Our so-called conversation about Juan Williams’ firing

also posted at the CENTURY Blog

Some of the best coverage of the firing of National Public Radio news analyst Juan Williams has been  NPR’s own. But the broader conversation has quickly become a chorus of ridiculousness:

  • Republican politicians are pushing to strip NPR of federal funding-which accounts for a small portion of its budget, all received indirectly via Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding of local stations and of foundations that support NPR.
  • Some commentators are saying Williams’s first amendment rights have been violated, missing the distinction between one’s right to free speech and one’s duty as a journalist to exercise this right while upholding the standards of good reporting and analysis.
  • Others have even suggested that NPR acted out of racism. (Williams was one of the organization’s few senior black reporters.)
  • Members of local NPR affiliates are talking about withholding pledges. Pastors I know are saying they will never again give to public radio — pastors who also argue against congregation members withholding donations because of mistakes by church leaders.

Our national conversation has become a kneejerk festival, celebrating whoever can have the most sensational reaction in the shortest amount of time. I’m all for honest dialogue about prejudice and fear, about public funding of the news, about the distinction between sound reporting and jabbering-head TV. By all means, let’s talk.

But please, let’s think before we speak.

Update of a more reasoned perspective:

image by anonymous


  1. Roy Howard says:

    The Washington Post editorial, while criticizing NPR’s actions, pointed out that Juan Williams was actually making the opposite point for which he was fired. Williams’ confession of his own fear was the set up for the larger argument with O’Reilly that we can’t give in to our natural inclinations to fear and suspicion. That argument was apparently lost on NPR who failed to interview Williams before he was fired. This was a huge mistake and revealed something of a political tone deafness to today climate. It’s a wicked irony that Williams’ firing now makes NPR look like the biased media that it allegedly wants to rise above. I’m guessing they will pay a huge political price for a rush to judgement.

  2. I hear you, Roy, but the larger point by NPR, I think, was the Williams had moved away from his journalist contract and was functioning as a opinion-giver rather than news analyst. It’s a weird distinction, but I think when Williams started appearing on O’Reilly’s show in the first place this sort of thing was bound to happen. NPR and Fox are in different businesses, which Williams surely knew.

    Ultimately, I’m not convinced too many folks on the fence re the political question of public funding (or not) for journalism will be swayed by this issue, but perhaps. Mostly, I just wish it hadn’t happened during NPR pledge season. Those who see a liberal bias in NPR and other heady news services will continue. Those who don’t, won’t.

    • Roy Howard says:

      You may be right Adam. I’m thinking NPR could have found a better way to handle the distinction without jettisoning a commentator along the way. Williams did the same opinion pieces on NPR but to a different audience. Williams contends that his contract allowed for the role of commentator. Therein lies the dispute, I suppose. Nevertheless, NPR is likely to lose the most in the long run.

Leave a Reply