Why NPR did the right thing

Juan Williams wasn’t, to the contrary of the majority of the opposition’s opinion, fired from NPR because of anything that has to do with free speech. Juan Williams made the mistake of allowing his opinion on a controversial issue to be made public, while he occupied a professional position where objectivity is required. For an NPR reporter to use a public arena on an opinion-based commentary show to express his own controversial opinion undermines the objectivity of NPR.

Commentators on FOX, MSNBC, and other shows are channels that rely on opinion and debate; NPR is a public news station whose objective is to provide objective and fact-based news. As my local member station specifies, “No rant, no slant.”

I listen to NPR daily. I value the objectivity, and I value the consistent attempts at objectivity. I don’t want to know the NPR reporters’ opinions.

What he said can be a part of a necessary and even progressive dialogue; it’s not a bad thing to admit a harmful prejudice to millions of viewers if you’re using it to start a larger point about how those prejudices are dangerous. But there is a difference between admitting a prejudice and having a conversation about what that means, and having a nodding-party about a shared prejudice and why it’s a reasonable or forgivable prejudice to have. Williams didn’t use the opportunity to do that, though (see video below). He may have intended to, and he may have not been able to because O’Reilly kept cutting him off, but unfortunately, his comments just made him sound like he was justifying anti-Muslim sentiments. There’s no question that these discussions should be happening– it’s just that someone at NPR should be recording it, moderating it, or conducting the interview; not participating in it. NPR’s decision to fire Mr. Williams is consistent with their journalistic standards, and emphasizes their commitment to rant- and slant-free, fact-based news.

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7 Responses to Why NPR did the right thing

  1. David K says:

    You’re absolutely right that it’s not a “free speech” issue – “free speech” is not “free from any consequences what-so-ever speech.”
    I do think you have to see any remarks like this in full context in order to understand them – but of course they won’t be read that way, and people will form their opinion based on the 1.20 clip, or a transcript of one part of Williams’ remarks. In the our current media environment it probably is impossible for Juan Williams to be regarded as objective by the broad mass of the audience.


    Watching the whole segment my judgement would be:
    1. These particular remarks, in context, wouldn’t undermine my faith in his objectivity. The prejudices people know that they have are usually the less dangerous ones. If people know they have prejudices they can hope to win the battle over themselves and see an issue in something close to an objective light.
    Take for example the tolerably objective essay that George Orwell was able to write on antisemitism because he was aware of his anti-Jewish and nationalistic prejudices: http://www.george-orwell.org/AntiSemitism_In_Britian/0.html
    I don’t know Juan Williams other work, but if you are familiar with it, would you be able to deduce from it that he has any fears or prejudice against Muslims?
    2. If it’s a question of journalistic integrity and objectivity, why is he allowed to appear on FOX news as a commentator AT ALL? I would back NPR if they made Williams chose between NPR and FOX, because regular work for those two institutions probably is incompatible, but not dismissing him for these remarks.
    3. how does anyone with any intelligence able to stick Bill O’Reilly?
    4. Is the format of the O’Reilly factor designed to produce shouting matches? (Yes)

  2. Danny says:

    I’ve done only a bit of looking (its almost 3am) but I’ve yet to find a longer clip of that conversation. I’d like to see if Williams (or the other two people there) did go back and revisit that comment. And the reason I say this is because as you say April certain conversations need to happen but I think shutting people out at the drop of a hat actually makes it harder for such conversations to happen.

    • David K says:

      Full segment here:

      (I dropped the aitch in my original comment – oh the irony…)

    • Danny says:

      Like I said it was 3am when I made that comment. All cylinders were not firing. Double thanks for the double link.

    • April says:

      I watched the full segment (I tried to include it in the post, but it wouldn’t embed properly), but I was still unconvinced that it was taken out of context. He did more agreeing with O’Reilly than trying to make any kind of reasonable point about how anti-Muslim hatred and fear need to stop. He mentioned off-handedly that hating or being afraid of all Muslims is equally as absurd as hating or fearing all Christians because of Timothy McVeigh terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, but he didn’t make that his main point, he merely brushed over it and continued.

  3. Clarence says:

    My take:

    NPR was fully within their rights to do this, and I realize that in any case no matter what one includes as public funds the majority of their funding does not come from the government.
    That being said:
    A. They could have handled this better. And I mean that in two ways:
    1. They could set consistent standards so this doesn’t look like a personell decision based on personal grudges. Other NPR news anchors also appear on various talk shows and forums. Williams wasn’t and isn’t the only one, and no, what he said wasn’t bad enough by itself to get him fired at least under any rational standard I can think of. They should ban simultaneous employment if they are so concerned about being “objective”.
    2. Unfortunatly, by choosing THIS issue to fire Juan over (there had been other incidents involving his opinions on various things in the past) it brings lots of bad publicity to NPR and serves to reinforce a meme common among conservatives: that the governments and other large institutions of western society are scared to anger radical muslims in any way, shape, or form. I think that there is some truth to that, in that insulting Christ rarely brings death threats from Christians let alone a “christian militia” or some state sponsered christian extremists, but one can actually put ones life or families lives and/or property in danger by publically proclaiming Mohammad to be a pederast -which based on the age of one his wives, I think he probably was – or a warlord, or anything less than divinely inspired.

    B. Like I said, taken in context I see nothing wrong with these particular remarks. How dare one admit to a prejudice -even a half-way rational one! And yet, while I live in a mixed race city neighborhood you can bet my white butt would not be found walking out at night alone in certain predominately minority neighborhoods due to risk assessments based on crime rates and hate crime rates. I make no apologies for this, though I do wish the underlying problem could be humanely solved, just as much as I wish the radical muslims would join their moderate counterparts in the 21st century, instead of firmly remaining mired in the 4th concerning their social attitudes. But we live in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

  4. Danny says:

    You know after watching that full clip I’m of the sense that Williams (and possibly Ham) was going to flesh out how it is wrong to make blanket presumptions like that but OReily didn’t want to “waste time” on that. What he said was wrong but I don’t think he should have been fired over it. If anything I think he should have been put on the spotlight and held accountable for what he said by way of perhaps an interview/discussion over what he said. At least then the message would have been more clear than firing him.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if what Clarence mentions in point 2 of his comment comes to pass and we end up with people taking this as evidence of an attack on free speech. Its not but I’m sure you can imagine the slight tweaking required for them to make it look so.

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