During the 100-yard dash that was the last few weeks of the election, I didn’t have time to comment on National Public Radio’s controversial firing of Juan Williams. Although the news cycle has moved on to Brett Favre’s sextploits and Sarah Palin’s new Alaska travelogue, NPR’s firing of Juan Williams gives us an opportunity to think about what we value from our news sources.
Also, buried among the $200 billion in spending cuts recommended by President Obama’s deficit commission is the elimination of government funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides important monetary support for not only Sesame Street but also NPR. With its funding endangered, and its reputation again questioned by both liberals and conservatives, it’s an important time to consider Juan William’s firing, and the difference between NPR and Fox or MSNBC.
The Juan Williams firing
In spite of his sexual harassment problems and tendency for faux pas, I’ve always rooted for Juan Williams because he wrote the companion book to the 14-hour civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, which had great influence on me when I watched it as a teenager. So, I was bummed to see that he’d gotten fired from NPR.
I’m further bummed that many right-wing commentators have used NPR’s firing of Juan Williams as an opportunity to question its objectivity, and renew their calls for stripping its government funding. Fred Barnes’ recent blog for the Weekly Standard is typical of their argument:
“I have no doubt that Juan’s comments about Muslims were merely a pretext (for his firing). There had been prior run-ins between NPR and Juan over his appearances on Fox. But fire him over remarks that most Americans would identify with? I didn’t think the loathing of Fox would cause NPR to do something so ideologically driven, unprofessional, and bigoted… The motto is, Fox is fair and balanced. Mainstream media types sneer at this. Juan actually embodies it. He’s both fair and balanced. NPR is neither. “
I’ll deal with the question of whether NPR is fair and balanced later, but I want to address Barnes’ implicit argument that NPR fired Juan Williams because of what he said. I think this is a cynical mischaracterization of what likely happened. Here’s what NPR ombudswoman Alicia Shephard said in her article “NPR’s handling of Juan William’s firing was poorly handled:”
“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.
“The issue also is whether someone on NPR’s payroll should be allowed to say something in one venue that NPR would not allow on its air. NPR’s ethics code says they cannot. Williams was doing the kind of stereotyping in a public platform that is dangerous to a democracy. It puts people in categories, as types – not as individuals with much in common despite their differences.
“Although NPR had handled the situation badly, the fact remains that NPR must uphold its journalistic standards.”
Many of us who’ve had to fire an employee know that it is a complicated process. To protect the company from legal retaliation, it’s important that an accurate history of misconduct has been documented. An essential component of this documentation is proof that the employee has been informed what the company considers acceptable behavior, how his or her behavior has deviated from that policy and, most importantly, how he or she is expected to act from then on. It’s clear from Shephard’s article that NPR followed this sort of procedure with Juan Williams.
Despite how pundits like Barnes want to talk about Juan William’s firing, NPR was merely doing what every company has the right and obligation to do: ensure that their employees follow policy. This isn’t a matter of liberal bias or political correctness. It’s a matter of enforcing stated policy and procedures – something almost everyone can agree is a reasonable and ethical way to conduct business.
Could NPR have handled the firing better? Yes. Should Juan Williams have been fired for repeatedly not following company policy? Yes.
Barnes also complains, without evidence, that Juan William’s was fired for remarks that “most Americans would identify with.” I would contend that just because most Americans would agree with a statement doesn’t make it newsworthy. Still, as Shephard points out, discussion of tough issues is valuable, but only so long as it contributes to useful public discourse rather than reinforces differences and stereotypes.
The difference between NPR and Fox or MSNBC
Like many of you, I’m a news junkie. NPR is on at our house in the morning while we get ready for work. When I drive around during the day, I often listen to talk radio programs like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and our local show hosted by Michael Swickard and Jim Spence. When I’m at work or working out at the gym, I listen to podcasts of NPR’s On Point or the Diane Rehm show. When my wife and I are fixing dinner, we switch around between the PBS Newshour, Countdown and Hannity.
