I'm conflicted over Juan Williams' remarks made on FOX News in which he said he was afraid to fly with Muslims. The conflict on my part arises from a lack of understanding concerning his comments. Did he mean to characterize all Muslims - stereotype them - as terrorists? Or was he admitting a unjustified but real fear he shares with other Americans post 9/11 knowing that he was wrong to think such things?
Did he just speak poorly or was there generalized bigotry toward Muslims at play?
NPR's Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard (who writes that the networked has handled the situation poorly), makes this very fair statement today on NPR's website:
I can only imagine how Williams, who has chronicled and championed the Civil Rights movement, would have reacted if another prominent journalist had said:
"But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see an African American male in Dashiki with a big Afro, I get worried. I get nervous."
In any event, NPR was justified in firing him. Williams long ago left mainstream journalism for the hyper-opinionated world of FOX News (or MSNBC, for that matter). The New York Times does a good job of explaining the difference between the two types of media:
NPR’s decision Wednesday to fire Juan Williams and Fox News Channel’s decision to give him a new contract on Thursday put into sharp relief the two versions of journalism that compete every day for Americans’ attention.
Mr. Williams had his NPR contract terminated Wednesday, two days after he said on an opinionated segment on Fox News that he worries when he sees people in “Muslim garb” on an airplane. He later said he was citing his fears after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.
NPR said Wednesday night that Mr. Williams’ comments were "inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices." According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes offered Mr. Williams a new three-year contract on Thursday morning, pegged at nearly $2 million total.
By dismissing Mr. Williams, one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the corporation’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’ contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemic. And it gave Fox the opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that has long been a target of conservatives for what they perceive to be a liberal bias.
Those competing views of journalism have been highlighted by the success of Fox and MSNBC and the popularity of opinion media that beckons many traditional journalists. That Mr. Williams was employed by both Fox and NPR had been a source of consternation in the past.
In early 2009 Mr. Williams drew the ire of NPR’s ombudswoman when he said on Fox that Michelle Obama has “got this Stokely-Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going,” an allusion to a leader of the black power movement of the 1960s. Afterwards, NPR made it known that it didn’t want Mr. Williams identified as an NPR employee in appearances on "The O’Reilly Factor," the Fox News program hosted by the conservative commentatorBill O’Reilly.
"This isn’t the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan’s public comments," the NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller wrote in an e-mail message to affiliates.
She said that his most recent comments "violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so.” Ms. Schiller declined an interview request.
Like many other news organizations, NPR expects its journalists to steer clear of situations that might call its impartiality into question -- an expectation that is written into the organization’s ethics code.
Williams departed from traditional journalism as soon as he stepped onto the studio of FOX News.
The AP reported today that Vivian Schiller, NPR's CEO 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. Williams, Schiller said, is a news analyst, not a commentator or columnist.
Schiller also sent out an e-mail today to NPR affiliates in which she stated:
"A critical distinction has been lost in this debate. NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that's what’s happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview — not our reporters and analysts.
"Second, this isn't the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan's public comments. Despite many conversations and warnings over the years, Juan has continued to violate this principal.
"Third, these specific comments (and others made in the past), are inconsistent with NPR’s ethics code, which applies to all journalists (including contracted analysts): 'In appearing on TV or other media. ... NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows ... that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
"More fundamentally, 'In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.'
And, she said the firing came after "several cases'' of Williams veering from journalistic ethics.
As the child of a television executive, I can tell you that growing up we were not even allowed to have political yard signs. Such a visible display of political leanings could be easily construed as representing the news departments of the stations my father worked at. Of course, this was a time (not that long ago, really) will journalistic ethics were grounded in the work of people like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
As President Obama noted in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, that era is over:
The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition — it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It's a point of view that I disagree with. It's a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world. But as an economic enterprise, it's been wildly successful. And I suspect that if you ask Mr. Murdoch what his number-one concern is, it's that Fox is very successful.
When Williams left the ideals of Murrow behind for the big money and politics of FOX News he abandoned the ethics of an objective press that is still represented in places like National Public Radio, whatever their faults might be.
The Right is now howling for an end of public financing of NPR, as Politico reports:
“I think it’s reasonable to ask why Congress is spending taxpayers’ money to support a left-wing radio network – and in the wake of Juan Williams’ firing, it’s clearer than ever that’s what NPR is,” said House Republican leader John Boehner (R-Ohio.)
What the GOP fears most is an independent and free press that can't be bought. They don't care about freedom of the press or journalistic ethics. The want a corporation, like FOX News, that promotes their agenda and even contributes financially to their campaign coffers.
Juan Williams is right where he belongs now. Now he is free to say whatever he wants. Just don't call what he does journalism.