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Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity Ignites Controversy

NPR forbids its jourmalists from attending the event

October 14, 2010 5:35 PM ET

Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity is still weeks away, but it continues to make people a little crazy. We got our latest example of that yesterday, courtesy of an NPR internal memo that became a minor media controversy.

What happened, as NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher described it to Rolling Stone, was pretty straightforward: Some staffers had inquired as to whether rallying to restore sanity was allowed under the public broadcaster's ethics policy; NPR executives determined it was not; a pair of emails went out, specifically admonishing against rallying to restore sanity as part of a broader reminder about forbidden political activities. "This memo was really timed for pre-midterms, not to address the Stewart rally," says spokesperson Anna Christopher. "That really was a footnote."

But that did not stop the memo from becoming a story. (Still, Stewart did not address it on yesterday's show.) Here are three ways of looking at what transpired — all of which wind up highlighting why we need a Rally to Restore Sanity in the first place.

NPR was just protecting itself. In banning staffers from attending the Stewart event (and Steven Colbert's faux competing march, if it actually happens) senior vice president for news Ellen Weiss cited this paragraph from NPR News Ethics Policies and Social Media Guideline:

"NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them."

Lots of mainstream media organizations have rules like that, and they have them because they want their reporters to remain objective. But perceived biases are especially touchy for NPR, which gets a sliver of its budget from the federal government — a sliver that one conservative leader has already targeted for the chopping block should the polls prove right and the GOP gains control of the House. Such a cut would do next to nothing to balance the $3.5 trillion federal budget, as Eliot Spitzer has pointed out in Slate . But it's also the one way Republicans can inflict tangible harm on the elite media — and wouldn't the tea party love seeing that? From this point of view, you can't blame the NPR execs for enforcing existing rules.

NPR just wound up revealing its secret agenda anyway. This theory rests on whether NPR issued a similar policy reminder prior to Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally on August 28. Yesterday's online reaction to its anti-Stewart edict included that question, which we put to Christopher. She said that NPR had not. Which could mean one of two things! One, that NPR did not tell its staffers they could not attend the Beck event because it did not need to — no NPR staffer would ever go watch Glenn Beck on his or her free time, as all NPR staffers are all raving liberals. Or, two, that NPR is continuing a rightward tilt that began during the George W. Bush administration and specifically prohibited attendance at Stewart's rally, but not Beck's, because it wants to undermine all things progressive.

We do not entirely follow this second theory. But it's out there. And if NPR can be seen as serving both left- and rightwing agendas, that's yet more evidence that the collective American psyche is suffering from a case of paranoid schizophrenia. (Stewart's rally won't cure that, but maybe it will help convince America that it needs to get some help?)

NPR is being a little ridiculous. Though his personal politics fall left-of-center, Stewart is an equal-opportunity satirist, not a progressive activist, and he has stressed that he doesn't do what he does to benefit the Democratic party or Democratic politicians or candidates — "I don't consider it political, because ‘political' I always sort of note as a partisan endeavor" is how he put it in a recent interview with NPR's Terry Gross.

If you take him at his word, the Rally to Restore Sanity is if anything not so much non-partisan as anti-partisan. Under that interpretation, what NPR has done is insist that its employees remain ruthlessly neutral about civility, moderation and open-minded discourse. Which is pretty silly, and gives people one more reason to turn to a comedian for a more reasonable take on where America is headed.

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