Thursday, October 21, 2010

Juan Williams and the Opinions of Journalists

NPR terminated the contract of Juan Williams yesterday in response to a comment he made on Fox's Bill O'Reilly Show. Here's what he said, according to FoxNews.com:

"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 told host Bill O'Reilly during a discussion on the dilemma between fighting jihadists and fears about average Muslims.

"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're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous," Williams said.

This incident comes at an interesting time for public radio. There is a movement in the industry towards having journalists do more of their work in the first person. The idea is that reporters also have to have some personality and let the listeners know who they are and that will attract a bigger audience. Sometimes that means including the reporter's laugh in the final edit. Sometimes that's injecting the reporter's personal anecdote into a story. Sometimes that's allowing the reporters to share an opinion on the topic or subject of the report.

It was suggested twice on the closing day of last month's Public Radio Programming Conference that it's okay for a reporter's opinion, even bias, to show as long as the report itself is balanced. The concept even has a name -- "opinionated journalism."

That seems to be a slippery slope, one that leads straight to the current situation with Juan Williams. Once personal opinions become part of the on-air equation, who gets to decide which reporter opinions are appropriate for air -- the reporter, the editor, the supervisor, the Board of Directors, a corporate funder, a major donor? Even more to the point, who gets to decide which opinions are appropriate for employment in the newsroom in the first place?

Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is biased. Public radio news listeners expect that bias to be put aside in the name of honest, accurate journalism. It is one of the most treasured standards of professionalism in our industry. It's one of our Core Values.

There's room in public radio for opinions. There's room in public radio for journalism. But as the Juan Williams story unfolds, it's pretty clear they don't mix. "Opinionated journalism" is not only a bad idea, it's an oxymoron.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Ellen Rocco said...

Amen, John.
Ellen Rocco
North Country Public Radio

4:28 PM  
Blogger joetote said...

This is the second time I’ve seen the liberal yo-yos take off on Juan Williams when he has “overstepped” his bounds and spoken a truth that was against the “party line”.

I have said more than once in the past that a government run co-opted media is but one step towards the Soviet style dictatorship that we witnessed with the old USSR. This is beyond Big Brother. This is not only the squashing of Free Speech, but is in fact taking away one of our most sacred rights. And he wasn’t even on an NPR show!

This Political Correctness, which is nothing more than a Gestapo style propaganda issue has to stop!
I for one do not agree with some of Mr. Williams stands. however, he has never been afraid to call it as he sees it and in this case he was correct! To be fired for relating the truth is beyond everything we hold sacred in this country.

Kudos to Mr. Williams for daring to stand up to the kind of censorship that is so warmly welcome by leftist Soviet and NAZI style governments!

5:20 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

What if Williams had said: "when I walk into a store, I got to tell you, if I see people at the counter who are in Jewish garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Jewish, I get worried. I get nervous."

Yeah, we know exactly what would happen...Williams would be lynched as an anti-Semite and NPR would be crucified by organizations like CAMERA for anything to do with him, ever, in its entire history.

As for Mr. joetote's comments. Remember the wise words of Obi-Wan who said: "Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."

6:14 PM  

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