Whole-grain news ethics becomes partisan red meat

Controversial analyst fired for one too many opinionated comment

By Mike Janssen and Karen Everhart

NPR President Vivian Schiller has apologized to public radio for how she and her executives handled last month’s dismissal of news analyst Juan Williams, but the network stands by its decision to let him go.

“We believe it was the right decision based on our standards and values and based on a long history of concerns like this with Juan,” says Dana Davis Rehm, senior v.p. of marketing, communications and external relations.

The network said Williams, in his remarks Oct. 18 on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, violated an NPR ethics policy that bars its journalists from stating views in other forums that they would not express on the public radio network.

Williams’ simultaneous roles as a Fox commentator and an NPR news analyst had troubled NPR news leaders for much of the decade he was associated with public radio. He held various NPR positions starting in 2000.

The newsroom leaders’ objections were voiced emphatically by an executive who was not authorized to speak for the company: “We believe it was so outside the canon of NPR’s values and practices,” the executive said, “that, if it had been on our air, we would have apologized and corrected it instantaneously.”

“Juan’s comments on Fox News were the latest in a series of deeply troubling incidents over several years,” Schiller wrote in an Oct. 24 letter to NPR stations. “In each of those instances, he was contacted and the incident was discussed with him. He was explicitly and repeatedly asked to respect NPR’s standards and to avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings, as that is inconsistent with his role as an NPR news analyst. After this latest incident, we felt compelled to act.”

NPR has not released a full list of these transgressions, but one notable case was during a Fox program in January 2009, when Williams called Michelle Obama “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress,” referring to the Black Power activist. That also prompted complaints to NPR.

The network’s news executives discussed the statement with Williams, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote at the time.

Ellen Weiss, the news v.p., told Williams to ask Fox to remove his NPR identification when he appeared on O’Reilly’s show.

“I’m not a bigot”

This latest affair arose after O’Reilly made his own inflammatory remarks about Muslims in an Oct. 14 appearance on ABC’s The View.

The Fox host was promoting his new book when he brought up one of his favorite recent controversies — the Islamic Center to be built blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. He declared that the planned mosque was inappropriate because “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”

View regulars Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar demonstrated their objections by storming off the set. Barbara Walters, the ABC News correspondent who produces and appears on the show, chided O’Reilly into apologizing.

He rehashed the blowup on his Fox News show Oct. 18 — an episode titled “The Muslim Dilemma” — by criticizing political correctness and “far-left fanatics who label people with whom they disagree ‘bigots.’”

For the show’s debate segment Williams was brought in to spar with the host, but he initially appeared to side with O’Reilly. “I’m not a bigot — you know the kind of books I’ve written on the civil rights movement in this country,” Williams said, “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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried.”

That was the extent of the clip circulated the next day by Think Progress, a blog published by the liberal Center for American Progress think tank. The video went viral online, prompting irate responses from bloggers and others. Hundreds called or wrote, asking the news organization to discipline or fire Williams, Shepard wrote in her ombudsman column on NPR.org.

Yet Williams went on to disagree with O’Reilly’s broad-brush “Muslims killed us” remark. He made a distinction between terrorists and all Muslims. “It’s not a war against Islam,” he said, seconding remarks President Bush made after 9/11. Williams also said that “you don’t say first and foremost we’ve got a problem with Christians” just because of Timothy McVeigh’s terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.

Omitted from the Think Progress clip, this remainder of Williams’ remarks got less attention. The selective editing and ensuing controversy reminded some observers, including Slate’s Williams Saletan in a segment on NPR’s On the Media, of the blogospheric racial controversy that befell Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod was pushed out of her job after her remarks about a white farmer were taken out of context. (She was later reinstated.)

NPR’s Rehm said network execs considering Williams’ fate took into consideration his entire Fox appearance and not just the initial incendiary remarks.

On Oct. 20, two days after Williams’ remarks on O’Reilly’s show, NPR Vice President of News Ellen Weiss spoke with Williams by phone and informed him of his dismissal. She declined his request to talk in person. Schiller had signed off on the decision, according to Rehm.

“I asked why she would fire me without speaking to me face to face, and she said there was nothing I could say to change her mind, the decision had been confirmed above her, and there was no point to meeting in person,” Williams wrote in a column on the Fox News website. (NPR declined to make Weiss available for an interview.)

Heat over past comments

The official context for Williams’ firing goes back years in his NPR career, though it was barely mentioned in the network’s three-paragraph announcement Oct. 21: “Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years and we did not make this decision lightly or without regret,” the network said. “However, his remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a News Analyst with NPR.”

The Fox News appearances of Williams and national correspondent Mara Liasson have been a point of considerable concern for years in the NPR newsroom, among station leaders and with numerous listeners.

At times Williams and his provocative statements have been the issue. In other cases, stakeholders objected to Fox’s tendency to present NPR staffers as a liberal counterpoint to conservatives, potentially furthering perceptions of NPR as left-leaning. No employee has generated as much controversy as Williams,” NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote in her web column. “Over the three years that I’ve been here, I felt like I became a de facto Fox News ombudsman by taking so many complaints about what Juan said on Fox,” Shepard told Current.

Some listeners who write to Shepard defended NPR staffers’ right to appear on Fox, she said.

But those who contacted her almost always complained about what Williams said on Fox, not on NPR.

“It illustrates the untenable situation that NPR and he was in by trying to serve two masters with different goals.”

