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Is Nina Totenberg Next?

NPR's legal affairs correspondent frequently expresses her pro-Democratic opinion.

5:17 PM, Oct 21, 2010 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Juan Williams, now a former contract news analyst for NPR, was fired Wednesday for publicly taking a controversial position. A statement from NPR CEO Vivian Schiller said:

His remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.

On Thursday, however, Schiller revised her position on Williams’s termination. According to the Associated Press, Schiller told the Atlanta Press Club that it wasn’t the O’Reilly interview that led to his dismissal but the fact that he expressed his “controversial” opinions at all. Doing so, she said, is prohibited by longstanding NPR standards. The AP reports:

Schiller said Williams' firing is not a reflection of his comments (on Fox News Channel) that he gets nervous when he sees people in Muslim garb on an airplane. She said she has no problem with people taking controversial positions, but that such opinions should not come from NPR reporters or news analysts.

If that’s true, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg might want to start looking for a new job. Over the past month, in her regular appearances on “Inside Washington,” she has: criticized a ruling of the Roberts Court as scandalous; claimed that Michelle Obama gives people “warm and fuzzy” feelings; called Bill Clinton “the most gifted politician I’ve ever seen;” and lamented that the Democratic Party is diverse enough to include moderates that want to extend all Bush tax cuts.

On last weekend’s “Inside Washington,” which aired October 17, she told us that Michelle Obama is “an incredibly graceful surrogate” for her husband who gives people “warm and fuzzy” feelings.

On October 10, Totenberg compared the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the prominent campaign finance case, to Watergate. Host Gordon Peterson said:

Thanks to the Supreme Court Citizens United ruling earlier this year, 501(c) nonprofits can pump millions of dollars into our elections and they don’t have to tell us where the money is coming from.  The best government money can buy, Nina.

Totenberg, who covers the Supreme Court, was not shy about expressing her opinion. “Well, you know, really, this is the next scandal. It’s the scandal in the making.  They don’t have to disclose anything. And eventually, this is the kind of thing that led to Watergate.”

The week before, on October 3, she decried Republicans – a “concerted minority” – for holding up business in the Senate and declared that their willingness to exploit antiquated congressional rules was a “loony way to do business.”

Her most partisan comment came when Charles Krauthammer pointed out that 31 Democrats in the House had written to Nancy Pelosi to call for extending the Bush tax cuts, Totenberg wished them out of the party. “When a party actually has a huge majority, it has a huge diversity.  And that is part of the problem that Democrats have.  But would I like it to be otherwise?  Of course.”

On the same show, Totenberg said that she was looking forward to Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity, but for reasons that might strike some as, well, implausible. “Let me just say – let me just say something in defense on Jon Stewart here.  I’m a devotee of the program because it’s fun…And I must say he’s been pretty savage about Obama and pretty savage about Democrats who smear people, too.  So I kind of like the idea of the Rally for Sanity.”

Does Stewart really “savage” Obama? A little more than two weeks after Totenberg made these comments the White House announced that the president would appear on Stewart’s show. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Stewart’s audience was an important part of Obama’s “base.”

On the September 26 show, Totenberg called Bill Clinton “the most gifted politician I’ve ever seen.”

And, as Reason’s Michael Moynihan points out, back in 1995 Totenberg famously suggested justice would be served if Jesse Helms and his grandchildren contracted AIDS.

So should Totenberg be fired to expressing these controversial opinions? I don’t think so. But she is, according her bio on the website, “NPR’s award-winning legal-affairs correspondent.” Williams was a “news analyst” – a title that suggests he might go beyond mere reportage.

So if NPR’s Schiller manages to keep her job after questioning Williams’s sanity, she should have to answer a very basic question: Why is it unacceptable for an NPR news analyst to express his views but entirely appropriate for an NPR reporter to express hers?

The answer is obvious: It’s Fox.

One final note: Nina Totenberg’s NPR bio proudly touts her work as a panelist on “Inside Washington,” a favorite venue for expressing her controversial views. NPR’s bio of national political correspondent Mara Liasson, a Fox News contributor who rarely expresses her opinion, makes no mention of her work for Fox. 

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