Juan Williams and the Opinions of Journalists
"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.