Juan Williams: Aftermath of the NPR firing

Oct 22, 2010

NPR said it fired commentator Juan Williams because of a pattern of commentaries that violated the news organization's guidelines, and not solely because of Williams's statements about Muslims and terrorism on a Fox News program earlier this week.

Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics, reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute, will be online Friday, Oct. 22, at Noon ET to discuss the case.

Full Coverage: The Juan Williams firing

Hi all,

I look forward to your questions. This story has played right into the polarized environment that we are all experiencing in the media and in broader society. I'm interested in exploring that. At Poynter, we tend to get calls whenever there is a blow-up in the media, so our phones have been ringing off the hook. This should be a good conversation.

I had wondered why NPR didn't simply discipline Williams and ask him to issue an on-air apology. The broader issue is that it's a mistake to frame his firing as liberalism versus conservatism. That would imply that Williams was expressing a conservative philosophy when he declared his fear of people who look Muslim. I would hope no rational conservative would endorse that fear.

I think NPR has been pretty open about the fact that they have had some problems in the past with Juan's opinions on Fox. So discipline may have been out of the question.

But ultimately, I think NPR and Fox have such different journalism values, I don't think the arrangement could last.


Jaun Williams stated in his interview with George Stephanopoulos that he would have said the same thing about people in Muslim dress on NPR. If true, how would NPR have reacted?

Well it depends. If it was on tape, they would have edited it out. If it was on the air, I think the host that he was talking to would have immediately pushed back and challenged the position.

Do you feel that in the last two years certain FOX News programs have been having a negative impact on journalistic ethics, and that the firing of Juan Williams is not only in response to a NPR guidelines, but also in response to a loosening journalistic ethics in general?

Fox has definately changed the way we understand our role as journalists. It's much more permissive to be opinionated, and even to be outrageously opinionated, than it used to be.

Still, it varies from newsroom to newsroom. Some places have always permitted opinionated work. Others have not. And some are moving from one position to another.

So sure Fox, has changed journalism. But so has Facebook, and Twitter. Fox may be a reaction to a more opinionated population, not the cause.

What does this event say about the state of journalism in general in the United States?

I think it shows that different newsrooms have different expectations of their employees. And it's not always clear, even to the employees working in those newsrooms, where the boundaries are. That may be because many of the boundaries are changing.

Blogging has made it more permissible to be conversational and even snarky in some newswriting. But I hear often about journalists who get disciplined or even fired when they go too far with that.

This is a similar case. Some opinions are ok to share. But not all opinions. Just ask Rick Sanchez or Helen Thomas.

How much taxpaper funding does NPR receive and what standards does it operate under compared with other networks like Fox, NBC, ABC?

NPR only gets about 2 percent of it's funding from taxpayer dollars. I'm not an insider at NPR so I don't really know how that affects the standards at NPR.

But all newsrooms struggle with the tension between the sources of revenue and their journalistic mission. It's very common to hear large advertisers threaten to pull their ads when they don't like the coverage. I think all of these newsrooms, from Fox to ABC to NPR, there are processes for ensuring that the newsroom acts according to its own independent judgment, not the the whims of the people who provide the revenue.

If a newscaster says he gets nervous when he sees Hispanics, or is concerned because people of the Jewish faith are involved in banking, or a doctor that performs abortions says he is scared of Christians - these aren't reasons to kick them off the job. They are irrational fears that should be explored and treated. If we go down the path of firing every one that expresses their psychological issues, they will just be supressed, fester and probably cause more harm to society in the long run.

You know, then Juan described his conversation with his boss, he said that she asked him what he meant, when he said people in airports in "Muslim garb" make him nervous. This is Monday-morning QBing, but I'll be that if he had said that he meant to explore an irrational fear, the conversation would have been different.

If Juan is fired for the remarks, why is Vivian Schiller still running the NPR when she suggested that Juan needs a psychiatrist? Also, why are liberal leaning reporters who make/made terrible statements about Republicans still working at NPR? If NPR wants to be fair, all opinionated people, both on the left and right, should go. This includes Schiller as well for her insensitive remark.

Maybe because Juan disparaged an entire faith and Vivian merely disparaged Juan in her comment, then immediately apologized, whearas Juan did not apologize?

As far as comments about Repulicans, do you have a specific example? It's easier to talk in specifics, although I will tell you that no organization acts with complete logic when it comes to stuff like this.

I suspect that there may be a strong case for a wrongful dismissal suit here. Do you agree?

That actually falls into the realm of legal issues, not ethics. There's some cross-over, but they are not the same. And legal issues are beyond my expertise.

You mentioned that NPR and Fox News have "different journalism values" when it comes to one person having a working relationship for both outlets, yet how is it that NPR's Mara Liasson still makes regular contributions and appearances to Fox News?

It'll be interesting to see if that continues. I've always thought that the journalism values are so different that working for both organizations would be impossible.

I've heard that Bill O'Reilly and others are going to pursue the intent to cut-off NPR's funding. Does this make sense to you?

