Juan Williams doesn’t read my columns here at Intrepid.
I know this, because I wrote the following in a column just a couple of months ago:
"All of this [instant dissemination of information] has had a ripple effect on how we get our news, or what passes as news now. It feeds the tabloid sensationalism, the confrontational approach to "journalism" so evident on the cable news stations in particular. It's a desperation to be heard among the rush, to count for something, at any cost, in order to feed the system. It's "Dr. Laura" Schlesinger's unniggardly use of a certain racial epithet, during a segment with a caller, a guaranteed career-killing move. It's Helen Thomas, a veteran reporter for more than 50 years, being dumb enough to trash-talk Israel to a rabbi on the White House lawn."Had Williams read my column, perhaps he’d’ve been smart enough to keep his mouth shut during a recent appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show on FOXNews. Instead he joins those media personalities cited above in turning 2010 into a year of personal infamy by uncautiously offering up his opinion when all logic should have told him to clam up.
In case you missed it, here’s the story: Williams appeared on O’Reilly’s program on October 18, and in the course of the program O’Reilly asked if Williams throught that the United States had a dilemma when it comes to Muslims. Williams’ reply:
"Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”NPR’s Senior Vice President for News, Ellen Weiss, called Williams on the 20th to try and understand why he said what he said. Was there a misunderstanding? No, said Williams, I meant what I said. Shortly thereafter, NPR fired him. And since that announcement, folks on both sides of the issue have been clamoring and debating NPR’s decision. Was Williams justly punished? Was he harshly mistreated?
Proponents of the latter argument have been trotting out the First Amendment, complaining that Williams’ comments were protected free speech, and that NPR’s severance of his contract runs counter to one of our nation’s most valued freedoms.
In the big picture, they’re absolutely right. But in this particular circumstance – the NPR dismissal – they are entirely wrong.
Williams' comments may have been exceedingly stupid, but no one should question that he has both the right to his opinion – Muslims are scary! – and the freedom to share it with anyone who would care to listen.
However, the First Amendment is a federal issue. It states in very clear language that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” Nowhere did the Founding Fathers write, “NPR shall make no corporate policy abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” NPR is NPR, and they have the right to do whatever they feel is right to protect their brand, their reputation, and their ability to cover and analyze news events, including firing their employees when they disregard professional responsibility. Or, as NPR CEO Vivian Schiller told the Atlanta Press Club on the following Thursday:
"Juan Williams is a news analyst; he is not a commentator and he is not a columnist. We have relied on him over the years to give us perspective on the news, not to talk about his opinions. 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 our air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts."Schiller’s comments strike at the heart of the issue: Williams’ credibility was immediately tainted by his words. And NPR could not justify maintaining that relationship, or their own credibility would be tarnished as well. Williams ability to report without bias – to report objectively – was deemed suspect.
What Williams did next may have removed all doubt in that regard. The same day that Vivian Schiller was defending NPR’s actions to the Atlanta Press Club, Williams was back on O’Reilly's show, painting NPR as the villain: "I don't fit in their box. I'm not predictable, black, liberal.” But then came the comments that I find both staggering in their hubris and damning in their association. Willliams continued, ”You [O’Reilly] were exactly right when you said you know what this comes down to. They were looking for a reason to get rid of me because I'm appearing on FOX News. They don't want me talking to you." Williams couldn’t have been any clearer if he’d changed his name to Stepin Fetchit.
By the next morning, it was everywhere: FOX News had swiftly handed Williams a $2 million contract, and made him O’Reilly’s official fill-in host. In less than four days, Juan Williams went from acclaimed news analyst at NPR to Bill O’Reilly’s house negro, unraveling a lifetime of award-winning work and professional respect. Between the fat paycheck, his increased celebrity status and his apparent eagerness for collusion with one of the most divisive and opinionated media personalities in America, I don’t think he cares. FOX News has never been a network noted for its objectivity, and Williams has hitched himself to their wagon unreservedly.
For what it’s worth, journalism as a whole is not now, nor has it ever been, truly objective. Opinion is insidious; it’s human nature to interpret the world around us through our own, singular perspective. Happily, there are plenty of journalists who endeavor to be objective, despite it all. But then there are those who seem to have – perhaps only for one all-too-public instant – abandoned all pretext of doing so. In Williams' case, it was expressed bigotry toward Muslims. For Helen Thomas, it was telling a Jewish interviewer – at the White House's "Jewish Heritage Celebration," no less! -- that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back to German and Poland. For CNN anchor Rick Sanchez, it was his screed against the Jews on a national radio program.
As my media law prof at Valpo said, "Once you put a drop of ink into a bottle of milk, you can't get it back out."
The media has many faults, but this is an instance where the blame rightly falls strictly on the individual, Williams, (and perhaps on O'Reilly, as an accessory). NPR has policed its ranks, the audience (left, right and otherwise) has seen where Williams has landed and can judge his "objectivity" accordingly. I would like to hope that this serves as a wake-up call to every other journalist out there to remind them what their responsibilities are, but considering how many big name media personalities have screwed up in the past few months, I'm not holding my breath.
But it’s not like I didn’t warn ‘em.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
10.25.10 @ 8:00a
Do NPR's apparent distinctions between "analyst," "commentator," and "columnist" hold throughout the "interpretive community" of print and broadcast journalism?
Under what conditions can "analysis," which is an interpretation of some set of data--circumstances, actions, persons, etc.--be anything else than "opinion"?
katherine (aka clevertitania)
10.25.10 @ 9:23a
William - I would have to say there is a vast difference between analyzing data, and coming to a conclusion about that data, and the kind of 'opinion' Williams expressed. There is no data to suggest that an airplane he boards is less likely to safely arrive b/c a passenger is clearly Muslim, even if Williams could identify someone's religion based on appearance alone. So, without facts to support his 'fear'; he was giving nothing but opinion, and a bigoted one at that.
katherine (aka clevertitania)
10.25.10 @ 9:27a
And since the comment box is still buggy for me....
I also find it interesting that Fox and its friends still have no problem playing the race card they are always complaining about. If Helen Thomas had been black, and the remotest suggestion was made that she'd been fired in part due to her ethnicity, Fox would scream about the liberal apologists claiming it was relevant. But with Williams; such suggestions are all good.
10.25.10 @ 9:31a
A news analyst should be the equivalent of the weatherman: he looks at the facts (conditions) and extrapolates the potential effects, eg: it could rain.
A commentator/columnist will tell you he hates the rain, and you should, too.
A reporter will look outside and tell you if it's raining or not.
10.25.10 @ 1:08p
It's not raining where I am... :)
10.26.10 @ 9:01a
For Katherine--As to the "vast difference," the global warming debate is built around the same data, but the parties to the debate come to different conclusions. Perceptions are tantamount to facts; they are as real as any other artifact.
For Russ--Extrapolation is interpretive. The NPR CEO didn't refer to JW as a reporter, but as an analyst. He is an interpreter of situations, events, etc. All interpretations are, in the final analysis--yuk, yuk--opinionative.
10.26.10 @ 10:28a
Extrapolation is interpretive, but to be an analyst you have to be willing to attempt a sort of objective distance. It may be impossible to achieve, but it is an analyst's job to strive for it, and to be open about where that objectivity may fail. As a person, Juan Williams may have a gut opinion when it comes to people in "Muslim garb" on planes, but as a paid analyst he should make an effort to take a step away from that opinion and examine it. If he had followed up his comments with that kind of self-analysis I would be able to take him much more seriously because he would be admitting the distinction between individual opinion and fact. Instead he did what I think Fox encourages, which is present opinion as fact, and as something that can substitute for analysis.