It’s hard to imagine that a movie review can turn into an ethical firestorm. But when the movie is a documentary about the secretly gay lives of conservative politicians and the review gets edited to exclude the names of some of the people mentioned, a firestorm is going to erupt.

National Public Radio’s ombudsman Alicia Shepard takes on NPR’s decision to edit a review of the documentary Outrage and found the decision consistent with NPR policy. She said, however, that the resulting edit turned the piece into a “blind gossip item” (with information opaquely describing Florida governor Charlie Crist) illustrated by  a “coy” picture of Larry Craig.

Shepard said the review was appropriately edited to exclude the names of three politicians because:

NPR’s policy is not to publish or air rumors, allegations or reports about private lives of anyone unless there is a compelling news reason to do so. 

Shepard said that while NPR’s editing of the piece was consistent with company policy, that policy was never explained to freelancer Nathan Lee, who wrote the review. When Lee found out about the edit, he asked that his name be taken off the review and he followed that up with a response in the comment section of the online review. NPR, however, deleted Lee’s response.

Ultimately, Shepard found NPR made mistakes but that the final editing decision was justified.

This issue is not going away. It is important for NPR to have standards but they also need to be reviewed from time to time. And freelancers need to know NPR’s standards.

Count me as guilty of believing that someone’s sex life should remain private until he or she wants it public or there’s a compelling news reason to invade that privacy. A movie, even one that makes strong allegations, is not a compelling news reason.

That said, did NPR handle this well? No. But in the end, the real issue, one I would venture is the reason for much of the vitriol, lies not so much with NPR’s policy but with the premise of the Outrage documentary: politicians living lies.

From an ethical standpoint, it’s easy to find both comfort and fault in NPR’s decision. Many outlets allowed reviewers to identify the politicians mentioned in the documentary, while others did not. The privacy policy seems well-reasoned, but at the same time a policy created for a different time and a different set of circumstances. As Shepard conceded, NPR has not always applied the policy consistently.

NPR should be congratulated for having an Ombudsman willing to take on criticisms of the company and Shepard’s detailed explanation demonstrates that decisions are rarely made in a vacuum.

The column raises larger questions about the journalistic response to “outing.”  The documentary is a manifestation of “outing” and it features two of the countries most well-known advocates of the practice–Michael Rogers and Michelangelo Signorile.

Both Rogers and Signorile would agree that outing has a political component–political allies of the LGBT community are rarely “outed”–and that the ethics of outing is focused on the hypocrisy of closeted individuals who act in ways that are against the interests of the LGBT community.

The question, raised in the NPR situation, is whether mainstream media outlets need to cooperate in this political act. Reporters are constantly being “spun” by advocates who have a political or ideological motivation. So it is up to reporters to decide how complicit they want to be in the ideological campaigns of advocates.

Journalists are not required to regurgitate “facts” or innuendo offered up in documentaries without doing some fact-checking or “truth squading.”  But how do you do that with evidence that a politician may be gay?  Is tossing in an “allegedly” enough to offset the innuendo? 

There is also a counterbalancing pressure. By allowing allegedly closeted politicians–in this case–to act against the interests of LGBT people while not disclosing information about their sexual orientation, is the journalist being complicit in an ideological campaign by the closeted politician?