Is it ethical for journalists to march in Stewart-Colbert rallies?

News organizations often require its employees to avoid taking partisan
stands, making campaign contributions or participating in political
events–and that includes Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and
Stephen Colbert’s competing “March to Keep Fear Alive.” Both events take place on Oct. 30th. They were conceived as a response to Fox News host Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honour” rally in August.

NPR staff are not allowed to attend–unless they are covering the events. This follows NPR’s code of ethics, which lays out guidelines for partisanship, including marches and rallies:

“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. This restriction applies to the upcoming Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.”

The official description of the event from Rally to Restore Sanity site includes this blurb:

“Ours is a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence… we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point.”

The description of the March to Keep far Alive includes:

“America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty. But now, there are dark, optimistic forces trying to take away our Fear — forces with salt and pepper hair and way more Emmys than they need. They want to replace our Fear with reason. But never forget — “Reason” is just one letter away from “Treason.” Coincidence? Reasonable people would say it is, but America can’t afford to take that chance.”

An article on NPR explains the staff ban:

“We’ve received enormous attention from media of all kinds today about our communication to NPR staff on this question. More press than our coverage of the war in Afghanistan or our investigation of the military’s treatment of those suffering from mild traumatic brain injury.”

NPR notes that while many readers asked why they would ban staff from attending something that is clearly for fun–they are, after all, hosted by comedians employed by The Comedy Network–none of the staff questioned the ban. NPR writes: “We didn’t get questions from staff about the Restoring Honor and One Nation
rallies, because it was obvious to everyone that these were overtly
political events. It’s different with the Colbert and Stewart rallies;
they are ambiguous. But their rallies will be perceived as political by
many, whatever we think. As such, they are off limits except for those
covering the events.”

Yahoo reports that “Fox News host Glenn Beck repeatedly claimed that his August event on the National Mall wasn’t political  and, in keeping with that promise, didn’t launch any fiery attacks on the Obama administration, as he does routinely on his TV and radio shows. But with Sarah Palin speaking and attendees waving “Don’t Tread On Me” flags — popular with tea party activists — the event was perceived as a conservative gathering.”

A Washington Post memo sent to newsroom management includes similar instructions, Yahoo reports:

“Events, like those organized by Glenn Beck or involving Jon Stewart and Steven [sic] Colbert, are political, and therefore Post newsroom employees may not participate. By participate, we mean that Post newsroom employees cannot in any way put themselves in a position that could be construed as supporting (or opposing) that cause. That means no T-shirts, buttons, marching, chanting, etc.  This guideline does not prohibit Post newsroom employees from observing — that is, watching and listening from the sidelines. The important thing is that it should be evident to anyone that you are observing, as journalists do, not participating, whether you are covering the event or not.”

The New York Times is also classifying the rallies as political, telling Yahoo in a statement: “Yes, we would view these at least in part as political events (despite the comic/satirical elements) and would treat them under our guidelines that advise staffers to avoid such events if they could raise any questions about our impartiality.”