Friday, October 22, 2010

NPR Fires Juan Williams, Part 2

So I've been listening to talk radio all day and I've read the most recent comments from NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard and I now think the network had a legitimate beef with their employee Juan Williams.

Writing yesterday, Shepard said, "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.

After other inflammatory comments on Fox, in April 2008 NPR changed Williams' role from news correspondent (a reporting job) to news analyst. In this contract position, he was expected to report, think quickly and give his own analysis – while carefully choosing his words on any given subject," writes Shepard.

William's admission that he is scared to fly with people wearing clothing he identifies as "Muslim," apparently, was the straw that broke the camel's back.

This morning, several callers to the Stephanie Miller show pointed out that those calling for Congress to de-fund NPR (Sarah Palin, Senator Jim DeMint, and Representative Doug Lamborn to name a few) because, they say, the network is too liberal and prejudiced towards right wingers, should remember that "lefties" get canned all the time: Bill Maher by ABC for his "it's cowardly to bomb Iraq" comments on "Politically Incorrect" and Phil Donohue for potentially talking peace instead of war on his MSNBC program following the 9/11 attacks (according to the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).

I did then, and I still do now, detest those firings.

As a journalist who has spent the last 15 years expressing my opinion on a radio talk show, I want MORE freedom to speak, not less. These firings stifle communication. I loathe the idea that I have to keep looking over my shoulder for prudes and censors to creep up and slap duct tape over my mouth.

Let's look at this as an economic issue. My commentary - heard on an 800 watt community radio station - will never reach an audience the size of which is watching Fox or listening to National Public Radio. All I have is a moral and ethical obligation to be fair. Williams and others like him have a contract. It shouldn't surprise anyone that for all the money he is making, Juan Williams tailors his on-air opinions to fit whichever employer is paying him at that moment.

Maybe if the disparity in wages and benefits between reporters and pundits weren't so astronomical, there wouldn't be such stiff competition to sit (and stay) in the commentator's chair. And maybe media companies paying huge salaries to their talent wouldn't encourage them to make ignorant and uninformed statements as a way of generating ratings and buzz. Don Imus and his "nappy haired hos" comment about the Rutgers woman's basketball team is a case in point. He was vilified in public; behind the scenes, his employers were counting on the controversy to deliver ears and web clicks.

What I don't understand in the Williams' case, is why NPR allowed him to hold his post at Fox? Statements this week by NPR Executive Director Vivian Schiller reveal how she feels about Fox: the network is biased toward the political right. Other media outlets have stopped their employees from working multiple jobs in the industry; until recently, for example, the Boston Globe Newspaper would not allow its sports reporters to appear on "The Big Show" on WEEI-AM. Along the way, some of these writers lost significant amounts of money because of this policy.

I don't like it, but telling reporters and analysts what they can and cannot do outside the office is a way of life in this business. (I know, NPR's memo instructing their employees not to go to the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rallies is a whole 'nuther can of worms).

I don't wish to turn Williams' case solely into a battle between labor and management. But there's an economic imperative that drives media workers to the very edge of prudent and ethical behavior and causes them to sometimes cross the line. And corporate managers (including the not-for profit NPR) in fact, savor that high wire act.

After all, it's the workers (reporters, writers, producers, commentators) who put their careers at risk every day, not the owners and managers.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

NPR Fires Analyst/Correspondent Juan Williams

For what it's worth, I disagree with National Public Radio's decision to fire Juan Williams. Of course, I say that not knowing, what, if anything else between Williams and the network led up to his dismissal. And also not knowing what restrictions NPR placed on his Fox appearances, if any.

I just think that Americans must have these conversations about our fears. We must have them in public and if they are generated by analysts or commentators or columnists so be it.

Because then folks can respond. Then folks can say "look, 99.9 % of Muslims are NOT out to commit acts of violence" or "hey, you CAN'T get HIV by shaking a gay person's hand" or as Jimmy Tingle says, "immigrants are not TAKING our jobs, they're DOING our jobs."

