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NPR’s Firing of Juan Williams Reignites Ethics, Public Media Funding Debates

Journalist Juan Williams; Creative Commons photo by flickr.com/gregpc/

NPR’s firing of Juan Williams this week for remarks about Muslims on Fox News has spawned numerous side discussions among journalists, commentators and politicians about media ethics, views of Muslims in the U.S. and public media funding.

We’ll have more on this topic on Friday night’s NewsHour broadcast.

Much has already been made about how NPR handled firing, including a critique from its ombudsman, but there are also bigger issues at play:

On the journalism ethics front, Williams (who has worked for and with PBS on special projects involving his books on civil rights and faith
) was canned after a decade at NPR during which his title morphed from correspondent to news analyst as he began to make more frequent appearances on shows that center on opinion, such as Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Such appearances led NPR’s ombudsman last year to declare him the biggest lightning rod at the radio network.

Many people rushed to Williams’ defense, even crashing NPR’s contact us page, with questions as to why he was fired so quickly.

St. Petersburg Times TV/media critic Eric Deggans contends that Williams’ dismissal appears to have been the end of a long process for NPR:

NPR has been distancing itself from Williams for quite a while now, changing his title and reducing his role at NPR amid increasing discomfort over the views he has voiced as a pundit on Fox News Channel. Back in 2009, when Williams described first lady Michelle Obama of evoking the spirit of radical Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, NPR asked him not to use his identification with their organization on Fox News. They had already changed his title from correspondent — which implies an objective journalistic role — to news analyst, which allows opinionating.

To this media critic, Williams’ firing seemed the ultimate expression of that unease; his comments about Muslims were simply the final straw on a very overburdened camel.

The incident has prompted plenty of soul-searching among journalists about when speech crosses the line and the common threads between recently ousted media personalities.

The controversy also stirs the pot again on the topic of American views on Islam, aggravating Muslim concerns that they may be judged by their religious garb:

“The greater American public remains unsure about Islam and very often hostile about Islam,” said Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University, who examines the divide in his new film and book, “Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam.”

Ahmed said he was disappointed by Williams’ comments. But he added that NPR’s abrupt firing “does not bring the temperature down against Muslims…. Now the debate is, are we being oversensitive to Muslims?”

As it occasionally happens, the story has stirred up calls from some conservatives to cut funding for NPR, PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or all of the above.

On Friday, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said he would introduce legislation to halt taxpayer contributions to public media, charging that, “With record debt and unemployment, there’s simply no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize liberal programming they disagree with.”

But that idea has failed before, Time Magazine’s Swampland blog reports:

Republicans have long sought to defund NPR and it’s [sic] television sister, PBS, loathing government-run anything competing with the private sector. Though, even when the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House back in 2005, a move to defund them failed after 87 House Republicans broke ranks and voted to reinstate money that had been stripped in committee.

From Boston, WBUR’s Andrew Phelps dives into NPR’s funding structure, explaining that “while federal dollars do flow to NPR, the connection is indirect”:

It may be a fine point, but it’s an important distinction. The federal government can’t “defund” NPR. What Congress can do is cut CPB funding — which has diminished over the years and has, at times, been threatened.

But those CPB funds play a minor role for a large-market station like WBUR (around 6 percent) and represents a much higher percentage for stations in smaller markets, such as Wyoming and Idaho.

Calls to cut taxpayer funding of CPB would mostly hurt small stations — stations that played no part in the decision to fire Juan Williams.

While public media funding and structure is sometimes confusing, CPB offers this explanation of “What is the Difference Between CPB, PBS, and NPR?

Tune in to Friday night’s NewsHour for more on this subject.

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