Friday, October 22nd, 2010

NPR Should Have Let Juan Williams Go Years Ago

GO ON!Juan Williams had been warned. The move by NPR to terminate the contract of news analyst Williams has thrown the usual suspects into the expected histrionics of victimization. Karl Rove managed to keep a straight face when he went on Fox News and exclaimed "Shame on NPR" while actually wagging his finger. That Williams hasn't been challenged to specify what he meant by "Muslim garb" is just another journalistic failing in a human centipede of journalistic failings around this story. Williams' fear of Muslims (since overcome or not) as terrorists is not the problem; it's that he thinks he can easily identify "Muslim garb." (Anyway, as The LA Times' Meghan Daum pointed out, "Personally, when I see Muslim garb on an airplane I feel LESS nervous. The 9/11 hijackers were wearing Dockers.") Williams' real problem is that he made these comments on Fox News. For those appearances alone, his contract should have lapsed years ago.

Williams seems to have sorely misunderstood his role at Fox News. Williams probably believes he was a contributor to real political discourse. More likely, Fox needed him to merely to show up and be African American, making doubly sure to identify himself as an NPR host (something NPR asked him to stop doing in 2009 after he went on O'Reilly and said Michelle Obama was "Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress"). Having an African American NPR host on Fox allowed the news leader to maintain lip-service to its "Fair and Balanced" branding. For another excellent example of how people get used, see gay former Clinton White House advisor Richard Socarides—now a Fox News contributor.

Displaying a weird lack of self-awareness, Williams complained to Bill O'Reilly, "I don't fit in their box. I'm not a predictable, black liberal," and then went on to call NPR's management "vindictive."

Juan needs only worry about fitting into one box now. Fox News immediately snatched up Williams, signing the star to a $2-million deal and freeing him to never again have to cleverly craft his bigotry ever again. I'm sure the Fox viewers are excited to hear Williams speak about his areas of expertise, such as the struggles faced by the Washington DC public schools and his history of America's Civil Rights Years. Although, Williams' essay comparing his departure from NPR to " being sent to the gulag" shows he might just have what it takes after all.

So as for his claim that NPR fired him because "I appear on Fox"—he's right, or at least he should be. NPR, and any other news organizations that want to maintain their legacy as institutions of respectable journalism, should institute policies immediately that terminate the employment of any person under their umbrella that appears on Fox News. Fox only invites on guests that produce a veneer of impartiality. Without these sad dupes and willing accomplices, even Fox News would have a difficult time convincing its echo-chamber-partial viewers that they were watching real news.

Fox News itself has thrown (clean?) coal in the propaganda machine, accusing NPR of everything from the legitimate (Andrei Codrescu) to the absurd "National Palestine Radio."

And now come the threats to terminate NPR's government funding. NPR should respond by telling the blowhards to bring it on. Federal funding makes up about 2 percent of NPR's budget. Even by the most extreme maximum estimates, including indirect sources, less than 10 percent of NPR's annual budget is from the kind of federal funding its enemies like to say it depends on. Losing that (still-valuable) 10 percent might be worth finally being rid of the "publicly funded" albatross that has plagued the NPR brand.

It's also possible that the anti-NPR activists are underestimating the number and devotion of NPR's fans. Keep in mind, O'Reilly may pull just over 3 million viewers a show, but Prairie Home Companion bests that by a million. Even Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me has as many listeners as Bill has viewers. Recently, O'Reilly's audience surged to over 4 million following the hissy fit on "The View." That's a regular week for Car Talk, listened to and loved by 4.4 million. Even gratingly twee This American Life (1.7 million) pulls just about the same numbers as Fox News superstar Glenn Beck.

One of the leaders of a proposal taking away NPR's federal allowance is Jim DeMint. DeMint, it seems, has proposed cutting a number of other things during his political tenure. The Republican Senator from South Carolina has proposed that openly gay Americans should be barred from teaching in public schools. DeMint has also proposed cutting teaching jobs for single mothers who live with men out of wedlock. Another proposed cut by DeMint? Access to adoption for gay couples. What a political legacy Mr. DeMint is constructing, opposing teachers, adoptive parents and The News from Lake Wobegon.

Air America and such "liberal" answers to right-wing radio and TV news have failed in part because that media outlet has always existed in NPR and its local public radio members. But the programming found there isn't a "liberal" answer to right-wing outlets, it's a intelligent and reasonable answer. It's just that in the vacuum of sense represented by nearly every single other news source in modern America, that may seem "progressive."

Abe Sauer listens to the radio and watches TV.

50 Comments / Post A Comment

barnhouse (#1,326)

Complaints have been lodged for YEARS about this guy. The coverage has been really appalling in failing to point this out. Media Matters was calling for his ouster in 2007!

Worse, real damage is being done to NPR by having its name, via Williams, associated with Fox News' most opinionated talker. In fact, Williams' recent appearance on The O'Reilly Factor almost certainly violated NPR's employee standards, which prohibit staffers from appearing on programs that "encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis" and are "harmful to the reputation of NPR."

hockeymom (#143)

"Gratingly twee This American Life".


