Can pundit Juan Williams work for Fox News while decrying the stifling effects of partisanship in media?
Ten minutes into our conversation, Juan Williams already seems a little irritated with me.
My question seems a simple one. The Fox News analyst and author says in his new book Muzzled that one reason he was fired from work as a news analyst on National Public Radio last October was an increasingly polarized public discourse.
In the book, Williams says his statement on The O’Reilly Factor that he gets nervous in airports around people in Muslim garb was twisted from a criticism of bigotry into an affirmation of it.
One quote: “Today, such honest such honest debate about the issues becomes collateral damage in an undeclared war by those who make accusations of racism and bigotry whenever their political positions are challenged.”
But his book also describes how, within hours of his firing, he was given a three-year contract at Fox News Channel, the cable outlet which has turned ideological opposition into a blood sport.
Past and present stars such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Brian Kilmeade and Megyn Kelly are known for turning ideological fights into powerful publicity and huge ratings.
Beck called President Obama a racist on Fox News (he did sort of apologize for the comment later, saying he meant to call the president a Marxist instead). O’Reilly once called me “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country,” without really explaining how I earned the title, beyond my work dissecting media coverage for the National Association of Black Journalists.
The Daily Beast reported Sunday that Fox News chief Roger Ailes has ordered the channel's opinion hosts to "tone things down," reporting, "Privately, Fox executives say the entire network took a hard right turn after Obama’s election, but, as the Tea Party’s popularity fades, is edging back toward the mainstream."
So isn’t Williams working for a channel which exemplifies the stuff he’s criticizing?
“They invited me into the house as contrarian,” Williams said, speaking over the cellphone from an airport. “The people who created Fox saw there was a hole in terms of there not being a home for strongly conservative voices in like Sean Hannity in the TV arena…(But) this is much, much larger framework than saying Fox came on the scene and created this reality. I think the reality preceded Fox.”
Here’s where we pretty much had to agree to disagree. Because I’ve increasingly seen Fox News as one giant, sophisticated messaging machine aimed at supporting conservative ideas in general and the Republican party specifically.
In my opinion, the messaging is so pervasive and ingrained, that Fox News can easily bring liberals on camera as guests and not miss a beat. And as cable TV’s highest-rated newschannel, they’ve set a template that left-leaning MSNBC and Current TV now seem to be copying on the other side of the political spectrum.
But Williams doesn’t see it that way, saying Fox News is part of a problem affecting all media. His firing, he says in the book, was a byproduct of specific run-ins with NPR’s then-news chief Ellen Weiss and a liberal-leaning orthodoxy at the outlet in which his statements on Fox News were increasingly verboten; when NPR released a report in January announcing changes in the wake of his ouster, Weiss resigned.
(Full disclosure: I provide commentaries about TV to NPR regularly as a freelance analyst.)
“Things became much more polarized in the media landscape over the 10-year period I’m at NPR,” said Williams. “For some of the bosses at NPR, it became not just that he’s doing cable TV and he’s doing radio, but that he’s not reliably defined in the NPR mold..They wanted to control that brand.”
It seems, to me, touchy territory; decrying partisanship in media while working for the biggest purveyor of it.
But for a guy who seems to enjoy playing the iconoclast wherever he works, it’s familiar territory.
“There’s a real hunger and appetite now to find credible, trustworthy news sources that are not one-sided in their slant,” he said. “And the question is, how do you make that attractive? Because right now, the eyeballs go to strong, domineering personalities with ideological slants in prime time.”