NPR, Juan Williams and the Clash of News and Talk

Juan-Williams.jpg“Would you have fired Juan if you were still Vice President of News at NPR?” asked a longtime friend.

He was referring of course to NPR News analyst Juan Williams‘ expression of concern about fellow airplane passengers in “Muslim garb.” (Rhetoric note: He was trying to make the exact reverse point than his subordinate preamble suggested, so he’s due demerits for poor phrasing.)

My answer: It’s not a hypothetical. We actually faced these same issues in the late 1980’s, when I was head of NPR News:

Cokie Roberts, who was covering Capitol Hill for NPR, received an offer from ABC News to join the panel of “This Week with David Brinkley” on Sunday mornings. At the time, no NPR reporter had such a role, and we discussed the potential benefits.

For NPR, it offered exposure to a new audience, at a time when its audience was just starting to grow, after a ratings decline in 1986..

And for Cokie, it offered a significant supplement to her NPR salary, at a time when NPR paid much less than the commercial networks.

She and I also discussed the risks, and she was just as concerned as I was. We decided that on ABC, as on NPR, she could report and provide analysis based on her own reporting. Essentially it was the difference between Washington Week in Review, a PBS program focused on reporting, and such 1980’s opinion talk shows as The McLaughlin Group, which was also on PBS stations as well as on NBC. She agreed, saying that was a very “grownup” approach. (That’s her phrase: She used to chastise people in the newsroom by saying, “Oh, grow up!”)

And so Cokie went on “This Week,” was received positively, and often responded to opinions from fellow panelists George Will and Sam Donaldson by saying, “I’ve actually done some reporting about this…” A short time later, both she and Nina Totenberg started appearing on ABC’s “Nightline,” following essentially the same rules.

npr_logo.jpgRichard Salant, who had joined the NPR board after over a decade as president of CBS News, was following these developments closely, and he endorsed our approach. But he privately warned it would be difficult to police, and that we should consider drawing a brighter line between reporting, as done by Cokie and Nina, and commentary and opinion, as done by such NPR commentators as Dan Schorr and Peggy Noonan, who at the time was a regular on “All Things Considered.” As usual, his warning was prescient.

What happened next was driven in large part by television networks discovering they could attract audiences with talk-opinion-debate shows, starting with CNN‘s daily “Crossfire” program and eventually leading to the three-hour prime time opinion blocks on Fox News and then MSNBC. To many, mere reporting was considered boring, shouting opinions was more compelling. Besides, shouting opinions require less prep time – and it certainly paid well.

Some years later, after I left NPR, Nina started expressing her opinions on another program on PBS stations, “Inside Washington.” One night I was watching when she suggested Sen. Jesse Helms and his grandchildren should contract AIDS. I cringed. And Nina subsequently called her remark “dumb.” At that moment if at no other time, my successor should have clearly reminded the newsroom of the old rules.

So back to my friend’s question: What should have been done with or to Juan, if anything,

My answer: I would not have fired Juan, unless I was also prepared to fire others. Instead, it should have been a teachable moment, just as Nina’s remark about Senator Helms should have been. NPR could have taken the opportunity to remind everyone that comments anywhere, not just on NPR, should be based on reporting.

Instead, NPR’s action has raised questions about double standards based on race, especially as Juan stated he was the last remaining African American man on the air at the network. (Can that be true? But then again, on PBS, there is only one female host or anchor in prime time; see my earlier post on the CCLP blog.

And NPR’s action also raised questions about double standards based on venues of speech. Giving opinions on PBS evidently is acceptable (see “Inside Washington,” above), but now this action suggests that appearing on Fox News is not. Mara Liasson, NPR’s national political correspondent has appeared regularly on Fox News panels, which few have noted.

Coming just before an election, NPR’s action raised once again the issue of taxpayer-funded journalism. NPR claims it now only receives one or two percent of its budget from federal funds. That may or may not be true — it depends who does the math and whether you include the many millions of dollars in federal grant that flow indirectly to NPR through member stations. But if taxpayers are really contributing so little, the network should just claim victory and declare its independence from government support. Liberals and conservatives would both cheer.

Finally, NPR’s method of firing him violated Human Resources 101 – calling him by telephone to tell him he was being terminated, followed by Vivian Schiller, NPR’s president, attacking his personal reputation. She later apologized for her remark — but in a letter to NPR’s staff, not to Juan.

Rather than raise other issues through imprecise statements, clumsy execution and personal attacks, NPR had a moment to focus on journalism and values.

Which is where the conversation should have started and ended.