NPR Shouldn't Have Fired Juan Williams, But Its CEO Instead

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller doesn't seem to understand the media.

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I’m going to go out on a limb here, and I hope U.S. News will not give me the boot for expressing a clear opinion, but I think Vivian Schiller should be fired. You remember her. She’s the CEO of NPR, the one who suggested very publicly--to a room full of journalists and television cameras--that Juan Williams, the Fox News and (now former) NPR commentator might be, at worst, a little mentally unstable and, at best, lacking journalistic ethics. (With particularly NPR-ish irony, Schiller says she fired Williams for saying offensive things, by the way.)

“I don’t want to pass judgment,” Schiller said before passing the harshest of judgments imaginable for such a situation--not only firing Williams but taking to the airwaves to humiliate him. Talk about offensive.

Schiller, however, shouldn’t be fired simply because she’s offensive. I myself am offensive, and I hope to keep my job. No, Schiller should be fired because she is the head of a news conglomerate and evidently doesn’t understand the media.

Taken out of context, Williams did say something rather perplexing. He said that when he sees somebody getting on the same plane with him who’s wearing Muslim dress, he gets nervous. The implication being that if you wear a veil you are a likely terrorist? I drink Guinness. Does that make me a member of the IRA? If he boards a plane with a Latino, does he assume the guy’s a narcotrafficker? My 2-year-old plays around with explosives in our basement. Does that make her dangerous? Or me a bad parent?

Well, some self-righteous people might think so. The bit about me being a bad parent, anyway.

If, however, journalists are going to maintain intellectual integrity, something Schiller claims to hold in her hands like an angry god, then they must objectively acknowledge--whether they like it or not--that there are indeed Americans still traumatized by the murder of some 3,000 Americans by Islamic extremists who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And that these anxieties still flit through the minds of some Americans when they board a plane. That doesn’t justify a Driving While Muslim mentality. It does, however, offer a realistic assessment of one aspect of the cultural landscape in America.

NPR has a history of reporting only the news that fits its ideological perspective. So it’s entirely possible that none of the journalists other than Juan Williams ever wondered about such things--or, if they had, feared being fired if they dared to voice such thoughts.

Schiller, however, claims she did not fire Williams because of his views but because he had any views at all. News “analysts”--as opposed to commentators--are not to express any hint of personal perspective, according to alleged NPR standards. I’m not sure that this protest even deserves serious comment--I mean, analysis. Two words come immediately to mind: Nina. Totenberg. (She famously suggested that divine justice would result in Jesse Helms or his grandchildren getting AIDS. I think she still holds her job at NPR.)

More to the point, when you review Williams’s comments in full context, you see that he was indeed offering analysis. Ironically, he was actually attempting to provide a different context and perspective to that offered by the more conservative O’Reilly about the role of Islam in Islamic terror. Williams basically acknowledged that anxieties still exist but that you can’t associate all Muslims with Islamic radicals. Not exactly a novel insight. Who does associate all Muslims with Islamic radicals? Well, other than that nutjob in Gainesville, Florida. Not even O’Reilly was arguing such a thing. Williams’s thought crime was candor--to go so far as to acknowledge that, yeah, even he has felt a little anxiety when boarding a plane. Appropriate or not, this mental scar of trauma left in the wake of 9/11 is a reality.

Evidently, injecting personal anecdote or observation into “analysis” breaches all known norms of journalistic ethics and downright decency in the halls of NPR. Who knew? Suddenly, there appear to be bright red lines, well articulated and clearly understood, between the roles of reporter, analyst, and commentator.

Huh. If that is the case, then there are a lot of unethical journalists working today, many of them working at NPR. I wonder if Schiller listens to her own network. If so, and if she is going to apply the same standards she has applied to Williams to other journalists, expect a grisly scene over at NPR headquarters soon. There are going to be a lot of people looking for jobs.

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