NPR made a very poor decision

Let’s take the case of former National Public Radio senior news analyst Juan Williams, who not only worked for NPR but also worked as a commentator and analyst for Fox “Fair and Balanced” News.

Williams, an African-American news analyst and author of several books on civil rights, went on the Fox TV show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” and followed up on a statement by O’Reilly, who said that we had a “Muslim problem.”

Anybody who has ever felt the sting of racial or ethnic prejudice knows what they want to do when someone hurts our children or our loved ones. O’Reilly makes his living by throwing the red meat of racial and ethnic intolerance to the very people whose families have been hurt by this material but who really don’t know better.

I have never been an O’Reilly fan, but I have to confess, I have never particularly cared for Juan Williams’ work. Fox has used him on their shows and on their panels in order to demonstrate that they are “fair and balanced.” To make their case, they have always identified him as an NPR senior analyst.

Then when they put him on a panel with a bunch of sneering, right-wing sharks, he loses whatever debate he is in. He looks lame, very lame. I haven’t been shy about sharing my views on Williams and have criticized the guy for allowing himself to be used in that way.

So, it was with great surprise that when I woke up last Thursday morning and learned that NPR had fired Williams for the remarks he made on the O’Reilly show. After O’Reilly’s rant, Williams went on to admit that when he got on a plane and saw someone dressed in Muslim garb, he got worried.

NPR should not have fired Williams.

Here’s what I wrote, “We are deeply distressed by NPR’s actions in the firing of Juan Williams. On its face, there is certainly a First Amendment issue here.

“It seems to us that this action was precipitous. There are those who think that Juan Williams was used by Fox to justify much of their mean-spirited, right-wing panel discussions, with Williams offering a very weak defense of a liberal point of view.

“NPR never prohibited that, so why now? Why was Cokie Roberts permitted to appear on ABC? It appears that he is being fired for what he said, and as an analyst, isn’t that what he is paid to do? I suggest that NPR reconsider this action, which smacks of more than a little hypocrisy and gives the American right-wing the opportunity to once again call for the defunding of public broadcasting.”

The member stations began checking in as soon as the news broke.

(Remember — the member stations are independent entities with different management, policies, and budgets.) Some were aghast. Some said that they were in the middle of fund drives and people were withdrawing pledges because they were so angry.

I’m not the president of NPR, but if I was I wouldn’t have done what NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller did. As everyone’s mother once advised, I would have counted to 10. Schiller told us in her e-mails that NPR’s rules and regulations had been broken.

She told us that news analysts couldn’t offer personal opinions. This is where Schiller and I take different forks in the road. Dan Schorr sure did. Cokie Roberts sure does when she comes on. Even their reporters, acting under a guise of objectivity, do it every day.

Just the way you create a story does that. Now Williams comes off as a martyr — with a $2 million contract from Fox. I’m still shaking my head.

To be fair, he also made it clear that this was his problem and in a follow-up with O’Reilly, acknowledged that stereotyping was not a good thing. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Williams was expressing an opinion. It may have been intolerant and stereotypical; saying it out loud may have been ill-advised.

Maybe the guy was selling out to curry favor with O’Reilly and his audience. I don’t know what his motives were and neither do you. I do know that I am not happy with NPR or its administration for what they did. When I went on with my opinion at 7:32 in the morning, I said so.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 10/23/10

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3 Comments on “NPR made a very poor decision”

  1. lll Says:

    Dear Mr. Chartok,

    My disagreement with your assessment of the Juan Williams firing could not be more fervent. I have long wished he would be fired, and have made this personal opinion clear to NPR on more than one occasion, not for any one of his analyses, but because those were so duplicitous. The ways in which he presented facts and himself were not consistent between his NPR and Fox performances. It was deeply disturbing, though sometimes quite subtle, but nevertheless, enough to leave a very queezy feeling.

    Then his cavalier comment about Michele Obama last year was so crude and unprofessional, I really hoped that would be the last straw. But evidently, all that happened at that point was NPR asked Fox to quit referencing his NPR work when he appeared on their network. A very small point, but a reasonable warning, I thought. And it makes this recent incident hardly “precipitous.”

    You disagree with Schiller’s firing him for stating his opinion, which you feel he is entitled to do as a pundit, comparing him to Cokie Roberts and Dan Schorr. However, you are confusing “personal” opinions with “professional” opinions. None of NPR’s analysts have ever shared their personal feelings about the matters they are discussing; they keep personal aspects to themselves and restrict what they share to their professional opinions. What Williams shared was his personal opinion, and that is and should be off limits. You may be of the same opinion as Williams, but it would be unprofessional of you to share that in a professional setting, and I cannot imagine that you ever would. Surely you are not truly unclear about this distinction.

    In addition, the press is free to print its opinions about the topics it covers, but in a professional way. A reporter may feel in his or her gut that the defendant in a case is guilty as hell for all sorts of racist or biased reasons, but as a reporter he or she would be fired were they to share those reasons in print. Freedom of the press has its limits at the point of taking responsibility for the consequences of exercising that right. Hence, libel laws can take down tabloids for just making stuff up, especially when it carries such hot potential for inflaming the audience, a fact that Fox exploits rather than avoids.

    And sure, the GOP will make hay with this incident, but what kind of argument is that? Are you suggesting that we continue to allow these people who do not understand the meaning of professional journalism, and who use such ignorance to turn huge profits, hold our principles hostage? Plus, I hasten to point out that Williams’ unapologetic response has exposed him for what he is, vindictive and petty and small-minded, with nothing kind to say about his old employer. And from a man who required reprimand while at the WaPo for countless incidents of inappropriate sexual language with female staffers up and down the spectrum.

    I’m with those who feel firing Williams is a strong example of just how seriously NPR takes its sense of integrity. He said what he said on Fox because they have no such sense of integrity; he would never have said those things on NPR because they are so keen to keep that personal/professional opinion distinction clear. The fact that he can’t maintain integrity across both venues is what tanked him, and hopefully, will eventually tank Fox, as well.

    Respectfully,
    L. Lynn LeSueur, Ph.D.

  2. Carl Skoggard Says:

    Alan,
    I am not familiar which what sorts of things Cokie Roberts says on ABC; I do think I listened to enough of Dan Schoor’s NPR commentaries to be able to make a find a distinction between his expressions of opinion and the Fox remarks we just heard from Williams. Check out Andrew Sullivan and his parsing of Williams’s discussion of how common sense should be used in deciding whether or not to let someone into your cab or street-front store, and how this is unlike is blanket statement about Muslims and their “garb.” I think a proper line has been drawn by NPR here. What he said about the First Lady was over the line as well, but he thought that as a black man he could get away with that. Too bad the repercussions of his firing are what they are, what with our living in a time of rampant right-wing chutzpah, but that is not a game-changer for me. (By the way, something which strikes me in reading the comments on the Williams situation is how often both liberals and conservatives refer to him as just “Juan.” Remember, a few years ago we were hearing about “Colin” and “Condy.” Hmmmmm.)

    Best,

    Carl


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