If This American Life is "gratingly twee," A Prairie Home Companion is basically unicorn sandpaper.

You know, when people level this charge against TAL, I wonder how much of the program they've actually heard. Yes, Ira Glass' delivery itself is gratingly twee, but the content? Some of the darkest, most harrowing radio journalism I've ever heard has been on TAL.

For every "24 Hours at the Golden Nugget" there's tons of frontline reporting from Baghdad, Afghanistan, and Haiti; updates from New Orleans after Katrina; stories from the foreclosure crisis; and in-depth profiles of homeless people, drug addicts, convicted criminals, war vets, gay teens, transgendered people, the rural poor, the disabled, and other voices from the margins who we'd otherwise never hear anywhere, much less on NPR.

I used to be a hater, primarily because of Ira Glass' voice, but once I got past that and gave it a chance I learned to appreciate the show's content and even Glass, who is always intellectually curious and extremely deferential to his guests and contributors. He's doing a good thing for radio and new journalism.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Fair enough. I level this charge primarily because every week I tune in I'm not sure WHICH TAL I'm going to get and that is annoying. Sometimes it's completely awesomely compelling Serpico-level stuff about NY police departments and arrest quotas. Sometimes it's somebody talking on and on and on about their feelings.

josefranzen (#7,891)

Subscribe to the podcast. Much better experience.

@Abe: I gotta agree. 2 things you're probably already aware of: 1. The NYPD arrest quotas episode was based on the Village Voice's "NYPD Tapes" series, which is great, and 2. You should maybe subscribe to the Planet Money podcast, which is a This American Life quasi-spinoff about economics and finance with a much higher Serpico-to-feelings ratio.

nloewen (#4,040)

+ a lot.

scrooge (#2,697)

I don't find Ira Glass gratingly twee. In fact, he's tweetingly great. And has done some of the most interesting broadcasts I've ever hard on US radio.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@Gef: Planet money and Marketplace Money should be required listening for high school econ students…. or any high schools students period. In fact, the accusations that NPR is wildly liberal can be undone with one simple episode of Planet Money which often promote the right's treasured market economy. It's clear that almost all of those who decry NPR's liberalism never ever listen to NPR.

deepomega (#1,720)

Why isn't anyone on The Awl (to take an example TOTALLY AT RANDOM) talking about how the full quote kind of means the exact opposite of how Juan's being portrayed? Even if you think he should have been tarred and feathered a decade ago, I'm sure we can agree "inventing accusations of racism based on horribly out of context quotes" is a good way to do this!

Abe Sauer (#148)

Well, I don't think he's being portrayed that way by NPR, whose notes on firing him are very nuanced and well beyond "he is a racist." I'll agree that most of the 184-char coverage of the incident focuses on the out-of-context remark, and that Fox news and the like are controlling the conversations by forcing others to defend him on those terms alone, but then that's also part of the problem.

As I noted above, my real problem with that one quote itself is that Williams, while having a problem with his irrational fear of Muslims, believes he can easily identify Muslims by their "garb."

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@deepo: I wouldn't go as far as to say that his quotes are "horribly out of context."

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

To be fair, he did go on to say (probably in reference to Brian Kilmeade's "all terrorists are Muslims" thing) that it is wrong to think of terrorism as an exclusively Muslim acct.

But he made this gesture at sanity while saying that Bill O'Reilly is right to fear Muslims because people who "identify as Muslims" (i.e. actually practice) have dubious loyalties in the OMG scary religious war that Fox and Al Qaeda have agreed to jointly promote.

Also, I am from the South, so I know what's coming whenever anyone uses that "I'm not racist, but" line.

deepomega (#1,720)

Well, I'd be interested in a discussion of Muslim garb identification, but that's certainly not how TheAwl covered it yesterday:

'He said that he gets "nervous" when he gets on a plane and sees "people who are in Muslim garb" and he thinks "they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims." The second part of this statement is what we imagine constituted the firing, because that's stupid. And dumb.'

Parsing the extent of Juan\'s offensiveness seem to me to miss the point. NPR allowing its Friendly Familiar Voices to \"debate\" on O\'Reilly, Hannity et al is like Disneyland letting its mascots moonlight in costume at the Bada Bing Club.

deepomega (#1,720)

@gnarly- Which is what this is really coming down to, right? NPR is claiming (quote!) "NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. 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. As you all well know, 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"

But that's clearly bullshit, since other news analysts write op-freaking-eds – the DEFINITION of opinions. Nor do they care about their people appearing on MSNBC. The real point here is that NPR doesn't like non-liberal viewpoints being espoused (or appearing to be espoused) by its analysts. This has nothing to do with impartiality.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Who are the NPR news analysts who regularly write op-eds? NPR regularly has op-eds but unless I miss them they are rarely done by NPR news analysts.

deepomega (#1,720)

Ted Koppel wrote an op ed just this year. Nina Totenberg is a regular on Maddow.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Was Koppel's op-ed clearly identified as such? I bet it was. And Nina is a correspondent on DC and I bet she is on Maddow speaking about exactly that.

