Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thoughts triggered by the NPR/Juan Williams messy divorce . . .

I'd bet the farm you are as aware as I am that NPR terminated Juan Williams' contract one week ago last night. And that you've already read a considerable amount of speculation about the increasingly discordant relationship between Mr. Williams and National Public Radio. And so it seems to me there's no need for me to rehash in this blog who said what, when, and to whom vis-a-vis the events leading up to the NPR-Williams divorce.

If you do need a refresher course on what happened, there was an excellent overview compiled by Tobin Harshaw at the end of last week on the New York Times "Opinionator" column -- along with some 25 pages of comments.

Juan Williams-gate took place when WMRA was a day-and-a-half away from wrapping up our Fall Festival of Fundraising. General Manager Tom DuVal was on the phone with listeners pretty constantly for a couple of days after the news broke, explaining something that it seems as though many modern-day news consumers consider a quaint concept: NPR's code of ethics. Basically, this code states, anyone who does any kind of journalistic work for NPR is enjoined to remain publicly neutral on controversial issues.

I posted notice of the termination on the station's Facebook page, and the comments from WMRA Community members were mixed. To give you an idea of what I mean by mixed, one listener claimed Williams' firing was "insane and stupid political correctness run amok." Another commented that "NPR is one of the last remaining vestiges of actual unbiased journalism. To maintain that unbiased aura, Williams needed to go." We had a good, interesting discussion, I think -- which is why WMRA has a Facebook page in the first place.

I've not been in the office for a couple of days, but still out and about in WMRA Land. Everywhere I've gone people have wanted to know what I, personally, thought of the situation. And I think the best way for me to comment is to say that I, personally, am not going to say what I think in public. Not on the air, not giving a talk, not teaching a class, not on this blog. Neither am I going to comment on this, or any other controversy on my personal Facebook page, because that, too, is a public forum. The only comments I make about controversial issues are made in private..

Why? Because I'm bound by the same code of ethics that Juan Williams was. Airing my personal opinion on any controversial issue would automatically make me less effective at what I do.

And what is that, you ask?

My job, as a person who works and writes in the National Public Radio system, is to listen, question, explore, and challenge. And then to present whatever I discover to you in an organized and understandable way. I'm a conveyor and a convener, not a preacher. I want to inform and engage; not entertain and convert.

I believe firmly in leaving the hard work of forming your opinion entirely up to you.

Please, let me know what you think of journalistic ethics. . .


  1. For Fox News to call NPR biased is a hoot! Be that said, "objectivity" is a difficult standard for an organization to follow consistently. I once worked for a news organization where an editor accused me of "having a liberal agenda" based on occasional ideas I pitched, while those co-workers who wanted to ridicule the poor or make jokes about "beaners" in-house could do so with impunity--in fact with affection From On High. If there is a bias that prevails in the commercial sector of the news media, it goes in that direction. So what gets called a liberal bias at NPR seems to me more like a breath of fresh air, and I hope the Williams incident does not make public broadcasting more timid. As to Williams himself, I'm not familiar enough with him to judge his work as a whole, but his allegedly career-changing comment was DUMB. Firs of all the term "Muslim garb" sounded vague and ignorant (did he mean a chador? turban? scarf? -- did he know what the different forms of such "garb" signify?). More importantly, didn't it occur to him that someone planning a terrorist act will leave any such "garb" behind and try to look inconspicuous? We should expect better powers of thought/observation in any professional reporter or commentator.-- Chris Edwards

  2. I'm unsure of the definitions. I have always assumed that a "Journalist" can voice an opinion, whereas a "Reporter" needed to be a neutral party. Am I mixing this up with an "Editorial" capacity that shouldn't be breached by the "Journalist"?
    ignorantly yours,
    --Paul Q. Public

  3. I agree with Chris.

  4. I'm with Chris -- I think the comment was an ignorant one, even a bigoted one, and that is the reason the "opinion" mattered. In fact, I'm not really sure it was an opinion. It seemed like a flabby commitment to being neutral that nonetheless betrayed an assumption that was undoubtedly offensive to many. I would imagine there are many people who, if they do feel "nervousness" about seeing someone whose clothing evokes notions of radical Islam, question that reaction in themselves, rather than assume it's normal, as it seems Williams was doing in a chummy, wink-wink way with O'Reilly. And that is why O'Reilly is not neutral: he acts as if he's calling a spade a spade all the time, when in fact he's just legitimizing our narrow-minded comfort zones.

    I do think that the notion of unbiased journalism is confused. In this age of divisive politics and ad hominem attacks, merely to be an inquiring person who considers oneself bound by facts will earn one the label of biased. So NPR comes in for criticism when it is obvious that its reporters, hosts, and commentators have “opinions” on matters such as Barack Obama’s nationality and religion. Or when they try to delve into hot button terms like “death panels.” It seems that these days, journalists, simply by virtue of the questions they ask or don’t ask, or the issues they consider worthy of exploration, reveal their political stripes. It shouldn’t be this way – that is, the discourse shouldn’t be so predictable – but I often feel that it is. And I always find it fascinating when a contentious issue – say abortion or immigration or health care or gay marriage – is being discussed and I CANNOT tell AT ALL where on the ideological spectrum a speaker falls. This is actually the reason I love NPR. Apart from what “it”, as an organization of journalists, says and thinks – it finds the minds, in the form of guests, that seem to have this depth of perspective.

  5. Paul Q.: Reporters and journalists are the same thing. The latter just seems to be the more contemporary term (as was "reporter" vs. the earlier "newsman"). At NPR, a news analyst, like Juan Williams, comes under the umbrella of "journalist." NPR also calls some reporters "correspondents," and they follow the same code as all NPR journalists. (I think that might be a borrowing from the British.)

    A commentator on the other hand is usually tasked with expressing opinions, and NPR's commentators are always outside people (David Frum, Robert Reich, etc.).

    NPR also has editors, but their job is to work with reporters on putting stories together. At NPR, at least, they are also bound by the ethics code for journalists.

    Editors at newspapers usually express very strong opinions on controversial issues, although they likely were formerly journalists (and may still consider themselves practicing journalists). Hence the Editorial Page. I don't know how newspapers work on the inside, so can't say whether these editors also have any direct influence on the journalistic functions of the papers. One can only hope that the journalism is not colored by the opinions of the editor(s).
    -Tom DuVal (WMRA General Manager)