Thursday, October 28, 2010

NPR and Juan Williams, Part 2


The story of the firing of Juan Williams by NPR has stirred more controversy than I had imagined when I first wrote about it last Thursday. Several questions have been raised during this controversy, such as:
  • Was Williams fired because he appears on Fox News?
  • Was this incident evidence of an out-of-touch elite in this country?
  • Was this incident evidence that NPR has a liberal bias?
  • Should NPR no longer receive government funds?
These four questions that are intertwined in many ways. The Williams firing provides us with an opportunity to look at some of these issues.

NPR's original announcement of Williams' firing said it was due to the incident on The O'Reilly Factor. After the firing became more controversial, however, NPR explained that it was not for one single incident, but a pattern of behavior that led to the firing. According to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, Williams is a “news analyst” and, as such, “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.” If that is the case, NPR certainly had cause to terminate Williams' contract. Williams engages in opinion journalism often on Fox News and takes personal public positions on controversial issues, and has been doing so for a long time. NPR should expect certain standards from its journalists even when they don't appear on NPR. And, it is appropriate to distinguish between analysis and opinion journalism.

What makes Schiller's claim dubious, however, is the inconsistency and selectivity with which she is applying this standard. NPR noted in its original announcement of the firing that Williams' position was “shifted from staff correspondent to analyst after he took clear-cut positions about public policy on television and in newspaper opinion pieces.” This sounds like analysts are allowed, and expected, to engage in opinion journalism. Additionally, there are other journalists that take positions on controversial issues on other news programs, and even on NPR programs. Nina Totenberg, for instance, appears on other talk show programs where she engages in opinion journalism, and she is not even considered a news analyst. Totenberg's title is “correspondent,” the same as Williams before he started engaging opinion journalism. (You can listen to what Totenberg has to say, and not say, about the Williams' firing on the October 24, 2010 episode of Inside Washington.) Also, the late “News Analyst” Daniel Shore, used to have an opinion commentary on NPR about once a week. So, why hasn't NPR fired Totenberg, and why was Shore considered a News Analyst if that title is bestowed upon those who are only to analyze the news without giving their personal opinion?

The reason provided for Williams firing does not appear, therefore, to be the real reason. In several interviews after the incident, Williams, and others, have claimed that the real reason was that Williams appears on Fox News. In a blog post on the incident, NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard repeatedly points to Williams' appearances on Fox News when describing the reason for the firing. She said, for instance,

Williams’ appearances on Fox News, especially O’Reilly’s show, have caused heartburn repeatedly for NPR over the last few years. Management said he’s been warned several times that O’Reilly is a professional provocateur and to be careful.

And, “NPR's values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum” [emphasis in original]. Shepard is not involved in programming or personnel decisions, but she did note that she gleaned this information from discussions with management at NPR. So, Williams' appearances on Fox News appear to be the most likely explanation for his firing.

Some outside of NPR management have also suggested that Williams should not have been appearing on both Fox News and NPR. Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, appearing on Meet the Press, said,

What [NPR management] should've said is sat Juan Williams down, he's done a lot of good work for them, and say, "Look, you have a choice here. Look at the context you were on with O'Reilly. You could barely get your points out in the middle of the propaganda. Do you want to work for Fox, that's OK, but--or you want to work for us, that's OK. But you've got to decide," if I may use Fox's slogan.

What is the reasoning, I wonder, that one should not appear on both Fox News and NPR? Dionne was not asked to explain his statement, but it seems to me a strange position for a liberal to take. He is not the only liberal to take this position. For the last few years, some liberal bloggers and groups have criticized Williams and Mara Liasson for appearing on Fox News. Also, during the 2008 presidential primaries, the Democratic candidates were asked by some liberal groups to boycott Fox News by not appearing on any of their shows. All of the front-runners obliged, but the boycott was quickly forgotten when Obama was running in the general election and needed to reach a broader audience.

Liberals value free and open debates, and diversity. Boycotting Fox News is an illiberal position for a liberal to take. Plus, if you want to advance a liberal point of view, why would you avoid an opportunity to speak to the unconverted? Liberals should be encouraging more liberals to appear on Fox News, rather than boycotting, or suggesting they must choose between Fox News and NPR.

Additionally, if you are a Democrat, you should want Democrats, like Williams, to appear on Fox News. Next Tuesday, Democrats are likely to lose a lot of seats in Congress. The seats they are losing are the conservative districts that likely contain many Fox News viewers. Fox News is the most popular news channel and The O'Reilly Factor is the most popular news program. Why would you pass on an opportunity to speak to the voters who watch these shows?

Do we want a situation in this country where only conservatives watch and appear on conservative programs and only liberals watch and appear on liberal programs? (We're not far from this situation already.) Debate is healthy for a democracy. Let us not discourage it by suggesting that liberal commentators must choose between Fox News and NPR.

One of the reasons this story has gained so much traction is that it fit into the storyline, mostly heard from the Tea Party Movement, that influential institutions (government, Wall Street, and the media, for example) are controlled by elites who are out of touch with the rest of America. Schiller helped perpetuate this storyline when she fired Williams for describing feelings that many Americans would have, namely, a moment of anxiety if they were to see someone wearing a Burqa at an airport. Schiller further inflamed the situation by suggesting that Williams should see a psychiatrist for having those feelings (a comment for which she later apologized). 

The management at NPR seemed out of touch with most of the country for their firing of Williams and the insensitivity with which the firing was handled. This is not evidence, however, of an overall polarization of the country, with elites on one side and non-elites on the other, because NPR received much criticism from both elites and non-elites, conservatives and liberals. If this country is controlled by a bunch out out-of-touch elites, this incident certainly doesn't prove it.

The other two questions raised by this issue are whether NPR has a liberal bias and whether NPR should be receiving government funds. I'll leave those issues for another post. Stay tuned. 

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