October 27, 2010

Between Fox and NPR: Juan Williams and the ethics of journalism

This is an interesting case, that by now most of you know the basics of. Alicia Shepard, the NPR ombudsman provides a good objective recap. She concludes:
"In an appearance on Fox News today, Williams defended his controversial remarks, saying he simply had intended to convey his "honest experience" of anxiety. He also said he was told his contract was terminated without an opportunity to come into NPR and discuss the firing.

If he is correct, that’s too bad. I think NPR owed him a chance to explain himself.

I’m not privy to why this announcement was so hastily made. NPR could have waited until his contract ran out, or possibly suspended him pending a review. Either way, a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare.

Even though NPR handled this situation badly, the fact remains that NPR must uphold its journalistic standards, which, after all, provide the basis that earned public radio's reputation for quality."
I agree, but would add that I don't think NPR acted unethically in the sense of not upholding one's basic moral duty. Perhaps it could have acted more carefully and conscientiously, but this is not an obligation. As Shepard states, NPR management had warned Williams numerous times as early as 2008 that he was crossing the ethical line, for example after saying (on Fox as usual) in early 2009, that Michelle Obama had a "Stokely Carmicheal in a dress" thing, namely, an "I'm the victim, blame-America-first attitude."

So this was a repeated pattern made all the more egregious for being on a network that, frankly, makes a mockery of the journalistic mission. Thus this issue is as much about context as it is about what Williams actually said.

Williams was giving Fox the air of respectability of a renowned news organization whenever he appeared as an NPR analyst. This is unethical in itself, though not explicitly forbidden in the NPR contract. But perhaps it should have been. If so, and this is the deeper ethical question I want to address in this post, this is really the only place where NPR may have acted rashly. If my argument is persuasive, NPR should consider making that change now for its remaining analysts.

Fox is not a news organization so much as an opportunistic debaser of the culture, fomenting distrust and disrespect of intellectuals, academics, scientists and any person or group that threatens to expose the lies and ignorance the network propagates like a cancer 24/7. It broadcasts cheap and titillating content, but not journalism by any stretch of the imagination, for it exists first and foremost to promote and reinforce an ideology--not to uncover the truth no matter how unwelcome the truth may at times be to its viewers. The harm this business model is causing can hardly be overestimated as Fox manages to capture the attention of more cable news viewers than each of the other networks actually striving--at greater cost--to maintain their journalistic integrity. What's more, the confounding success of Fox makes it much harder for the other networks to stay true to their journalistic mission, for they are tempted, economically, to follow in its footsteps.

In my view, NPR might be reproached for not explicitly forbidding its analysts from appearing on Fox, as the Obama administration has of its appointees. For I suspect that had Williams' latest comments been given on a different network, they might not have offended NPR and most of its viewers, who resent his even appearing on Fox, let alone fomenting the xenophobic paranoia so much a part of what Fox sells. Of course it's unlikely he would have made those comments elsewhere as he was aided and abetted by O'Reilly, who as NPR management warned Williams repeatedly, is notorious for leading commentators onto treacherous rhetorical terrain.

So ultimately, I think most of the blame lies on Williams himself, who was probably not entirely surprised to receive a renewed $2 million 3-year Fox contract upon being fired from NPR. Now he provides that network full-time with a veneer of objectivity as a black commentator with a prestigious reporting background. It's noteworthy that while NPR has won numerous prestigious awards for journalism and even published self-criticism via its own full-time ombudsman, Fox has never won a single prestigious journalism award nor does it have an ombudsman.

Williams should have known his reputation would be tarnished by engaging in a conflict of interest between his journalistic mission at NPR and the hate-filled bombast of Fox generally, and O'Reilly in particular. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.


  1. Might I be so cynical as to suggest that his compensation on NPR paled in comparison with that on Fox? Might I be more cynical to suggest that his new Fox deal was negotiated before the gaffe? Might it be appropriate that I take an extended vacation, seeing as how I'm that cynical?


  2. It's certainly a plausible assumption, considering he was forewarned and Roger Ailes came forward with the offer within 24 hours.