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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Juan Williams

Both Right and Wrong

I confess that I’m not at all sure how I feel about the sacking by National Public Radio (NPR) of long-time analyst and historian of the Civil Rights era Juan Williams.

At first blush, I’m inclined to think NPR played the dismissal badly and is getting all the negative push back as a result of a less than clear explanation of why it acted as it did. At the same time, in these days of super heated, ideologically driven ranting on talk radio and cable, NPR’s leadership – awkwardly, at best – seemed to be trying to hold or establish an important principle about how journalists should behave in public. As with most things on Fox News or in the Twitter-sphere, any nuance and much of the substance vanished almost as fast as the focus on Williams’ words about being nervous when he sees people “in Muslim garb” getting on an airplane.

I’m old enough to remember when real analysts did real analysis on network television. I’m dating myself, but there was a time when informed analysis – say Eric Severeid or James J. Kilpatrick – actually offered insight and perspective into what was going on. Now days whether its Sean Hannity blowing hot on the right or Keith Olbermann (he should stick to baseball) babbling on the left, real insight is washed away by soundbite punditry; long on opinions and short of insight.

I’ve read some of the thousands of stories, blogs, columns and Tweets generated by the NPR firing of Williams, who instantly got a $2 million deal from Fox, and I think some of the best insight, ironically, comes from NPR’s own ombudsman, Alicia Shepard.

Shepard has written that the Williams affair isn’t about race or free speech or political correctness, but is about journalism, values and, not insignificantly, how Muslims are increasingly portrayed in the media.

“This latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values,” the ombudsman wrote, “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.”

She goes on to note, “I can only imagine how Williams, who has chronicled and championed the Civil Rights movement, would have reacted if another prominent journalist had said: ‘But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see an African American male in Dashiki with a big Afro, I get worried. I get nervous.'”

So, with the benefit of perfect Friday morning quarterbacking, NPR might have been much better served to slow down, publicly issue a reprimand to Williams, as perhaps also should have been done when he said on Fox of First Lady Michelle Obama, “you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going…” and explain the standards it is trying to establish and maintain.

Instead, as with so much of what passes for journalism these days, Williams’ firing became an instant media frenzy and an instant cause for the right that demanded the end of public support for those “liberals” over at NPR. The always predictable Newt Gingrich called for a Congressional investigation.

Frankly – personal opinion here – I don’t care what Juan Williams thinks, or what the late-Dan Schorr thought. I could give a rip for Hannity’s or Olbermann’s and O’Reilly’s opinions. What might be valuable from that crowd and from all the other “pundits” is not opinion or personal experience, but insight based upon real reporting, research, historical perspective, dare I say it, even facts.

I’m reminded of a line from an old journalism school prof. He said that journalism had no right to refer to itself as “a profession.” Professionals – doctors, lawyers, plumbers – have established codes of conduct and certain standards. Journalism, the old prof said, was “a craft,” no standards, not even widely accepted ethical requirements.

NPR is in for a bashing, some of which is self-inflicted, and it won’t help that liberal rich guy George Soros dumped a pile of cash on NPR just as Williams was getting the can tied to him. NPR could have helped itself, in both cases, by explaining in more detail its approach to the craft of journalism and why trying to establish and maintain some standards still matters. Even NPR fans will have to wonder about just how the Soros’ cash will be handled and whether NPR brass acted too hastily.

Ironically, of all the words written and spoken about Juan Williams’ fifteen seconds of fame, the most balanced, complete and least sensational coverage was on, yup, NPR. Go figure.

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