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NPR: Williams "dangerous to a democracy"

Well, NPR's decision to fire Juan Williams is going over like a lead balloon. NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepherd calls it a "public relations nightmare." Before we get into some of the news coverage of the firing, one huge thing needs clarification.

Most media reports have focused on Williams' admission that he feels worried when he sees people dressed in "Muslim garb" on flights. Most media reports have done a horrible job of conveying the rest of his comments. You can watch the entire conversation here. If you do that (rather than watch the Shirley Sherrod-like snippets that some advocacy groups supplied), it's clear he's admitting to a fear he experiences in order to convey how important it is to protect the rights of Muslim Americans against the sort of things irrational fear could lead to. He speaks about the importance of not painting all Muslims as enemies and how pundits have a responsibility to be careful with what they say. He even disagreed with host Bill O'Reilly's comments that "Muslims" attacked America (by wrongly stating that Timothy McVeigh was a Christian but, hey, that's a problem I already addressed in my previous post).

He repeats the error in this impassioned account of his firing and what it means here. There are some really interesting lines in there for GetReligionistas, such as a previous reprimand for saying that Americans were praying for Bush even if they didn't understand why he was making certain decisions.

It's beyond clear that NPR was either looking for an excuse to fire Williams or was completely and utterly duped -- Sherrod-style, again -- by a campaign to get Williams fired. Or both, I guess.

And they're not helping themselves. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, in defending her firing of Williams, smirked as she suggested that he should have made his comments to a mental health professional or his agent. Yeah.

Various people across the political spectrum opposed the firing, with a few weighing in to defend. And some disgruntled taxpayers are wondering whether the billions they've invested in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, of which NPR is a significant part, have been worthwhile.

So let's see how Brian Stelter, whose media coverage I value and follow, handled it for The New York Times. It was his story we looked at -- favorably -- yesterday. This story is odd, which I'll get to in a minute, but it's also notable for including media professor Jay Rosen's views (uncredited) on "the view from nowhere."

The original headline is "Williams Episode Shows 2 Versions of Journalism." That might give you a hint of the problem. It basically adopts NPR's own spin that they are a bastion of objectivity compared to FoxNews. And I have no doubt that it's news to some folks that other folks don't quite share that view of NPR. But those people should not be media reporters for The New York Times! But even more than that, Williams was a "news analyst" for NPR. If there's such a thing as opinion-free news analysis, I'd really like learn what that looks like:

NPR said on Wednesday night that Mr. Williams's comments were "inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices." According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman, offered Mr. Williams, who was already a paid contributor to Fox, a new three-year contract worth nearly $2 million in total.

After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization's belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams's contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view -- rather than the view-from-nowhere -- polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias.

The rest of the article is more of the same. It never once mentions the unbelievable comments made by the NPR CEO and it never includes perspective from anyone who thinks that some NPR programs fail to uphold their "objectivity" standard.

Or take this:

[Vivian Schiller] said that his most recent comments "violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so." Ms. Schiller, the general manager of NYTimes.com before she moved to NPR in 2009, declined an interview request.

Like many other news organizations, NPR expects its journalists to avoid situations that might call its impartiality into question -- an expectation written into the organization's ethics code.

Oh, you mean like when NPR's own Nina Totenberg said that she hoped Jesse Helms and his grandchildren got AIDS and died? Remember how she got fired for that? Oh wait, no.

I was going to say that even though the story retells the events from Monday night, it fails to note that Williams was not giving people his opinion that they should feel fear of other Muslims. However, an updated version did mention that.

It does end with quotes from Williams' essay:

He continued in the essay: "Now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought."

The other thing worth looking at is NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepherd's 1,400 word take on the matter. She seems to do a bit of the head-buried-in-the-sand thing when it comes to addressing whether NPR's programs -- in addition to being smart and good -- might lean ever so slightly to the left. But she explains how Thursday was a day unlike any other for NPR. Their computer systems were unable to keep up with the correspondence from folks wanting to weigh in on their firing of Williams. The vast majority, she says, are furious. But I'm not sure how well she researched before responding. For instance, she appears to be misinformed:

Later in that segment, Williams did challenge O'Reilly's apparent contention that every Muslim on the planet is an extremist bent on attacking America.

Um, feel free to criticize O'Reilly if you want. But stick to the facts. O'Reilly didn't say that "every Muslim on the planet is an extremist bent on attacking America." In fact, he said that he thinks it's ridiculous that you have to point out that not every Muslim is an extremist every time you talk about Muslim extremism. He said something like, "What are we, third graders?" Again, disagree with him as much as you want. But accurately convey what he said.

Also, Shepherd doesn't mention any of the comments other NPR journalists have made, from the Totenberg death wish mentioned above to Gwen Ifill's ill-advised attempt to mock Sarah Palin this week (turns out it was Ifill, not Palin, who got her history wrong. Whoops!). These frequent revelations that NPR journalists are, well, humans with opinions are simply not mentioned.

I put the Totenberg video of her views on "retributive justice" for Jesse Helms above. But in the last month, according to Stephen Hayes, in her regular appearances on "Inside Washington," she has: "criticized a ruling of the Roberts Court as scandalous; claimed that Michelle Obama gives people 'warm and fuzzy' feelings; called Bill Clinton 'the most gifted politician I've ever seen;' and lamented that the Democratic Party is diverse enough to include moderates that want to extend all Bush tax cuts."

But somehow we're supposed to believe that Juan Williams sharing his views is a threat to democracy. No really:

NPR, like any mainstream news outlet, expects its journalists to be thoughtful and measured in everything they say. What Williams said was deeply offensive to Muslims and inflamed, rather than contributing positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America.

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.

NPR journalists aren't thoughtful and measured in everything they say. Only for some one of them is the accusation of such a firing offense. But that's a really idiotic measure anyway. It's not like they're fooling anyone. I love NPR and listen to it frequently. I'm glad that NPR journalists aren't measured in everything they say.

But more than that, Williams was doing nothing like what Shepherd accuses him of. He was admitting to a personal fear in order to talk about the importance of *not* being bigoted.

Shepherd says that Williams' personal admission of something felt by millions of Americans is "dangerous to a democracy." I think we're quickly seeing that Americans see NPR's hasty action as more deserving of that claim.

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