We do not support or oppose candidates. We don’t advise political parties. We gather the news and seek as many points of view as we can. Cokie’s role has evolved into being one of those points of view.”

From: Michael Oreskes
Sent: Monday, March 14, 2016
Subject: Commentators and Politics


Donald Trump’s candidacy has driven a wedge, as political consultants say, into various parts of American society. He has divided the Republican Party, as we can all see. He has also stirred debate in journalism. Some journalists and news organizations believe his campaign is so outside the norms of American politics that journalists should oppose him. Others, including NPR, hew to a more traditional role reporting and explaining the news so others have the information they need to vote and act. David Folkenflik and Michel Martin have covered that debate particularly well.

Our longtime journalism colleague Cokie Roberts recently decided she needed to express her opinion of Donald Trump and his campaign. She did this in the syndicated column she writes with her husband, Steven. If Cokie were still a member of NPR’s staff we would not have allowed that. But she left the NPR staff for ABC more than twenty years ago. While her voice will always be associated with NPR, her relationship in recent years has in fact been one of a commentator, much like EJ Dionne, David Brooks or Frank DeFord. Her primary role has been on Morning Edition where she comments on many Mondays about the politics of the week.

Cokie’s work on NPR has been fair minded and journalistically professional. It was NPR that should have done a better job of making clear that her role was as a commentator and that in other venues she was expressing personal opinions as other commentators do.

This morning Cokie discussed Trump and her column about him in a conversation with David Greene on Morning Edition. She did this at my request so we would be transparent about her views.They are her views, not NPR’s.

Our journalists have clear instructions. We do not support or oppose candidates. We don’t advise political parties. We gather the news and seek as many points of view as we can. Cokie’s role has evolved into being one of those points of views.

It is a view, to be sure, informed by her many years as a journalist explaining Washington to the world. In the coming days we will be working with her on how her role as a commentator might now be shaped and how NPR will clearly communicate that role. We decided to start by clarifying for NPR’s listeners that she is, in fact, a commentator.


NPR’s story on the matter noted: “Roberts, often described as a ‘founding mother’ of NPR, left her position as a full-time staffer in 1992 for ABC News.”

In Roberts’ regular Monday morning appearance today, Morning Edition host David Greene said he was disappointed by Roberts.

Her reply was classic Cokie Roberts. “I can blame you for being disappointed,” she said.

“There are times in our history when you might be disappointed if I didn’t take a position like that,” she said.

“I know about the dark times in our history where we have gone backwards,” Roberts said. “Those have not been useful times in our history. Not to point out that this is a moment in history where we could be backward instead of forward might be a disservice.”

The NPR brouhaha comes a week after Roberts mercilessly interviewed Trump on MSNBC.

Roberts declaration is not without precedent. Sixty-two years ago last Wednesday, Edward R. Murrow defined the occasions when journalists should cast off “objectivity.”

But times have changed and the news audience has changed its expectations.

Four women — Roberts, Nina Totenberg, Susan Stamberg, and Linda Wertheimer — are considered the founding mothers of NPR.

Last month, NPR’s ombudsman criticized Totenberg for being a friend of Supreme Court justices, particularly Antonin Scalia. She suggested it violated a code of ethics.

Related: A Fair And Balanced Look At Mara Liasson (NPR)

Juan Williams proving NPR’s point (NewsCut)