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'The imperfect case of Juan Williams' brings NPR's past diversity problems to forefront

News analyst Juan Williams was fired by National Public Radio after he made a remark about “Muslim garb” while appearing on a Fox News show. 

Associated Press

News analyst Juan Williams was fired by National Public Radio after he made a remark about “Muslim garb” while appearing on a Fox News show. 

There are likely 1,000 things Keith Woods would rather be talking about these days than Juan Williams.

But as National Public Radio's vice president of diversity in news and operations, he doesn't have that luxury. As much as he wants to highlight the organization's new initiatives, including new hires and training programs, the conversation often turns back to the recently discharged news analyst.

It's not just because NPR let go its highest-profile black male voice days after he made an inflammatory comment on Fox News Channel about people in "Muslim garb" making him nervous. Or that the release sparked a jihad of sorts among conservatives, especially on Fox, who targeted NPR's government funding and accused it of silencing a contrary voice whom commentator Brit Hume called a "Bill Cosby liberal."

It's because NPR has a long and tangled history of struggling with diversity issues — from the troubled departures of black stars such as ex-MSNBC anchor Ed Gordon and former BET host Tavis Smiley in the mid 2000s to a 1978 federal consent decree demanding the news organization diversify its staff.

Put simply: Does Williams' ouster prove NPR has a problem with black males?

"(We should) separate out the reason Juan's contract was ended and the issue of diversity," said Woods, noting Williams was let go after years of friction and internal conversations. Though he declined to discuss specific numbers, Woods allowed that NPR had just one other black male staffer appearing on air when Williams was let go, with several others working behind the scenes.

He added that 16 percent of NPR's on-air staff are people of color, including high-profile anchors like All Things Considered host Michele Norris and Tell Me More host Michel Martin. That total is higher than newspapers (13.2 percent) and radio (5 percent), but less than local TV (20 percent) and the general population (34 percent).

"Are we going to say now that NPR is in the position of being attacked by Fox because of something related to diversity?" asked Woods, who is black. "Those things are not related. Yes, we have work to do on diversity, but this is an imperfect case to argue that point."

Still, others who have worked at NPR disagree.

Commentator Farai Chideya hosted a black-focused public affairs show for NPR called News and Notes until it was canceled in 2008 amid budget cuts. When Williams' ouster blew up the news cycle, she wrote a widely circulated column contending that NPR had been stuck in a deteriorating relationship with him for years, hamstrung by its inability to diversify its ranks enough to let him go without criticism.

"The whole situation was racial," said Chideya, who recalled speculating Williams might leave NPR back in 2007, when the organization declined to air an interview between him and then-President George W. Bush. "The good, bad and ugly of Juan Williams' employment was always tied up in NPR's inability to bring diversity to its offices."

Chideya's words echoed an anonymous letter sent to then-newly hired president and CEO Vivian Schiller in 2008 titled "the disappearing black male at NPR," contending that the organization hadn't worked hard enough to retain or promote talented male ethnic minorities.

When Adam Clayton Powell III served as vice president of news and information at NPR in the mid 1980s, he recalled facing similar ethical questions when ABC News offered Cokie Roberts an analyst's spot on its Sunday politics show This Week.

Powell, who was NPR's first black news vice president, said he concluded with Roberts that the safest choice was to confine her comments to issues she had investigated, basing any conclusions on her work as a reporter. Williams' situation likely deteriorated, Powell said, because NPR allowed him to cross that "bright line" too many times. If executives are tone deaf to diversity issues, he said, that only makes things worse.

"From the people I've talked to recently still at NPR, they are still less comfortable with diversity than other networks," added Powell, who left the organization in 1990 after many internal struggles. "It's in the DNA of the place."

Woods disputes that criticism, saying the organization was just about to implement the kind of diversity initiatives critics say they need before Williams' ouster changed the subject.

• • •

Some of this Williams-spawned controversy, NPR executives admit, comes from self-inflicted wounds.

After Williams told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that people in Muslim garb at airports made him nervous, complaints to NPR rolled in and news executive Ellen Weiss canceled his contract by telephone. The news organization then struggled to explain why he was let go. Even as Schiller insisted NPR analysts should not express opinions on controversial issues, critics noted Williams had been doing that for many years on Fox News.

Dana Davis Rehm, a senior vice president of communications at NPR, said "an honest effort was being made" to work out a way Williams could be a news analyst for them and a commentator on Fox News.

But if that's true, why did NPR end his contract for expressing an opinion on Fox? Critics from across media and politics have provided their own answers, including Williams himself.

"If you somehow are viewed as having violated some liberal (orthodoxy) in this country, there are people who will make you out to be a bad person," Williams told NPR host Diane Rehm. "They are attacking my character, my mental stability and my journalistic credentials."

Dana Rehm, who is white and no relation to the NPR host, agreed that the organization erred in not explaining itself better.

"Standards and practices that used to be held by almost all media organizations are (now) held by very few media or news organizations," she said, noting that Williams was not a full-time NPR staffer and his contract as an analyst called for him to appear just four times a month. "We need to do a better job of explaining how our standards and guidelines apply to journalists on NPR in different settings."

Chideya said NPR's biggest mistake in releasing Williams now was underestimating the reaction of Fox News, which gave him a $2 million deal and featured his story on several highly rated episodes of its most-watched programs.

"I don't think they anticipated this would be a movement-based attack," she said. "Fox is a (TV) entity, but it's also part of a movement. And I don't think (NPR) anticipated an entire movement would align themselves against (the organization)."

• • •

Woods began working at NPR at the beginning of the year, after serving as dean of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, the school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times.

Long known as an advocate for newsroom diversity, he hoped to implement ideas he'd talked about for years. He ticks off the elements of his new plan for NPR emotionally: a new senior editor coming to help diversify NPR's content and train others to do the same; a new national reporter just hired to cover the diversity of America; workshops for handling diversity issues in content.

But at a time when NPR has so few minority males on air and can't name a host who leans conservative as Rehm and Fresh Air host Terry Gross tilt liberal, he fears the impact of it all may be lost in ire over Williams' ouster.

"We were really happy about (our progress) before all this manure hit the fan," Woods said. "We wanted to tell the world about this. And now we're talking about the imperfect case of Juan Williams."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.

'The imperfect case of Juan Williams' brings NPR's past diversity problems to forefront 11/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 6:57pm]

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