NPR fired Williams too quickly

News organizations have the right – the responsibility even – to discipline or fire reporters who violate professional ethical standards.  But NPR reacted too hastily and too drastically when it fired news analyst Juan Williams for comments he made about Muslims.

There is no easy yardstick for determining when reporters deserve to be fired for comments.  News organizations must exercise reasoned judgment in making the decision. Central to that reasoned judgment is whether the comment, taken in context, shows animus toward a particular group of people.

Applying the contextual yardstick, CNN was right to fire Rick Sanchez for his blatantly anti-Semitic comments earlier this year about Jews controlling the media.  Hearst was right to nudge the venerable Helen Thomas into retirement for her offensive statement that Jews should get out of Palestine and go back to Germany and Poland. Similarly, MSNBC, confronted by unhappy advertisers, was right to get rid of Don Imus back in 2007 when he called black members of Rutgers’ successful women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”

Juan Williams’ comment was of a completely different order.  In response to a provocative question from Fox’s conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly, Williams said this: “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.”

The comment sparked hundreds of protests to NPR and got Williams fired.  Critics have a point when they say it reflected anti-religious bias.  Mightn’t a white commentator have been fired if he had said blacks in Afros and African garb make him nervous?

But it is important to read Williams’ comment in the broader context. Less than a minute later, in the same conversation, Williams’ challenged O’Reilly for dangerous rhetoric painting Muslims with too broad a brush.

“Wait a second though. Hold on,” he said to O’Reilly.  “If you say Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost we got a problem with Christians, that’s crazy….Bill, Here’s the caution point. The other day in New York some guy cuts a Muslim cabbie’s neck and says he’s attacking him or you think about the protests at the mosque near Ground Zero…. I’m saying we don’t want in America people to have their rights violated…because they hear rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy.”

Taken together, the comment does not reflect the kind of animus that was evident in the comments by Sanchez, Thomas or Imus.

Sanchez’s tone and words were blatantly anti-Semitic.  He ridiculed the idea that Jews might be considered a minority.  “Very powerless people,” he snickered. “…He’s (Stewart’s) such a minority, I mean, you know [sarcastically]… Please, what are you kidding? … I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they — the people in this country who are Jewish — are an oppressed minority? Yeah. [sarcastically].”

Thomas, a wonderful woman, sank into the gutter when she expressed views indistinguishable from Hamas’s, calling on Jews to leave Palestine and go back to German and Poland.  Granted, Thomas has been making conservatives mad for years with her free expression of liberal views.  But this comment was especially offensive, seeming to ignore the murder of six million Jews in Germany and Poland during her lifetime.  If this did not reflect animus, it was at least willful ignorance.

Vivian Schiller, the NPR CEO who fired Williams, is a sharp newswoman with an intelligent vision of the future of NPR.  But she admits she botched the firing. For one thing, NPR did not explain immediately that Williams had been warned previously for other comments he had made on Fox.  In 2009, for example, he told O’Reilly that Michelle Obama had “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.”

NPR maintained that that the recent and older statements to O’Reilly violated NPR’s policy against reporters and analysts stating opinions.  NPR’s attempt to enforce journalistic standards of fairness and objectivity are worthy ones.  But how would one differentiate Williams’ comment from the frequent commentaries from Scott Simon or the late, great Daniel Schorr on Saturdays?

Critics of, and even Williams himself, say that he was fired because of political correctness. Opinions expressed by Simon and Schorr usually were in line with liberal orthodoxy, while Williams’ comments challenged liberals.

But I don’t like the term political correctness.  Too often it is used to dress up and dignify speech that is actually racist or sexist – such as Sanchez’s comments.

One thing is certain about the Williams episode – the firing did not violate his free speech rights, despite Sarah Palin’s tweet to the contrary.  Only the government can violate the First Amendment and NPR is not the government just because it receives a small percentage of its funding from the government.

In the end, while the law permits the firing, NPR should have had the good judgment not to exercise this prerogative.

Does the media landscape create Williams-like controversies?

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?