Covering Keillor

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik had an ethical dilemma a few weeks ago when he was working on a story about the NPR staff’s dissatisfaction with CEO Jarl Mohn’s handling of the sexual harassment case against Michael Oreskes, NPR’s top editor.

Mohn was hearing out his employees at Mohn’s off-the record staff meeting to explain himself; easy pickings for details that might be useful for someone working on the story.

Folkenflik didn’t go. You can be a reporter or you can be an employee. But when the story is within your company, you can’t be both. He got the story anyway the same way any other reporter could: talking to employees who were there.

That ethical complexity is rarely considered by nor apparent to listeners, and so it is, too, with the Minnesota Public Radio News Department’s coverage of the story of Garrison Keillor’s departure from the organization he built.

“I would be lying if I said to you… that it’s easy to be reporting on events unfolding in your own company; we are under the same rooftop,” said Nancy Cassutt, MPR’s Executive Director of News and Programming, during an appearance on Thursday on MPR’s All Things Considered.

Cassutt said a “firewall” between the news department and the company protects the news side from company influence.

That may well be reflected in the fact the network didn’t break the Keillor story.

“I had no idea this was happening in our company,” she said. “The first I heard of it was when our digital editor walked into my office and said, ‘Garrison Keillor just put out a tweet that said he’s been fired.'”

Here’s the full interview.

The Keillor story and the Oreskes story are somewhat different beasts. Oreskes didn’t have wide popular support in the public and few were pushing back against reporting the story. And it had been initially broken by the Washington Post, based on allegations from women who worked at the New York Times when Oreskes worked there many years ago. Keillor’s accuser has not stepped forward to tell her story to reporters. And Folkenflik was covering the internal reaction and pushback by NPR news staffers, a situation that doesn’t exist — at least not yet — in MPR’s newsroom.

By the time Folkenflik had an ethical decision to make, the people he was covering already pretty much knew the whole story. That’s not the case in the MPR newsroom. Yet.

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