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NPR's Dismissal of Juan Williams: Your Thoughts?

This article is more than 9 years old.
On Point discussed NPR's dismissal of Juan Williams in Friday's news roundtable. And Monday we returned to the subject for an even bigger take (listen here.)

For the record, On Point is syndicated by NPR; it is owned and operated by affiliate WBUR-Boston.

Please share your thoughts at the bottom of this post.

UPDATE MONDAY a.m.: Below is NPR CEO Vivian Schiller's letter to her colleagues, posted at Politico:

Dear Program Colleagues,

I want to apologize for not doing a better job of handling the termination of our relationship with news analyst Juan Williams. While we stand firmly behind that decision, I regret that we did not take the time to prepare our program partners and provide you with the tools to cope with the fallout from this episode. I know you all felt the reverberations and are on the front lines every day responding to your listeners and talking to the public

This was a decision of principle, made to protect NPR’s integrity and values as a news organization. Juan Williams’ comments on Fox News last Monday were the latest in a series of deeply troubling incidents over several years. In each of those instances, he was contacted and the incident was discussed with him. He was explicitly and repeatedly asked to respect NPR's standards and to avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings, as that is inconsistent with his role as an NPR news analyst. After this latest incident, we felt compelled to act. I acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree about timing: whether NPR should have ended its relationship with Juan Williams earlier, on the occasion of other incidents; or whether this final episode warranted immediate termination of his contract.

In any event, the process that followed the decision was unfortunate – including not meeting with Juan Williams in person – and I take full responsibility for that. We have already begun a thorough review of all aspects of our performance in this instance, a process that will continue in the coming days and weeks. We will also review and re-articulate our written ethics guidelines to make them as clear and relevant as possible for our acquired show partners, our staff, Member stations and the public.

The news and media world is changing swiftly and radically; traditional standards and practices are under siege. This requires us to redouble our attention to how we interpret and live up to our values and standards. We are confident that NPR’s integrity and dedication to the highest values in journalism and our commitment to serving as a national forum for the respectful discussion of diverse ideas will continue to earn the support of a growing audience.

I stand by my decision to end NPR’s relationship with Juan Williams, but deeply regret the way I handled and explained it. You have my pledge that the NPR team and I will reflect on all aspects of our actions, and strive to improve them in the future.

Please feel free to share your concerns and suggestions.

Respectfully,

Vivian Schiller

UPDATE FRIDAY p.m.: Here's a statement from our home station, WBUR, issued on Friday:

WBUR General Manager Paul La Camera released the following statement on the firing of news analyst Juan Williams by NPR.

While these events can always be handled better, the decision by the management of NPR to separate Juan Williams was obviously not based on a single debatable episode but rather on a series of breaches in recent periods that brought into question the journalistic integrity of NPR.

This decision was appropriately made on the national level and without the consultation or involvement of independent local stations like WBUR.

It is important to note that NPR and WBUR are separate entities. Content on WBUR comprises a variety of national and local sources, one of which is NPR. However, the plurality of our station’s programming originates here in Boston, including On Point, Here & Now, Radio Boston and the work of WBUR’s 30-person newsroom dedicated to reporting local content that is interwoven throughout the day.

Journalistic integrity and trust are the absolute bedrock principles of any news organization. We at WBUR support NPR or any news organization for that matter in its determination to protect those hallmarks.

UPDATE FRIDAY a.m.: We post the new piece by NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, "NPR's Firing of Juan Williams Was Poorly Handled":

Juan Williams once again got himself into trouble with NPR for comments he made at his other job, at Fox News. And NPR's reaction has unleashed an unprecedented firestorm of criticism directed not at Williams – but at NPR.

NPR fired Williams Wednesday night after 10 years with the network for comments he made about Muslims on Fox News.

Thursday was a day like none I’ve experienced since coming to NPR in October 2007. Office phone lines rang non-stop like an alarm bell with no off button. We’ve received more than 8,000 emails, a record with nothing a close second.

NPR’s initial story garnered more than 6,800 comments, many supporting Williams and others asking why it took so long to fire him. Here's Thursday's story.

