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On the Media: Juan Williams' firing is emblematic of bigger journalistic issues

The NPR reporter was dismissed after commenting about Muslims during a Fox News show, but the radio network isn't consistent in enforcing its ethics policies.

October 23, 2010|James Rainey

NPR and Fox News commentator Juan Williams may get nervous about seeing people in "Muslim garb" on a plane. But his bosses at NPR looked like the really jumpy ones this week — uneasy about candid talk on ethnicity and prejudice, too quick to invoke an ethics code that doesn't make much sense and hypocritical for invoking higher values that they haven't applied equally to all their employees.

Williams, a one-time Washington Post reporter who has written several books on race, would have appeared an unlikely candidate to provoke this kind of furor. But there he was on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Monday night, confessing a certain unease ("I get worried. I get nervous.") when he boards a plane and finds fellow passengers dressed in "Muslim garb."

Two days later, NPR booted the part-time news analyst off the air, despite his more than a decade with the radio network, giving fodder to those who would peg the organization as insular and politically correct.

NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller and news boss Ellen Weiss treated a moment of candor like it was a capital crime. And they ignored the mitigating evidence — Williams' follow-up admonition against anti-Muslim rhetoric.

It's as if the NPR bosses took an exam on two of journalism's most sensitive issues — reporting on ethnic prejudice and rooting out bias — and managed a failing grade on both.

The trouble began with the O'Reilly appearance, in which the host continued to insist on painting Muslims with a broad brush ("Muslims attacked us on 9/11," he said earlier on 'The View', rather than laying blame on Muslim extremists.) and tried to get Williams to play along.

Williams was less challenging than he should have been. He didn't immediately clarify that his Muslims-on-a-plane anxiety was misguided. But he didn't leave it there, either, later cautioning O'Reilly against blanket condemnations. "We don't want, in America, people to have their rights violated," Williams said, "to be attacked on the street because they hear rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy."

I thought this was the sort of candid conversation about race and ethnicity we were supposed to have. Didn't President Obama suggested that only open dialogue would chip away hardened misconceptions?

But the people running NPR heard only the worst of what Williams had to say, ending a relationship with the personality without even giving him a chance to defend himself.

Executives inside the radio network said their displeasure with Williams had been of long standing. They said they had cautioned him "several times" before about offering personal opinions. Early in 2009, the radio network's ombudsman wrote about how Williams said Michelle Obama had "this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going."

NPR insiders also told me that Williams was seen inside the network as too "pliant" in a range of interviews, ready to bend in the direction of his subject. Journalists tend to be suspicious when subjects try to hand pick their interviewers. And the Bush White House had a particular fondness for Williams over other NPR reporters.

The trouble came to a head when NPR tried to fit the Williams case into ethics guidelines that are too rigid and imprecise, given the realities of today's media.

NPR journalists "should not participate in shows … that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis," reads the pertinent section.

That would be fine, if NPR's leaders are prepared to order their biggest names off every show on cable TV and talk radio. Instead, they have allowed NPR personalities to appear on channels such as Fox and MSNBC that live to spin.

Why let Mara Liasson, the political reporter, continue as a Fox contributor? Earlier this month she seemed to be offering an opinion when she suggested to news anchor Bret Baier that President Obama needs to be careful to put "the economy No. 1 at all times."

And what about the 1995 interview, dug out by several news outlets, during which NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg suggested that if there were "retributive justice" in the world then North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms (or perhaps one of his grandchildren) might contract AIDS from a transfusion because he questioned the amount of funding for AIDS research. Shouldn't Totenberg have gotten the boot?

Many mainstream news organizations, including the L.A. Times, maintain rigorous boundaries against personal expression. No advocacy bumper stickers on the car. No political signs in the yard.

The blogosphere, with its social media sensibility, scoffs at these restraints. Journalists should share all their beliefs and prejudices, a transparency that will enable audiences to better judge our work.

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