Perspectives on the News: Juan Williams

Much has been made of Juan William’s recent firing from NPR, but was it the right thing to do? Did NPR censor Williams? No, NPR’s decision was made with respect to their own code of ethics, and in keeping with their standards for journalistic excellence.

Earlier this week NPR fired news analyst Juan Williams in part for comments he made on Fox News’ O’Rilley Factor. The comment was not well worded, but on a 24-hour, ratings-driven, news network, and especially on The O’Rilley Factor, it’s almost impossible to choose your words carefully. O’Rilley has a way of goading his guests and full-on ignoring them when they say things with which he disagrees. He is notorious for this, and Williams and NPR surely knew that before he went on the program. After the firing, the public, politicians, and media communities erupted in criticism against NPR. Republican leaders including South Carolina Representative Jim DeMint called for NPR’s federal funding to be revoked, long-time NPR listeners threatened to stop donating forever, and affiliate stations also distanced themselves from the network while demanding an answer from it.

Some have called NPR’s action censorship, and to be sure it is not; at least not the kind that violates the US Constitution. NPR is a private, non-profit organization that receives a portion of it’s funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a government-run corporation. To call NPR a state agency that must protect and observe the Constitution is laughable. With that said, there is something to the notion that American organizations should honor the freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution regardless of whether they are part of the government. They may not be constitutionally obligated to, but they merely should out of respect for American liberty. That reasoning, however, ultimately suggests that any individual has the liberty to slander their employer and have ultimate job security. Surely Rep. DeMint wouldn’t want a senior campaign staffer going on Meet the Press and opining to the nation that the Representative is a bigoted numb-skull with no grasp on reality; he certainly has a right to say it, but not while working for Representative DeMint’s campaign. Similarly, NPR does not want its employees going on national television and behaving in a manner that violates their code of ethics which expressly states that “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.” Williams’ comments were what MPR’s Bob Collins called “a run-in with reality.”

Juan Williams had absolutely every right to say what he said on The Factor. He had every right to appear on Bill O’Rilley’s show, every right to express his anxieties, and had that right every time he appeared on the show. He still has that right, and has actively demonstrated it by accepting a new $2 million contract with Fox News. What is important for Williams, Fox News, and NPR listeners to understand is that a liberty as great as those protected by the First Amendment comes with responsibilities, and that while you have a right to say something, that does not mean there are not consequences for your speech. For Williams, that consequence was losing his job at NPR.

As Vivian Schiller and the Alicia Shepard, NPR Ombudsman, said in separate remarks, this was not the first time Williams’ Fox News commentaries went against the grain. “Williams’ appearances on Fox News, especially O’Reilly’s show, have caused heartburn repeatedly for NPR over the last few years.” Shepard continued to detail the Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress incident from 2009, and the 2008 change of his role as “correspondent (a reporting job) to news analyst.” While Shepard admits that NPR handled the incident poorly, “this latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values: 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.”

Juan Williams on Fox News was an entirely different voice than the one we heard on NPR. On NPR he fit the model for reasoned discourse on issues of public importance, on Fox News, he fit their model. On PBS’s Newshour this week Callie Crossley, host of the Callie Crossley Show, noted, that there are two different cultures between NPR and Fox News, and it becomes impossible to reconcile Williams the Fox News pundit and Williams the NPR analyst when those two roles appear radically different. “There is one person, Mara Liasson, who is operating in both the cultures,” said Crossley, “the difference there is that she is consistent in her tone, temperament and opinion wherever she is.”

In the end NPR did what it had to do. Some have gotten hung up on what constitutes fact-based analysis, and that is an important discussion to have, but as Kelly McBride at the Pointer Institute noted on Newshour, “NPR has a completely different set of standards for what type of opinion it will tolerate… than Fox News has.” (Emphasis added) Williams’ firing was caused by his speech and decorum on the Fox News network, not prior restraint against his right to freely express himself.

According to NPR, when Williams appeared on The Factor, he spoke not as just an individual, but as an employee of NPR. Perhaps it is too high a standard to expect journalists to represent their organization regardless of where they open their mouth. But if all organizations held their employees to this standard, perhaps it would make for better news across the industry; perhaps it would foster a healthier, more intelligent, democracy.

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