At noon, the deluge of email crashed NPR’s “Contact Us” form on the web site.

The overwhelming majority are angry, furious, outraged. They want NPR to hire him back immediately. If NPR doesn't, they want all public funding of public radio to stop. They promise to never donate again. They are as mad as hell, and want everyone to know it.  It was daunting to answer the phone and hear so much unrestrained anger.

The latest, and final, episode involving Williams took place Monday on Fox's The O'Reilly Factor. He and host Bill O'Reilly discussed whether America had a "Muslim dilemma."

In response to a provocative question from O'Reilly about Muslims, Williams said:

“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

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.

It took a day for Williams' remarks to bleed into the blogosphere. But then, it was like opening a fire hydrant.  Hundreds wrote or called demanding that NPR fire Williams or at least discipline him.

Many have been troubled over the years by the dual role that Williams has played: balanced news analyst on NPR; more opinionated pundit on Fox.

"On the Radio, Williams is somewhat of a thoughtful though superficial moderate while on FOX he shows his politically correct submissive Pro Fox bigotry for a few dollars more," wrote Mohamed Khodr, a doctor from Winchester, VA, who was among scores who contacted me Wednesday.

"NPR must and should take a stand against this bigotry and tell Williams' he must choose NPR's code of ethics or be let go to join the racist bigoted fearmongerers of FOX,” continued Khodr. “NPR can't have it both ways."

NPR's management acted. In a statement released at 12:27 a.m. Thursday, NPR said Williams' remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

This was far from an isolated incident.

Williams’ appearances on Fox News, especially O’Reilly’s show, have caused heartburn repeatedly for NPR over the last few years. Management said he’s been warned several times that O’Reilly is a professional provocateur and to be careful.

In early 2009, Williams said on O'Reilly of Michelle Obama: "She's got this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going. If she starts talking . . . her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I'm the victim. If that stuff starts to coming out, people will go bananas and she'll go from being the new Jackie O. to being something of an albatross."

After other inflammatory comments on Fox, in April 2008 NPR changed Williams' role from news correspondent (a reporting job) to news analyst. In this contract position, he was expected to report, think quickly and give his own analysis – while carefully choosing his words on any given subject.

One reason he was fired, according to Vivian Schiller, NPR’s CEO, is that the company felt he wasn’t performing the role of a news analyst:

“News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation,” said Schiller in an email to NPR member stations, some of which are upset about Williams' firing.

“As you all well know," she continued, "we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts.”

In 2008, I received 378 emails complaining about remarks Williams made on Fox – but I heard very little about his comments on NPR. My February 2009 blog post on the Stokely Carmichael incident drew 216 comments – many asking why NPR put up with Williams' dual role.

In fact, since I became Ombudsman in October 2007, no other NPR employee has generated as much controversy as Williams.

That said, Williams provided a valuable voice on NPR.  His long experience as a journalist and background as an authority on the Civil Rights movement enabled him to offer insights that often enriched the network's reporting.

Ultimately, however, it seems management felt he had become more of a liability than an asset. Unfortunately, I agree.

It can’t be overlooked that this episode is occurring in a toxic political environment where people are quick to take sides and look for hidden motives. I fear some will look for racial motivations in NPR's decision to fire Williams, who is African-American and one of the few black male NPR voices.

It's not about race. It's also not about free speech, as some have charged. Nor is it about an alleged attempt by NPR to stifle conservative views. NPR offers a broad range of viewpoints on its radio shows and web site.

Instead, 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.

Many emails asked for an explanation of how these latest comments were specifically outside NPR's rules and expectations – especially since Williams was being honest about his prejudices and fears.

(Williams also said, on a Fox News segment that aired Thursday, that he asked for, but was not given, a specific explanation of how his remarks crossed the line.)

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.

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."

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 the 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.

THURSDAY p.m.: Here is NPR's coverage of the whole controversy yesterday, from NPR blogger Mark Memmott:

Since we first put this post up at 8:38 a.m. ET, the story of the termination of news analyst Juan Williams' contract with NPR over remarks he made on Fox News Channel about Muslims has only gotten hotter.