KarenUhOh (#19)

"And now let's hear what the African-American member of our panel, Juan Williams, and the Latino member of our panel, Juan Williams, have to say about Obama's socialist agenda of race-mixing and cheap labor through illegal immigration."

BadUncle (#153)

FWIW, I\'m terrified of Muslim garb. It\'s the bow ties Louis Farrakhan wears. They make Muslims look like really stern chemistry teachers.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

dude, the love lies in the bean pies. I would've been happy to receive a D- from such natty discipline. Instead I got a C+ from another polo shirt.

I had some Muslim garbanzo beans the other day and they were DELICIOUS.

I'm sorry; I'll see myself out.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Ah, WPR. The dulcet tone of Jim Fleming saying "This is 88.7, WERN, Madison" was burned into my brain at birth and will remain there forever.

hman (#53)

It seems like the bitterness goes both ways though, doesn't it?
He made sure last night to point out that he was the only on-air black male on NPR, but never mind Allison Keys, Michele Norris, Korva Coleman, Shay Stevens, and Audie Cornish (all black females)?
Every thing about him has always seemed disingenous to me.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

That's because he's a two-bit hack.

It's pronounced Mee-shell and don't you forget it.

I don't know the races of many of the NPR people. From now on, I'd like them to identify their race before speaking. I've always thought that Peter Seigal is French Creole. Am I close?

garge (#736)

I imagine Steve Inskeep to be West Slavic, and I'd not at all mind if he were to talk dirty to me (I'm a 'voice girl').

scrooge (#2,697)

And Andrei Codresceu is Australian, right?

contradicto (#443)

Yes, this was the most disgusting thing about his response. Playing the race card, when that had absolutely nothing to do with anything. He'll fit right in a Fox News.

hman (#53)

Can we dissect Mara Liasson and her Fox appearances next week? I'm tired today.

City_Dater (#2,500)

I am beyond thrilled to never again have to hear Williams's vapid musings. He's perfect for Fox News; he's been pretending to be "fair & balanced" for years.
Now if only NPR could replace Cokie Roberts (I can read the Washington Post online all by myself, thanks), my Sunday mornings would be just about perfect.

hman (#53)

Dunno about Peter Sagal, but take a look: Inside NPR.

contradicto (#443)

Peter Sagal is awesome.

theheckle (#621)

Well, that was just cruel. Now I know for sure that Jamie Tarabay is off the market. Why go on living?

It was wrong of them to kill Daniel Schorr.

mojowen (#2,894)

I think it's time Guy Noir and the Click and Clack brothers make their views on the deficit vs. further stimulus known, given their reach and influence.

PropSword (#2,870)

Best thing I've read on this whole fiasco. Thanks, Abe.

Abe Sauer (#148)

No, thank YOU for that avatar.

PropSword (#2,870)


hman (#53)

'Shay Stevens' is not her real name! Get yr NPR Trivia right here.

Dennis Mitchell (#3,491)

"NPR, and any other news organizations that want to maintain their legacy as institutions of respectable journalism, should institute policies immediately that terminate the employment of any person under their umbrella that appears on Fox News."

Why limit to only Fox News Abe? Any "respectable journalist" should refrain from appearing on any 24 Hour News channel. CNN and MSNBC are just as guilty as Fox News is in being infotainment ahead of credible journalism. There only allegiance is to ratings, not the truth.

Abe Sauer (#148)

"CNN and MSNBC are just as guilty as Fox News." That depends on how you assign guilt. Are all those guilty of murder, regardless of context, simply murderers? Maybe. The answer is no, Fox is much more guilty. Numbers alone state the case. Fox's parent co. gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association to sway the very elections Fox pretends to "report" on. Yes, other media parent companies donate to politicians but none do so in anything close to this manner.

Further, and with these donations in mind, labeling Fox news "infotainment" is naive at best. A better word is "propaganda."

Scum (#1,847)

So an organisation donating a microscopic amount of its revenue to a political party removes the possbility that any branch of it could be capable of impartiality, yet recieveing a far larger proportion of your funding from government, a scenario only possible thanks to democratic support, is no big deal?

Come on, you hate fox news them because they give a platform to people you view as hateful retards. I doubt if youve ever watched 30 seconds worth of their actual news coverage.

I myself am tired of media organisations that concern themselves with the 'appearance' of impartiality by pretending that no-one who works there has opinions about anything. If you're not honest about your biases then there is no reason to believe that you'll be honest in your reporting. I'd rather organisations and individual jouranlists fess up about being pinko's/wingnuts and give their audience valuable infomation with which to make their own minds up about their capacity for impartialty. News corp should be saluted for not bothering to participate in what is an absolutely pointless game.

my belle

This was supposed to be @ cf's "Mee-Shell"

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