A perspective on NPR and Juan Williams

The controversial firing of Juan Williams by NPR was both tragic and inevitable. Not because Williams isn’t a fine journalist (he is), or because he was a bigot (he isn’t). What made it inevitable was the difficulty of juggling two very different positions with two news organizations, NPR and Fox. What made it tragic was the mishandling of the termination by NPR, which was disrespectful to Williams, and which gave ammunition for those who want to end government funding for public media.

Some years ago, Williams brought Talk of the Nation to Rochester at the invitation of WXXI. Hundreds attended the live broadcast from the auditorium at the Hochstein School of Music. We also hosted a number of events with Williams, where he talked about his role in covering and writing about the Civil Rights Movement. Those who know Williams can understand his frustration and bitterness about being portrayed as a bigot. However, his comments about Muslims on a Fox News show last week were insensitive at best and even hurtful, even if they were generally repeated out of context. (In a heated debate with Fox’s provocative talk show host Bill O’Reilly, Williams said when he gets on a plane, if he sees people in Muslim garb…he gets nervous. He quickly sought to put his comment in perspective, but the damage was done.)

Whether you agree with the firing or not, once NPR allowed Williams to take on a paid role as a commentator for Fox News, at the same time he was a news analyst for NPR, it was only a matter of time before there was an explosion. A commentator is paid to “comment,” to let people know what he or she thinks about an issue. A news analyst is expected to put a story in perspective, to give substance to the headlines and sound bites. The best will do so without expressing a personal opinion.

If NPR was uncomfortable with this dual role, they should never have allowed it to exist in the first place. NPR management states that this wasn’t the first time they had concerns about something Williams said on Fox and that he had been repeatedly warned. They had a right to terminate the relationship, but not in the manner they did so. The firing was “phoned in,” and Williams wasn’t even given a chance to present his case in person.

While Williams deserved better from NPR, he won’t be hurting financially. Fox News sensed an opportunity and immediately offered him a $2 million contract, which he accepted. It’s in Fox’s interest to fan the flames and keep this controversy going, since it drives ratings and justifies their investment. Unfortunately, it also revived the debate over the modest government support received by public broadcasting. Even Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, jumped into the fray, calling for the “defunding” of public radio. This is the same Newt Gingrich who, sitting next to a former president of PBS on an airplane, reportedly confided that calling for the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was one of the biggest mistakes he made as Speaker.

One final note. The majority of federal funding for CPB goes to public television, not radio, and helps support educational and children’s programming that make a difference in our community. Most of our budget for radio comes from individual contributions.

Despite the controversy over Williams, WXXI just completed the most successful radio campaign in our history. Yes, we received calls from people outraged about Williams’ termination, with some callers egged on by conservative talk show hosts or bloggers. We also received additional gifts from people who thought NPR made the right decision.

As the media, and what we call broadcast journalism, continues to evolve at a rapid rate, there will be more controversies like this in the years ahead. You won’t always agree with everything you hear or see on WXXI, but please be assured that we will try our best to bring you all sides of an issue, in a respectful way and in a way that illuminates the issues. It is our pledge to you, to those who have helped make WXXI the community resource it is today.

 

Please note: This letter was submitted to the Democrat and Chronicle and an abridged version was printed on its editorial page on October 26, 2010. Click here to view it.

 

To read NPR's statement and learn where to submit your comments, click here.