Juan Williams is the latest in this year’s string of reporters fired for their comments off-the-clock. Williams worked for National Public Radio for ten years. The Washington Post reported today that NPR now faces “fierce public and political reaction – most of it strongly negative – in the wake of its firing of commentator Juan Williams.”
The New York Post report adds that Robert Gorden, NPR board member and president of Nashville Public Radio, agreed with the firing but was unhappy with how it was done. “The execution was very poorly timed. You have a lot of stations who are in fund drive mode now and that’s making it difficult,” The Post reported. (Fox News, Williams’ other employer, that gave him a nearly 2 million dollar contract after the NPR firing, like The Post, is owned by News Corp).
Williams had commented on Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly program Oct. 18 that “I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country,” Williams said. “But 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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
“I think they were looking for a reason to get rid of me,” Williams is quoted as saying Oct. 22 on the ABC News show Good Morning America. “They were uncomfortable with the idea that I was talking to the likes of Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity.”
NPR explained in a statement that he was let go because his comments on the O’Reilly show “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
“Certainly you have opinions — all human beings have their personal opinions,” Schiller is quoted as saying in NPR’s David Folkenflik’s story on Fox’s contract to Williams. “But it is the ideal of journalism that we strive for objectivity so we can best present the positions of people around all parts of the debate to our public so the public can make their own decisions about these issues.”
NPR has been heavily criticized for its decision, but the company stands by it. NPR CEO Vivian Schiller is quoted as saying that “controversial opinions should not come from NPR reporters or news analysts.” She added that Williams should have kept his feelings to himself, his psychiatrist and publicist. She later apologized for the psychiatrist comment, the AP reported.
In response to Williams’ firing, South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint has said he intends to “introduce legislation to end federal funding for NPR,” although federal grants only are about 2 percent of the NPR’s budget.
The New York Times noted that Williams’ firing indicates Fox News’ willingness to have opinionated reporters.
“After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias,” The New York Times’ Brian Stelter wrote.
Media critic Howard Kurtz wrote Oct. 22 for CNN, where he hosts Reliable Sources, that “The decision to dump Williams, in my view, has as much to do with his Fox News connection as his admission that he gets nervous when he sees people in Muslim garb on his plane. I find those remarks unsettling, but do they constitute a firing offense?” and that he intends to cover the dismissal on his program.
NPR’s ombudsman Alicia Shepard also weighed in on the firing Oct. 21, calling it “poorly handled.” While Shepard acknowledged that “Williams’ appearances on Fox News, especially O’Reilly’s show, have caused heartburn repeatedly for NPR over the last few years,” and that he’s been warned by management, she suggested that the company could have just not renewed his contract or suspended him.
However, she noted that in her three years as ombudsman, Williams has “generated” the most controversy of any NPR employee.
NPR has been in the headlines this month for its controversial memo to staffers barring them from attending Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s rallies in Washington DC Oct. 30. Staff can only attend if they are covering the events for NPR. NPR didn’t issue a similar memo for Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally early this year though, causing media outlets and the blogosphere to question how restrictive NPR is of its employees. But, as NPR explained in an Oct. 13 blog, the memo was issued because the Stewart and Colbert rallies aren’t “overtly political events” but rather “ambiguous.”
“But their rallies will be perceived as political by many, whatever we think. As such, they are off limits except for those covering the events,” NPR blogged.
NPR also was recently the beneficiary of a $1.8 million grant from billionaire George Soros. The money is earmarked to employ 100 new reporters, Fox News reported.
iMediaEthics’ publisher, Rhonda Roland Shearer, left a message on Williams’ phone voice mail asking for comment.
UPDATE: 10/29/2010 11:50 AM EST: The Baltimore Sun reported that Williams doesn’t think his comments violated “journalism ethics.”