Williams was on Fox this morning and defended what he said earlier this week on The O'Reilly Factor -- that he gets "nervous" if he's at an airport and sees "people who are in Muslim garb."

"It's not a bigoted statement," Williams said today on Fox. "I said what I meant to say, that it's an honest experience. ... I have a moment of anxiety, of fear, given what happened on 9/11."

The Fox video from earlier today is here.

Meanwhile, reaction continues to pour in:

-- It's "total censorship," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-GA, said on Fox News this morning. He called on Congress to investigate.

-- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who now hosts a show on Fox, issued a statement saying "I will no longer accept interview requests from NPR as long as they are going to practice a form of censorship, and since NPR is funded with public funds, it IS a form of censorship. It is time for the taxpayers to start making cuts to federal spending, and I encourage the new Congress to start with NPR."

For the record, here's a link to charts that break down where NPR and its member stations get their money.

-- Former Alaska governor, 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and Fox News contributor Sarah Palin tweeted that "NPR defends 1st Amendment Right, but will fire u if u exercise it. Juan Williams: u got taste of Left's hypocrisy,they screwed up firing you."

-- As for the liberal side, Earl Ofari Hutchinson writes at The Huffington Post that if NPR "had the ounce of integrity and fairness that it incessantly brags about (it) should have dumped Williams a long time ago for his equally great offense. And that's his two decade con job as a liberal, civil rights expert and even supporter."

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly (it was on his show where Williams made the comment about Muslims), just said on the air that Juan will be back on The O'Reilly Factor tonight.

Update at 3:30 p.m. ET. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller just released this statement:

"I spoke hastily and I apologize to Juan and others for my thoughtless remark."

That follows, as you'll see below, her comment earlier today that now-former NPR news analyst Juan Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist."

Update at 3 p.m. ET. NPR Ombudsman: Williams Should Have Been Given Choice:

Rather than terminating news analyst Juan Williams' contract, "probably the better thing for NPR to have done is to have said 'Juan the situation is not working,' " NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepherd just said on Talk of the Nation.

Then, she continued, Williams could have been given a choice: If he wanted to stay at NPR, he would have to stop doing commentary on Fox News Channel. Or, if he preferred to continue with Fox, he and NPR could part ways.

We noted earlier that Alicia has previously written about the perceived conflicts between Williams' roles at NPR and Fox. She's planning to publish a post about his termination within the hour.

Update, at 2:20 p.m. ET: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller says Williams should have kept his views about Muslims to himself, "his psychiatrist or his publicist."

Our original post — "After Comments About Muslims, NPR Terminates Juan Williams' Contract":

"NPR News has terminated the contract of longtime news analyst Juan Williams after remarks he made on the Fox News Channel about Muslims," the network's David Folkenflik writes this morning. It's some of the hotter news on the Web right now.

Here's the statement NPR from CEO Vivian Schiller and Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss released just after midnight:

"Tonight we gave Juan Williams notice that we are terminating his contract as a Senior News Analyst for NPR News.

"Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years and we did not make this decision lightly or without regret. However, his remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a News Analyst with NPR.

"We regret these circumstances and thank Juan Williams for his many years of service to NPR and public radio."

As for what Juan said on O'Reilly, as David writes:

"O'Reilly has been looking for support for his own remarks on a recent episode of ABC's The View in which he directly blamed Muslims for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Co-hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walked off the set in the middle of his appearance.

"Williams responded: 'Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.'

"Williams also warned O'Reilly against blaming all Muslims for 'extremists,' saying Christians shouldn't be blamed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh."

Conservative bloggers and commentators, such as Michelle Malkin, are weighing in. She says NPR "caved into left-wing attack dogs." From the left, Salon's Glenn Greenwald sees what Juan said as "anti-Muslim bigotry."

NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard has previously blogged about "Juan Williams, NPR and Fox News" and that he has been a "lightning rod" for things he's said while providing commentary on Fox. We won't be surprised if Alicia writes about Juan's termination in coming days. You can send comments to her here.

Juan told David late last night that he isn't ready yet to talk about what's happened.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.  

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