Friday, October 29, 2010

More on NPR and Juan Williams

October 29, 2010, 7:30 p.m.

Some (Hopefully) Final Thoughts
(bought to you by*)

On October 27 I wrote a column in the Press-Citizen about Juan Williams, fired a week earlier by NPR. It was primarily focused on my interpretation -- based on the total context of what he said -- of his intended meaning behind the line seized on by NPR as grounds for firing. (It was his confession that he sometimes feels "nervous" when he sees Muslims on a plane he's flying.) Nicholas Johnson, "NPR Botched Its Firing of Juan Williams," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 27, 2010, p. A15. It followed one blog entry, Nicholas Johnson, "Unacceptable Remarks: Ex-NPR Juan Williams; What Words Warrant Firing?" October 22, 2010, and was embedded in a second, Nicholas Johnson, "NPR Botched Firing of Juan Williams; Sacked for Speech," October 27, 2010.

By tonight, it has triggered over 60 comments on the Press-Citizen's online publication of the column -- well above average for a Press-Citizen news story or opinion piece.

Normally I don't respond to comments, either on a newspaper's site or on these blog entries. But on this occasion it seemed appropriate to respond in the form of a summarization of some the points I made in the column as well as some that I did not -- due to the word limit, and the focus on the "meaning" of the words he uttered.

I agree that what Williams said, whether in or out of context, is subject to various reasonable interpretations. As quoted in the column, I simply thought that the most reasonable interpretation of everything he said, especially in the context of his challenging Bill O'Reilly's views, was that Williams was emphasizing the dangers of bigotry and prejudice, rather than arguing that all "Muslims" are rightly to be feared.

I also agree that Williams, like all of us, speaking extemporaneously, under pressure in a shouting match with Bill O'Reilly, did not speak in as organized, analytical, and literate a way -- with explanations and qualifiers -- as he would have when he was a Washington Post reporter with time to proof read, revise, and rewrite.

I disagree that Williams was expressing an "opinion," or that he was taking a position on a "controversial issue." The quote that seemingly got him fired was a confession of his feelings. One might lie about one's feelings, but a declaration of one's feelings is a statement of fact, true or false, not an "opinion." (An exception would be if one couldn't remember, or was unclear as to what their feelings were on a prior occasion, e.g., "I don't know for sure, but my opinion is that my feelings on that occasion were . . ." -- in which case the opinion would not be about the content of the feelings but rather about their existence.) Nor was it a "controversial issue." Whether it's appropriate to conduct full body x-ray scans of airline passengers is a controversial issue about which people can and do express diverse opinions. How Juan Williams feels when he boards may have started a controversy about his being fired, but it does not turn his internal, personal feelings, as such, into a controversial issue.

Given that Williams was working for Fox before, while, and after being hired by NPR originally, I agree that it is a bit disingenuous of its executives to now complain that when he works for Fox he becomes a part of its partisan shouting matches. It seems to me the concerns and complaints NPR executives were raising when firing him were not significantly different from what should have occurred to them when hiring him.

Therefore, I also agree that if NPR's displeasure with Williams' Fox affiliation has been an ongoing matter of concern over time it should have been dealt with long ago -- either by not hiring him in the first place, or some lesser punishment (such as a suspension), or if necessary firing him, but hopefully in a more low key way, and after talking to him face to face.

I agree that it is not only permissible, but highly desirable, that media organizations think through, and clarify for employees, the ethical standards they will enforce -- including when, where and by whom personal opinions are, and are not, acceptable from those whose job it is to do "straight news reporting." These concerns would also affect what is and is not acceptable in terms of potential influence, or conflicts of interest, from relations with significant others, financial investments, political, religious or ideological affiliations.

Working for dual, or more, employers raises at least potential problems that can be most cleanly dealt with by prohibiting them entirely -- as we've just seen in the case of Juan Williams. This is a challenge, however, now that America has moved from three TV networks and a half-dozen national newspapers to 500 TV channels and a nation of bloggers. I assume that NPR pays much less than Fox, not to mention ABC, CBS and NBC. If NPR would like to have the service of someone in that league, a high priced celebrity journalist may be willing to pick up the extra pocket change from appearances on NPR -- but would not be willing to work full time for NPR, on an NPR salary, with no opportunity to earn additional income elsewhere.

Finally, we have the additional problems raised by the new technology. Optavia Nasr was fired by CNN for a tweet. Helen Thomas' interview was recorded on a hand held amateur video camera. In the law of privacy we have something called "a reasonable expectation of privacy." Is there any venue remaining in which one might claim a reasonable expectation that one can freely express oneself without every offhand remark (in or out of context) risking the possibility of costing a job? Should employers take evolving technology into account, judging expression in some venues more serious than others?

These responses of mine do not exhaust all the possible replies to the issues raised in the Press-Citizen readers' comments. But they may, hopefully, help to explain my reactions to many of them.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

No comments: