To fire or not to fire, that is the question. And recently it seems as if an increasing number of news organizations are deciding to pull the plug on journalists who have voiced their own opinions outside the walls of their employers’ corporations.
White House correspondent Helen Thomas said Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine,” CNN host Rick Sanchez called Jon Stewart a “bigot” and, most recently, NPR news analyst Juan Williams said people in Muslim garb made him feel “nervous” when he was on an airplane. After their respective comments, these media personalities were summarily shown the door. Whether or not what they said was egregious, politically incorrect, intemperate, in bad taste or of the whatever-many-of-us-think-but seldom-say variety is not really the case. Nor is the political import of their commentary the issue, as determining what is and is not an appropriate conservative or liberal utterance depends in large part on whether those casting plaudits or stones are Republicans or Democrats.
As the Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson said on Oct. 21, Williams’ Oct. 20 firing “…sends a puzzling message to reporters who are laboring under increasing demands to share their personality and opinion while at the same time abiding by ethics rules.” So what should a journalist be at liberty to say in his or her off hours when moonlighting, commenting for another media, Twittering, when on Facebook, when blogging or tech talking?
Addressing this question is particularly difficult when the media have become so contentious, wearing their political biases on their corporate sleeves. When self-righteous fringe political activists egg on narrow-minded fringe politicians, it’s all too easy for journalists to be lured into the resulting partisan mud-fights.
Such political theater can boost media ratings and audience share. In such a combustible mix, news organizations are reluctant to rein in journalists who can report on and add color to stories. And with the proliferation of blogs and bloggers, the public is increasingly more comfortable with and demanding of personal, first person news accounts. The resultant “journalism of identity” encourages news audiences to focus on news personalities and their opinions as much as — and sometimes more than — they do on the news itself.
While financially strapped news media organizations encourage and bask in the notoriety of such personal reporting and commentary from the colorful creatures they have created, fed and cared for, they can be oblivious to their journalistic progeny as it proliferates and grows more powerful.
Is it any wonder that a journalist reared in such a freewheeling media environment should think the right to free speech is unlimited? Or that a media corporation might overreact when its high-profile journalist opines?
All of which brings us back to Juan Williams.
National Public Radio has, for a number of years, basked in the glow of its talented, articulate and opinionated African American analyst. While occasionally embarrassed by his commentary, NPR nevertheless found it preferable — and perhaps profitable — to tolerate its star rather than to seriously reprimand him.
So what was it about what Williams said on Fox News that constituted the straw that finally broke NPR’s back? If where he said it (on Fox) was a problem for NPR, why had public radio seen fit to allow him to be a part of Fox in the first place, and for so many years?
And finally, what’s worse: a journalist saying something that ranges between boorish to insensitive, or an organization knowingly creating the environment where such commentary is increasingly commonplace?