Juan Williams Firing: What Speech Is OK as Journalism Evolves?

NPR's decision to fire news analyst Juan Williams this week over controversial comments he made on Fox News have raised big questions on media, ethics and opinion. Jeffrey Brown talks to a panel of experts for insight.

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    And we turn to the ousting of NPR's Juan Williams. We begin with some background.

    It all began with a discussion about terrorism on "The O'Reilly Factor," part of the FOX network, where Juan Williams is a senior news analyst.


    When I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.


    But Williams also was a news analyst for National Public Radio, and Wednesday night, NPR fired him for his remarks.

    NPR's chief executive, Vivian Schiller, issued a written statement, saying in part: "Williams' remarks on 'The O'Reilly Factor' this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."

    Elaborating in an internal memo, Schiller said the firing came after a pattern of public comments by Williams. Then, at a pre-scheduled speech yesterday, she stirred some further controversy of her own.

    VIVIAN SCHILLER, President and CEO, National Public Radio: If you want to be a political activist, you may not also be a reporter or news analyst for NPR. His feelings that he expressed on FOX News are really between him and his, you know, psychiatrist or his publicist.


    Schiller later apologized for making what she called a — quote — "thoughtless remark."

  • ALI VELSHI, CNN Chief Business Correspondent:

    An analyst with National Public Radio has been fired.


    Juan Williams fired by NPR.


    This is disgraceful. NPR needs to hire Juan Williams back.


    Critics of the firing pointed out that, later in the same discussion on the "O'Reilly" show, Williams had challenged the host's claim that — quote — "the Muslims attacked us on 9/11."


    … that there are good Muslims. I think that's a point, you know? You know, we don't want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street because they hear rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly, and they act crazy.


    Today, Williams questioned NPR's motivations and politics in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."


    I have always thought the right wing was the ones who were inflexible, intolerant. And now I'm coming to realize that the orthodoxy at NPR, if it's representing the left, is just unbelievable, that, you know, because — and especially, I think, for me, as a black man, to somehow say something that's out of the box, they find it very difficult.


    And I think that's right, George. I think they were looking for a reason to get rid of me. Indeed, the biggest blasts came from the conservative right, from Sarah Palin, who tweeted, "Juan Williams, you got taste of left's hypocrisy. They screwed up firing you," to House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, who issued a statement suggesting that federal funding to NPR should be cut. Meanwhile, FOX News announced yesterday that it had given Williams a new multi-year contract worth nearly $2 million that will expand his role.

    And we take a look this now with Callie Crossley, a former producer for ABC News. She now hosts "The Callie Crossley Show" on WGBH Radio and is a contributor to the weekly media program "Beat the Press" on WGBH Boston TV.

    Kelly McBride teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

    And Robert Zelnick, a former correspondent for ABC News, he's now a professor of journalism at Boston University's College of Communication and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

    Callie Crossley, start with NPR's position here. Do they have a case to make in separating themselves from one of their own news analysts like this? How do you weigh it out?

    CALLIE CROSSLEY, Contributor, "Beat the Press": Well, they do have a case to make, but let's be clear. This latest incident was really not the reason for the firing.

    I mean, I think they — I think they expressed it by saying there was a pattern. He had gotten in trouble about a year ago, and there was a great public hue and cry then about language used and opinion expressed. And so I think this was just the last straw for NPR, and this was their response.

    And, of course, they have the right to fire him for that. They have a set of standards and rules. I have to say that, you know, he's been himself for quite some time. So he has been pressing up against those rules and standards for some time as well.

    I think it just got to the point of being unbearable, and particularly in a situation where we're talking about Muslims. And this has been something that Bill O'Reilly had kicked off on "The View," if you will, this latest expression. And it seemed to be a continuation of this.

    I should point out that Brian Kilmeade, who is not a journalist, but on the FOX morning news show, recently had to apologize for saying that all Muslims were terrorists as well.

    So, this is out here in the public. And that's where NPR was trying to protect itself by saying, hey, OK, no more.

    Here is what I think is the issue. Juan Williams was described as an analyst on NPR, where the expectation was at the core of his comments would be analysis, whereas, on FOX, he's a commentator, and the core of his comments is pointed opinion.


    All right.


    And that's two different cultures.


    All right, let me bring Robert Zelnick first into this. What strikes you here? What do you think?

  • ROBERT ZELNICK, Former ABC News Pentagon Correspondent:

    A couple of things. First of all, I have watched hundreds of Juan Williams pieces, and most of them are analytical. I think the analysis doesn't always cut in the direction I would like to see it.


    And I think the offering to O'Reilly was also more analytical. He used perhaps unfortunate wording in drawing on his own experience as an air traveler. But I don't think there was anything remotely approaching cause for firing in this particular instance, nor over a period of listening to Williams, in my view. Because? I mean, why — and why do you think they did fire him?


    I think they fired him because of a hypersensitivity to offending one racial group or another.

