Posted by rflacks on:
I wonder if you have felt as I have about Juan Williams over the years-he's a national embarrassment. His NPR news appearances as ‘senior political analyst' were typically banal and obvious-top of the head thoughts rehashing exactly what one might read in the mainstream press. There was no evidence of independent journalistic enterprise or insight. And his long association with O'Reilly and Fox News made him seem creepy.
Juan Williams worked for the Washington Post before coming to NPR. While there he was the subject of repeated complaints about verbal harassment from female staffers. These complaints became public after Williams publicly defended Clarence Thomas when Anita Hill testified about his verbal harassment. You can read details about Williams' behavior, and his public apology for it: Post reporter Williams apologizes for 'inappropriate' verbal conduct. At the time, Williams tried to create the impression that he was disciplined because he had defended Thomas, prompting more than 100 female staffers at the Post to demand that the paper make clear the seriousness and longstanding character of the charges against him.
NPR has been officially upset with Williams' Fox News relationship. During the election campaign, he talked about Michelle Obama as a ‘Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress' in an O'Reilly appearance. That episode led NPR to insist that Williams appear on Fox without any identification of his NPR role. I learn from a recent statement by the NPR ombuds that I was one of many NPR listeners who, over the years, had complained about Williams' Fox connection and his poor performance on NPR His termination there was overdue.
But of course it couldn't have been managed more poorly. Like Shirley Sherrod's treatment at the Agriculture Department, an impression of ‘bigotry' in public quotes by a staff person leads to immediate dismissal, without due process of any kind. Ms. Sherrod was exposing her own racist reflexes in order to challenge them; Williams may we'll have been trying to do the same. It reminds me of the old McCarthy era cartoon showing a cop beating a guy who pleads: ‘But officer, I'm an anti-communist" To which the cop replies: "I don't care what kind of a commie you are!"
I'm a strong believer that workers ought to have some recourse. To say that NPR had the right to fire Juan Williams reduces the matter to narrow legalism. To say that his firing was not about the first amendment because that applies only to government restriction on speech is to justify the authoritarian character of corporations rather than to address deep issues of workers' rights and workplace democracy.
A couple of weeks ago, NPR issued a directive to all news employees that banned them from attending the Jon Stewart/Steve Colbert ‘rallies, citing the code of journalistic ethics that the organization promulgates that forbids any public political activity. Something is troubling about this. It's a kind of prior restraint that limits staff members' ability to exercise curiosity and to be normal human witnesses to events. Again, it would be more appropriate to evaluate the conduct of NPR staffers who happened to go to the event in terms of actual consequences.
NPR issued no such directive prior to the Glen Beck rally. They seem to be arguing that no such directive was needed because their staff would never participate in a Beck rally.
But I think the heart of the matter at NPR is their continuous and sometimes desperate effort to overcome the rightwing stereotyping of NPR as a liberal bastion. As a daily listener to Morning Edition, I'm typically perturbed by the bending over backwards straining for objectivity one hears there nowadays.
In an earlier era, NPR news broadcasts were frequently enlivened by commentary by a wide spectrum of advocates. One remembers Michael Harrington, David Frum, Barbara Ehrenreich and a lot of other voices. Reportage included interviews with academic experts who often provided critical perspectives on matters of the day. These days a lot of NPR resources are spent on somewhat lame efforts to spice up economic analysis, and political debate is typically provided by setting up a Democratic/Republican counterpoint.
NPR remains one of the key sources of relatively decent journalism available nationally, but not if you're looking for depth, for provocation, for ideas. I'm glad I don't have to hear Juan Williams anymore (and that my public radio contributions no longer bring me his voice). But that‘s because he symbolized for me the worst of NPR-a bland, phony fairness lacking point or substance. I fear that the rightwing reaction to his firing will lead to even more timidity on the part of NPR management.
Of course the best radio bet is to listen to Amy Goodman!