In April 2009, after Williams made his remarks about Michelle Obama, he left his staff role and became a senior news analyst on contract. The contract called for up to four appearances on NPR a month, but Williams often appeared less frequently.

“Our objective was to find a way to allow Juan to continue as a Fox commentator and as NPR journalist; there were inherent tensions between these two roles and we were seeking a workable approach,” Rehm said.

Williams’s appearances also drew criticism from another ombudsman, CPB’s Ken Bode. “I admire Mr. Williams for his scholarly writing and his reporting on NPR,” Bode wrote in June 2009. “Fox News president Roger Ailes knows he is exploiting the credibility that Mr. Williams has built at NPR and carries with him to Fox. I wonder if Williams ever thinks that he is squandering a measure of that credibility by his continued appearances with Bill O’Reilly.”

Admittedly bungled

The firing was the most tumultuous personnel rift since NPR parted ways with longtime Morning Edition host Bob Edwards six years ago.

About last month’s events, Rehm acknowledges, “It wasn’t handled well. We didn’t explain ourselves well, and we caused a lot of people unnecessary grief.”

When NPR does its internal review of the affair, it will also look at how it can more clearly interpret and explain its policies about staffers’ external appearances to its own staff, the public and member stations, Rehm said.

Shepard and others have asked why NPR dismissed Williams so hastily, rather than suspending him or allowing his contract to expire. His contract was to expire in April, Rehm said.

“Reasonable people can disagree about the timing,” Rehm said, echoing similar remarks by Schiller in her letters to staff and stations.

“Juan has been very valuable to NPR,” said Shepard, the ombudsman. “He’s well respected and well known. He’s smart and unpredictable in his political opinions.” He made fundraising appearances for member stations and was “popularly received,” she said. “I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision to make.”

Williams was also a star writer hired from the Washington Postafter long reporting on the civil rights movement and other subjects, including his book that accompanied the Eyes on the Prize documentary series. He was the most prominent African-American male journalist on NPR’s staff. He was also the network’s “most visible right-leaning voice,” former Post Managing Editor Steve Coll commented.

Despite Williams’ credentials, his work at NPR drew mixed reviews. Mikel Ellcessor, g.m. of Detroit’s WDET, complained directly to news chief Ellen Weiss in February 2009. “It was not just about the Stokely Carmichael thing, but also Juan’s substandard work as an analyst, Ellcessor said. He pointed to a two-way with Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne in January 2009, when Williams said he couldn’t recall any instances of bipartisan cooperation in Washington going back to President Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981.

The remark overlooked examples from George W. Bush’s presidency, such as congressional approval of the Patriot Act and funding of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ellcessor said. “It’s like hackery,” Ellcessor told Current.

Williams got off to a rocky start in 2000 when he first signed on at NPR as host of Talk of the Nation. After about nine months in the job, station programmers took up the topic of his on-air performance at a Public Radio Program Directors conference. In 2001, Williams later was reassigned as a national correspondent.

“He certainly brought interesting perspectives as a Washington insider and presented perspectives that weren’t on NPR,” said Michael Marcotte, former news director at KPBS in San Diego and now a Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University. “Then again, his insights were shallow, and often I didn’t learn a lot. It was hard to tell how much reporting he was actually doing.”

Serving “two masters”

The dismissal of Williams underscores a shift in top NPR leaders’ opinion about journalists who moonlight on commercial TV. In addition to Williams and Liasson (a regular contributor on Fox News programs since 1997), senior news analyst Cokie Roberts is a political commentator and analyst on ABC News, and legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is a regular panelist on Inside Washington, produced by the D.C. area’s ABC affiliate.

“This was a problem for me from day one on the board,” said Ellen Rocco, manager of North Country Public Radio, who served on the NPR Board from 2003 to 2009. “People who are out there on other networks on an almost-other-job basis have to make a choice. You can’t have two masters.”

Williams’ appearances on Fox were “deeply troubling” to Rocco “because he was identified as a liberal with NPR News in a senior news position,” she said. “How do you build a neutral position to the public if one of your senior people has a great big sign on that said ‘NPR Liberal’?” she asked. “I brought it up repeatedly while I was on the board, and others did, too.”

The top execs during the period, President Kevin Klose and chief exec Ken Stern, favored allowing NPR reporters to continue appearing on Fox. They saw the TV gigs as as a way to attract new listeners, Rocco said, recalling heated arguments about it. Klose did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment for this story.

However, Weiss and Schiller shared Rocco’s concerns about the Williams role on Fox, she said. Rocco believes NPR should re-examine all outside network contracts of its journalists, including that of Cokie Roberts.

“The real story here is, how do we hold on to basic principles of good journalism in the changing, exploding news and media environment?” Rocco said. “How do we build and maintain the trust that most of the public has for NPR being neutral? We may be imperfect at that, but we aspire to being even-handed and fair, and there are fewer and fewer places of NPR’s stature that try even more.”

Dave Edwards, g.m. of Milwaukee Public Radio and nominee to become NPR Board chair this month, distanced the board from taking a direct role in news management decisions.

“I’ve been on the board for four years, and we never discussed this matter,” Edwards said. “That’s not to say there have been no hallway conversations about it.”

“My perspective is, there’s an ethics policy in place that all journalists know about when they sign on,” Edwards said. “Policies like this have to be enforced — otherwise you don’t have a policy.”

NPR has no plans to ask Liasson to end her appearances on Fox, Rehm said. “The point with Mara is that the manner in which she comments on the news of the day is not out of compliance with our standards.”

Comments, questions, tips? karen@current.org

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