I look to each source for a different type of information. From Countdown, Rush and Hannity I expect partisan spin. From NPR, on the other hand, I expect objective reporting. Here’s a long (sorry!) excerpt from columnist James Fallow’s article about what separates NPR from many other news outlets:
“Isn’t NPR just the same thing (as Fox News), from a different political perspective? No, and the difference matters.
“NPR, whatever its failings, is one of the few current inheritors of the tradition of the ambitious, first-rate news organization… It has reporters at state houses and in war zones. At last count, it has something like 17 foreign bureaus and 16 domestic. In much of the country, especially away from the coasts, it’s a major source of local information and news. It claims that its total audience is some 27 million people a week; with all allowances for counting differences, it reaches a lot more people than Fox does. (Eg, a recent report put O’Reilly’s usual audience at around 3.3 million.) NPR is increasingly important in state-capital coverage, as small newspapers have weakened. Because it can carry on-scene interviews and “soundscapes,” it can convey an impression of realities from inside China, or Haiti, or Detroit, or Kabul in a way print stories cannot.
“In their current anti-NPR initiative, Fox and the Republicans would like to suggest that the main way NPR differs from Fox is that most NPR employees vote Democratic. That is a difference, but the real difference is what they are trying to do. NPR shows are built around gathering and analyzing the news, rather than using it as a springboard for opinions. And while of course the selection of stories and analysts is subjective and can show a bias, in a serious news organization the bias is something to be worked against rather than embraced.”
This closely matches my perspective on the issue. Rather than being concerned with building media personalities or winning short-term political victories – as so many cable news corporations seem to be – responsible news organizations build processes and policies into their practices that resist bias and strive towards objectivity. Then they enforce those policies. That’s what NPR did when it fired Juan Williams.
But it’s impossible to be objective!
Conservative columnist Mona Charen argued – on NPR, of all places – that what “infuriates conservatives is that they see no willingness on the part of NPR to recognize that they have a point of view.” She claims that no news source is free of bias and that, essentially, Fox News is preferred because it doesn’t pretend to be objective (although one wonders what their slogan “Fair and Balanced” is supposed to suggest).
Ultimately, I agree with Charen that it’s impossible for a news organization to be completely unbiased. However, I don’t agree that it’s not worth resisting bias. For example, many of us admire the objective reporting that we believe we get from this site. Still, do most of us believe that Mr. Haussamen doesn’t have an opinion about the stories he reports? I certainly don’t. But I appreciate that he has the training and discipline to bracket out his own bias and opinion so that we can get news that’s based in facts and mostly free of bias.
I also appreciate this about much of NPR’s reportage. To push them to be as ideologically driven as Fox News or MSNBC seems like a dangerous and cynical suggestion that would only further reduce the availability of credible information.
The effect on the public discourse
Furthermore, I’d argue that the way that people yell at one another on Fox News and MSNBC (as opposed to on NPR) contributes largely to the acrimonious timbre of public discourse. If we really are interested in getting the country back on track, we should be lauding any venue that is committed to rational discussion of the issues of the day. It’s hard to learn or solve problems by yelling at each other. I want to hear the best arguments – rationally articulated, and carefully challenged – from all sides so that I can understand the decisions before us.
For example, NPR’s program On Point frequently gathers the smartest people (not the media darlings) from either side of an issue and brings them into the studio to vigorously – but politely – discuss. For a great example, please listen to this hour long program where Congressman Paul Ryan discusses his “Roadmap for America’s Future.” Programs like this are concerned with informing its listeners rather than convincing them of a worldview.
It’s hard for me to understand how people who value careful consideration over ideological dogmatism would resent NPR’s consistently positive contributions to the public discourse. Rather than complaining about NPR enforcing company policy, perhaps we should demand that our other news sources – local and national – recommit to meaningful exploration of the important issues.