Well, it makes sense for Fox to play that up, because it plays into the narrative that Fox has been promoting for years: Mainstream media is liberally biased and doesn't represent the interests of most of America.

I don't buy that. And it wouldn't make sense to cut off NPR's funding over this. Nor would it really hurt NPR much. But it allows Fox to continue to keep the conversation going.

Perhaps Williams was fired because he exhibited a lack of the necessary journalistic objectivity. For him to say that he got nervous at the sight of Muslims on a plane indicates a lack of analytic thought and a susceptibility to superficial fear mongering propaganda. If he doesn't have the analytic skill of a journalist then he become a conduit of emotional propaganda.

I think NPR would agree with you, and Fox would disagree and say that Williams was voicing a commonly held fear, and therefore it's not so bad.

But this plays into the differences between Fox and NPR. NPR would hold its journalists to a higher standard than they would hold the average citizen. Fox positions itself and its talent, right down there with the average citizens. It's a different brand and a different strategy.

Is it likely that NPR will lose what little federal funding it gets thanks to this mess? That would be a shame, because what Williams said was bigoted pure and simple.

You know, it seems like someone wants to defund public broadcasting every couple of years because Sesame Street or NPR or PBS step into an issue like this. But it never really goes anywhere. So I guess I'd say it's not likely, based on past efforts.

NPR having a "Shirley Sherrod out of context moment"? I find it amusing that NPR can find fault with FOX's political bias but is blissfully ignorant of its own political bias. When it comes to one media outlet criticizing another more often than not such criticism can be filed under "the pot calling the kettle black".

I think this is a bit different than the Sherrod story, where Breitbart took an edited piece of video that was completely out of context and distorting.  In this case, I think NPR gave Williams the chance to add additional context. There's no missing information here, just a difference in values. Now, could NPR have given Williams a better opportunity to add more context? Maybe the phone was not the best way to have that conversation. (Text message would have been so much better. - I'm kidding.) In person, would have been better.

I've been listening to Juan on NPR and reading him in the WP for years. It's hard for me to put my finger on it exactly, but he just seems different on Fox. He is passed off as the house liberal, but IMO he mostly seems to say what he think his Fox benefactors want to hear. I don't get the same feeling at all when I hear Alan Colmes on Fox. Am I wrong in my appraisal?


I know that I do intereviews on many news programs and you do end up sounding more like the show sometimes. You tend to match the tone of your host, even if that's not your natural style. You tend to get drawn into conversations that you don't even think are worth having.

So maybe there's a rare skill that some people have and others don't.

For someone who is so into "defending the Constitution," Palin doesn't seem to understand one of its basic concepts, free speech. This is NOT a free speech issue. 1. NPR is not the government 2. Freedom of speech does NOT include freedom from consequences of exercising the right of free speech.

If Congress decides that no money either from itself, or money that it gives to local stations can go to NPR, what kind of affect will it have on their funding. Can Congress financially hurt them in any way?

Some local stations get a bigger portion of their annual budget from federal funds, so if public radio was defunded, it would hurt the local stations more significantly.

My understanding is that Juan Williams had been asked/instructed by NPR not to identify himself as working for NPR when he appeared on Fox shows, in addition to being warned that some of his on-Fox commentaries were at least borderline violating NPR's rules for its employees. In the jobs I've held (all in newsrooms), if I did/do something my boss has asked/instructed me not to do - especially if I did it more than once! - I would not expect to stay employed. I don't know enough about Williams to know if his later comments were genuinely what he believes or an attempt to backtrack, but I must say I'm less than impressed by the critical thinking and analysis he displayed here. If he considers it an irrational fear, he should have said so during the conversation. If he considers it rational to fear an entire religion based on the actions of extremists claiming to belong to it (and whose members he would only identify if they are dressed in their "traditional" garb), how can we be sure any of his work is thoughtful and unbiased?

A lot of non-journalists have a hard time understanding how you can get in trouble for something you did off the job. But that's actually the norm, not the exception. Journalists have been fired for going to war protests and anti-abortion demonstrations.  Some journalists have fired for stuff they post on their FB pages. You know when you take the job, there are certain sacrifices that you make.

It's interesting that we are supposed to be outraged over NPR's treatment of Williams...who has now signed a $2 million contract with Fox News. I think my outrage is unecessary. I also think it's hilarious to hear Republicans ranting that NPR's funding should be cut, because of this? Isn't this their argument against the Fairness Doctrine, that it would allow the government to silence dissenting views?

Outrage is a value at Fox News. Although it's pretty clear that some people are upset about this on both sides of the issue, some of the outrage seems manufactured.

And as far as the Fairness Doctrine is concerned, it isn't what it used to be.

Could you please say more about what you mean by "different journalistic values?" Maybe I don't understand what you are talking about, but it appears to me that both left-leaning and right-leaning media outlets are going farther than ever before in expressing or promoting political views. Perhaps some outlets are more subtle than others about it, granted. But what "values" do you think are different?

You're right that some outlets are going much further than they used to when it comes to promoting opinion. But not all.

