NPR Fires Juan Williams, Part 2
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.