My point is, our task as journalists (and citizens) is to find the "best available version of the truth" - to quote Carl Bernstein - and we can't do that if we suppress dialogue.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Spoonful Of Investigation Helps The Election Go Down

I get quite a few press releases from both right and left wing groups - helps me in my journalistic work.

Just received this from Pajamas Media (affiliated with the National Tea Party):

"Democrats’ Online Phone Bank System Compromises Americans’ Identity Security" which goes on to charge that the DNC and Organizing for America (President's Obama's election campaign staff and volunteers) are exposing Americans to identity theft.

So I checked out the website they are criticizing ( and found that this charge is completely unfounded. The information provided to potential phone bankers is LESS than what is routinely provided by whitepages dot com.

But it sounds much worse in the Pajamas press release because they spin it as an invasion of privacy:

"Notice that you didn’t have to put in any of your information to get real information on voters that the Democrats want their phone bankers to call. You didn’t have to tell them who you are, where you are, or anything. You can use their info to call anyone on their list, and you don’t have to tell the DNC or OfA what transpired in the conversation. Or even if a conversation transpired at all.

Now, you can put location info in there, such as your zip code to find people near you to call. But you don’t have to, and you don’t have to log in to the system to get any of that information.

This is a massive security problem for anyone whose name is on that list, which appears to include identified Democrats and Independents. And it’s caused by the Democrats and Organizing for America. With full names and phone numbers easily available, there’s probably enough there for identity thieves to go to work."

Well, there's "probably" enough information printed on the outside of my mailbox for "identity thieves to go to work."

Best available version of the truth this is NOT!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Behind the Photo: Little Girl at Chicago Greyhound Station 9/26/2010

There a story behind every photograph. Many are mundane, some are interesting. The photo above is one of the latter; so I thought I'd write about what was going on when I took it.

My wife and I were seeing her mom off at the Chicago Greyhound station - a couple of days after I had attended the "Block by Block" Community News Summit 2010 at Loyola University.

After my mother-in-law had boarded the bus in the photo, a little girl and her mom (also in the photo) were denied entry to the bus by its driver. It turns out that Greyhound requires parents and guardians to buy tickets for kids over two years old, and the girl was a bit older than that. Her mother didn't have any money, and I actually was getting ready to offer to buy the girl a ticket when something very special happened. One of those moments of human kindness and solidarity that isn't supposed to occur in big bureaucracies like Greyhound.

Even as the girl's mom talked edgily to someone on her cell phone about what was happening - basically being stuck if she and her daughter couldn't get on the bus - the driver of the bus talked animatedly to one of the station crew guys and the two of them went over to the station office. A short while later, the men emerged gathered up the women and her daughter and put them on the bus.

The driver (of Bus 86300 bound for Indianapolis and Cincinnati at 1:30 p.m. on 9/26/2010) delayed the bus for about 15 minutes all told. Risking angering the passengers on board, and perhaps some kind of bad performance review from Greyhound. So, big ups to the driver and the station crew for doing the right thing.

And, fyi, the specific moment the photo captures is shortly after the mom first found out she and her little girl weren't going to be allowed on the bus. I shot the picture through the door to the bus gate. The girl stands confused. All excited and ready to board. But she can't. What will become of her and her mom? At that point in time, we don't know.

But I thought the backstory was worth recounting for our viewers.

And I'm sharing this tale because I kind of think that our planet could use more people like that bus driver.

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OMB Gets Some Nice Press Buzz

The work we've been doing organizing the recent Public Media Camp Boston, and going out to Chicago to attend the "Block by Block" Community Media Summit 2010 last week, has resulted in some nice buzz among academics and scholars that keep track of online community news publications like Open Media Boston - plus in the Columbia Journalism Review (wow).

So here are links to 3 articles that talk about us and/or quote us. Check them out if you have a moment - interesting stuff on their own merits to be sure ...

PBS Media Shift

Columbia Journalism Review

Knight Digital Media Center

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