When I'm talking about journalistic values, I'm trying to get away from conservative vs. liberal because I really think this is about style and tone. NPR is more about exploration of issues and dialogue. And when your journalists express opinions, it can undermine your ability to do that. Fox is about outrage and volatility, tapping into the frustrations of the population. It's a different approach to journalism. I'm not sure there's a lot of crossover between the two audiences.

I do not recall the last time I even heard Juan Williams on NPR, so I'm not sure exactly what he did there recently! But aside from that, I have never in my life watched Fox News and don't consider myself on either end of the political spectrum, and I have to say I am not entirely happy with NPR's choice to fire him (and I'm a newspaper reporter so I understand the challenges of objectivity). I do not want to listen to an Air America. I want to hear from all points of view on NPR. Is it possible for NPR to ban all of its employees from simultaneously working in other stations/mediums? Then that problem would be solved across the board.

That's one solution.

But the industry is trending in exactly the other direction. Some journalists are becoming franchises all on their own, working for multiple outlets. I would consider Juan one of them.  You see it a lot in sports journalism, which is sometimes an indicator of what's to come in the rest of journalism.

You stated "But it allows Fox to continue to keep the conversation going" regarding that mainstream media is liberally biased. Has there even been a real dialog with FOX on this? I mean a real discussion, not a shouting match, about corporate-run media?

I don't think so. I know we've invited some Fox personalities to come to Poynter events, but they've never taken us up on it.

Do you feeling the timing of William's firing will be financially detrimental to NPR during their fundrasing week?

I wondered that same thing. It doesn't seem to have hampered things here in Tampa Bay, where I live. And we are usually a pretty good indication of how issues are playing nationally.  But I have been wanting to see some real data on that question, not just anecdotal observations.

Can you name one Conservative on-air voice at NPR?

Nope, but I can't put my finger on a blatantly a liberal one either. However, I can name a number of liberal shows and hosts that often run on public radio stations, but do not come out of NPR. A lot of people think NPR is responsible for products like Democracy Now or even Terri Gross, but they are not.

Although I did not listen to the program, I have heard that on a recent episode of NPR's daytime program "Fresh Air", host Terry Gross made numerous disparaging remarks about people in the Tea Party Movement, such as calling them "Wackos" and "Crazies". Other than ideological orientation, how do these remarks differ from those made by Mr. Williams?

oops, I made a mistake, NPR does claim Terry Gross, at least they have her on their page.

If NPR reporters and analysts can't give their opinions, what is the source of NPR's bias? They certainly have a left-leaning bias, particularly just before elections.

I get this question all the time. And I struggle with it. But I think NPR, as well as the NY Times and other newsrooms that are frequesntly accused of liberal bias are more likely to select stories and topics that appeal to an urban, liberal audience. So they might do a favorable story on gay marriage or they might be more likely to explore immigration from the immigrants point of view. I also think they're more likely to cover the arts, which appeals to a liberal audience. That may in fact be a liberal bias. But it's not the same as sitting down in the newsroom every morning and asking, "How can we promote a liberal agenda?"

You stated "When I'm talking about journalistic values, I'm trying to get away from conservative vs. liberal". But when Glenn Beck states: "President Obama is a racist. He has a deep-seated hatred of white people", how is one supposed interpret this other than conservative vs. liberal? What journalistic value does Beck's statement have, or Williams's statement have that he gets nervous at airports when he sees people dressed as Muslims?

Well, that's why I'm failing to move this conversation away from the liberal-consesrvative spectrum.   But let me take a stab at that. When Beck says Obama is a racist, that's meant to be inflammatory. It's meant to get people riled up. And it distracts them from a conversation of substance. I don't think that conservatives all agree that's the way to move public opinion. And you could probably find a liberal who is just as inflammatory. There's nothing about the approach that makes it only a tool for conservatives.

So some of this is about standards or tone.

Nina Totenberg, Terry Gross (she works for WHYY but is carried over NPR, not PRI), Peter Overby (of the "Republican have too many fundraisers, Democrats never have too many" school of thought), Peter Sagal (also on an NPR-distributed program), Melissa Block, the late Daniel Schorr, who named every Republican action something"-Gate", and only complained that Democrats weren't liberal enough. And this from a supposedly objective news network.

I find it quite sad that you consider it to be a viable solution for news organizations to ban their journalists from working in other settings that differ from theirs ideologically. It flies in the face of everything I believe about Americans being able to speak their minds and amicably engage each other in the marketplace of ideas. Less interaction with those different from us? I never thought I'd hear an expert on journalsitic ethics opine thus.

I don't think it's viable or even a good idea. I just think it's one option.

OK, I have to get back to work. Thanks for participating. This has been fun and I hope informative. Sorry about the mistake about Terry Gross, she does work for WHYY, but is distributed by NPR. 

Thanks for engaging in a good, healthy, civil dialogue about journalism and values. I'm sure these issues will continue to arise.

Take care,




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Kelly McBride
Kelly McBride is Senior Faculty Member for Ethics, Reporting and Writing at the Poynter Institute.
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