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NPR's mistake with Juan Williams: Not being clear on why they really fired him



juanwilliams.jpgWhat's the most unlikely thing that could unite both Whoopi Goldberg and Bill O'Reilly?

Getting fired NPR analyst Juan Williams his job back.

View co-host Goldberg may have walked off her own show when Fox News pundit O'Reilly seemed to blame all Muslims for the Sept. 11 attacks, but she agrees with the host that Williams should not have been fired for admitting that flying on airplanes with people dressed in traditional Muslim garb makes him nervous.

Fox apparently feels the same; the news channel announced today that it has given Williams a fat new contract to make up for his lost job at NPR.

The unlikely alliance of Goldberg and O'Reilly exemplifies the biggest problem NPR created in saying they fired Williams for that statement. because there's more to the story than that issue.

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. (This view is bolstered by a memo from NPR president Vivian Schiller published on Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren's blog, where Schiller allegedly refers to repeated "warnings" to Williams about violating the organizations rules on expressing views they would not air as NPR journalists)

But Williams' conservative supporters see the issue differently. I took one phone call from a reader who called Williams a modern day Rosa Parks, comparing him to a woman who resisted laws barring black people from sitting in the front of city buses. And they are joined in this concern by liberals who worry that the most visible black man at NPR lost his job over admitting something that many people also likely feel.

O'Reilly has called for NPR to lose its federal funding -- a typical goal for conservatives made more newsworthy by recent events. Williams has said on Fox News that he wasn't given a chance to discuss the issue in person with NPR officials, heightening the controversy Fox seems to be preparing to make of this. Indeed, in this essay, Williams now says he was fired for "speaking the truth"; but I wonder how he would feel about a white person says the same thing about black men?

Given the speed with which they offered him a deal, I'm thinking Williams and the guys at Fox saw this coming, and were prepared to capitalize on it. Their audience will make a martyr of Williams, despite the fact that tensions between his role at NPR and his role on Fox News had been building a while; he's already being given a showcase on O'Reilly show tonight and Friday, center stage on Fox News' highest-rated program.

In truth, Williams has always seemed to enjoy playing the contrarian, wherever he was punditizing. On Fox, he was often the occasionally liberal sympathizer on panels with O'Relly and Charles Krauthammer. On NPR, he could criticize failed black leadership or irresponsibility of some black families from spot a bit to the right of your typical host there.

Now, he's been pushed all the way into Fox's camp by a rapid response to a problem which probably should have been dealt with outside of this crisis long ago. Williams has been punditizing on Fox News for many years; NPR should have given him a role where he could do such work and stay on their payroll, or let him go. And firing him in the middle of the week, when his departure would stay in the news cycle for days, was another surprising gaffe from people who are supposed to understand media.

Schiller was also pushed to apologize after saying Williams' thoughts on Muslims should have stayed between him and "his psychiatrist." NPR's ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who I will admit is a friend, offered a better strategy for NPR, saying the channel should have allowed him to choose between working at NPR or Fox News rather than terminate him.  (given Williams' treatment, another question arises: what happens to NPR reporter Mara Liasson, who also appears on Fox News pundit panels?)

Allowing him to play the wronged party now -- when he's been bending the channel's rules for years -- only adds to the idea that NPR has a political bias it will not disclose. In the end, they have fired one of their most high profile employees in the most public and controversial way possible, handing Fox News an issue to beat them with for quite a while.

All of this as local stations plead for cash to keep their operations going during a fund drive. Hard to believe this could have turned out worse if they tried to make it so

[Last modified: Friday, October 22, 2010 9:34am]


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