Beyond the Spin: The real trouble with NPR

Giving a platform to Juan Williams and other commercial commentators is at odds with its purported mission.

First it was Helen Thomas. Then it was Rick Sanchez. And now it's Juan Williams. All were fired or pressured to resign because of controversial comments they made away from their places of employment.

Williams' case illustrates the difficulty of trying to blend fact-based analysis with what's been called opinion-tainment. It was wrong for National Public Radio to allow Williams to appear on Fox News as a commentator and then cancel his contract because it disagreed with his opinion.

NPR decided to fire Williams after he said in a discussion with Bill O'Reilly, "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. But when I get on a plane, I've 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 also said, "Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals - very obnoxious - you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That'd be crazy."

It's crazy to ignore the fact that Juan Williams had been working for Fox for three years when NPR decided to hire him a decade ago. NPR entered into the relationship with its eyes open and has no one to blame but itself.

This is not the first time Juan Williams said something on Fox that made NPR executives cringe. Appearing on The O'Reilly Factor in January 2009, Williams said of Michelle Obama, "She's got this Stokely-Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going on. ... Her instinct is to start with this 'Blame America,' you know, 'I'm the victim.' If that stuff starts to come out, people will go bananas." Of course, there's nothing about Michelle Obama that merits comparison to Carmichael, the militant who headed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

After that comment, NPR urged Williams to avoid having his NPR affiliation noted during his Fox appearances. Still, NPR continued to look the other way as Williams repeatedly violated its ethics code.

As the watchdog group Media Matters for America noted in 2007, "Real damage is being done to NPR by having its name, via Williams, associated with Fox News' most opinionated talker. In fact, Williams' recent appearance on The O'Reilly Factor almost certainly violated NPR's employee standards, which prohibit staffers from appearing on programs that 'encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis' and are 'harmful to the reputation of NPR.' "

NPR tried to sidestep the problem by making Williams an independently contracted "news analyst" instead of a staff member. However, the network's ethics code covers contractors as well as staffers.

Essentially, NPR contracted Williams to provide "fact-based analysis" while allowing him to continue as an opinionated Fox commentator. It should have known that Williams couldn't credibly serve in both capacities.

When NPR fired Williams, conservatives - who have campaigned for years to eliminate the network's federal subsidies - charged that it was violating Williams' First Amendment rights. Williams agreed in a column on Fox's website, saying: "To say the least, this is a chilling assault on free speech."

No it isn't. Juan Williams, a frequent critic of federal entitlements, is not entitled to a job at NPR or anywhere else. And NPR has done nothing to curtail his freedom of speech. Its executives have decided they no longer want his services, as is their right. It's a question of fee speech, not free speech.

I worked for a year as a commentator for a show Ed Gordon hosted on NPR. When my contract was not renewed, I did not assert that NPR had violated my First Amendment rights. There is nothing unconstitutional about not renewing a contract.

More important than NPR's firing Juan Williams for the wrong reason is its failure to fulfill its original mission. The watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting noted that the network "has consistently shown a tilt toward elite guests and sources - government officials, corporate representatives, and journalists from commercial media."

FAIR observed, "If the pressure from the right is to be effectively countered, it's not enough to say, 'Don't Defund NPR.' What is needed is a call for public broadcasting to fulfill its mission" with "independent, provocative programming that features voices ignored or marginalized by the commercial media."

By definition, Juan Williams wouldn't fit that description.


George E. Curry is a former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine. He can be reached via www.georgecurry.com.