    And, sometimes, the news is difficult to take, and it has to be administered in an unvarnished fashion, and people object to it. I think the situation with Muslims is probably darker and more bleak than NPR allows, although, again, I think, as Williams did in his conversation with O'Reilly, he pointed out that the majority of Islamic people are perfectly law-abiding, peace-loving, just like the rest of us.

    But, after you have an incident like 9/11, or embassies getting blown up, or terror being planned in Afghanistan and elsewhere, with the Quran used to justify this sort of thing, this is exactly what causes problems in advance democracies — even in advanced democracies. This country is not unique. Britain has its problems. France has its problems, Germany, Denmark, Holland.

    So, I don't see how noting this very salient fact should be grounds for dismissal for anybody.


    All right. Well, let me bring Kelly McBride in here. As a question — because you look at a lot of different news organizations. So, as a question of sort of media policy, are the rules clear here about where the reporter — you know, the line of what reporters can talk about or journalists can talk about with opinion? Are the rules clear for most organizations?

  • KELLY MCBRIDE, Poynter Institute:

    Well, for most organizations, the guidelines are pretty clear. But they vary from organization to organization.

    And I think what you see in this particular case is that NPR has a completely different set of standards about what type of opinion it will tolerate from its employees than FOX News has.

    And, you know, as Callie pointed out, there have been prior incidents where these two different news organizations and their different sets of values have clashed. And so this was perhaps inevitable that this was going to happen.

    But, for the most part, when you become a journalist in a newsroom in most organizations across the country, it is clear that you have to be circumspect about your own opinions about divisive issues.


    But it is — Kelly, just to stay with you, I mean, it is not that uncommon that there could be someone who appears in one — writes for a paper, appears on television, has relationships with different organizations, right?


    Oh, yes. In fact — in fact, the industry is trending that way for certain individuals. I think the trick is to make sure that those different organizations have similar values.

    When you get into a situation where, like — like Juan Williams did, where you have two organizations with completely different journalistic values, I think it's only a matter of time before the whole thing blows up on you.


    So, Callie Crossley, help the viewer here. I mean, what — the blurring of the lines — we have talked about this on this program in a number of instances, the blurring of the lines. What should — what should viewers or readers take from this?


    Well, first, I want to say that there is one person, Mara Liasson, who is operating in both the cultures that we are talking about, FOX and NPR.

    And I think the difference there is that she's consistent in her tone, temperament and opinion wherever she is. Juan, it seemed to me, was different on NPR than he was on FOX. And that's where perhaps the inevitability that Kelly speaks of might come into play that he would get into trouble.

    But I think, if the person is consistent, they can work across multiple platforms. So let me put that out there.

    I think people have to become media-literate and understand where there is analysis and where people have — beginning with facts as a foundational part of the conversation.

    In this case, what makes this tough is because part of his comments were very personal, just, you know, how I feel when I get on the plane. And the other part had to — spoke to, I think it's a fact that, you know, terrorists are Muslims.

    And that's where I think the problem came in. I mean, I think there would be less response to his saying, even though I find it distasteful, "OK, I'm uncomfortable when I get on the plane," that's a very personal, emotional thing.

    The other part of it, we're — we're — I'm back to the point of — Bob mentioned language, and we have to be careful about, what language do we use? And I would like to point out that his comment saying about good Muslims got lost in this. I didn't hear it. It was way down in the conversation, after much, much discussion about Muslims being terrorists.


    All right. All right, Mr. Zelnick, come back. I mean, one thing I want to ask you, do you worry about the blurring of lines here — for the viewer, I mean?


    I worry somewhat about the blurring of lines. I don't think there was that kind of blurring in this situation.

    Reporters very often refer to personal experiences, even when they are delivering objective reports. So, I may be in mild disagreement with my esteemed colleague Callie Crossley. It's great to be with you again.

    And I do think that, if you take NPR as an example, and you say, their standards are so strict, they were stricter than anything else around the — people listen to NPR and they walk away saying, God, it's just absolutely liberal in its orientation and its outlook and its reporting.

    And I don't think that is an excuse for what happened. I think they cut out somebody that they didn't like because he was not quite espousing the line.


    Kelly McBride, a final word from you.

    What do you take from all this? And what should viewers watching take?


    Well, I think people are going to learn eventually to get smarter about what the different standards are from different newsrooms.

    I think it's absolutely expected that we're at this place in time. And I think we are going to see more of these — these incidents as we hear more and more media voices rise to influential positions.

    You know, there used to be a handful of networks and a couple of national newspapers. And now we have startups. We have The Huffington Post. We have Talking Points Memo. We have Little Green Footballs. We have cable television. There are so many more voices out there. And there's such a greater variety in terms of journalism and the standards of journalism that is — that are delivered to the audience.

    I think we're going to — I think, as citizens, we're going have to learn to — to diagnose the standards and to ask questions of those providers in a way that we maybe didn't have to 10 years ago.


    All right, Kelly McBride, Callie Crossley, Robert Zelnick, thank you, all three.


    Thank you.


    Thanks for having me.


    Thank you.