NPR News recently announced the termination of news analyst Juan Williams based on some comments made during his October 21st appearance on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. When asked to comment on the current situation between the United States and the Muslim community, Williams publicly stated,
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 the 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. I get nervous. Now, I remember also, that when the Time Square bomber was at in court, he said that, ‘”The war with Muslims, America’s war with Muslims, is just beginning. The first drop of blood.”
In Williams’ defense, he also warned O’Reilly against blaming the Muslim community for the existence of extremists, but that hardly compensates for his offensive and thoughtless comment.
NPR justified its decision by stating that Williams’ comments undermined his credibility as a news analyst. As such, Williams was expected to remain unbiased in his reporting, regardless of his additional career ties to the Fox News Network.
The initial response
According to NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, the initial response from NPR viewers and listeners was overwhelming. The initial announcement has already received more than 8,500 comments, and input from the “Contact Us” portion of NPR’s website actually crashed the site by noon on the day of the announcement. According to Shepard, although input immediately following Williams’ comments seemed to mostly call for his termination, most of the feedback from after NPR’s decision seemed to call for his immediate rehiring. A notable amount of feedback has also threatened to deprive the network of public funding and donations (which I personally think is too extreme and somewhat idiotic).
Was NPR’s reaction appropriate?
Williams’ comment was thoughtless and extremely inappropriate for such a prominent public figure, particularly for an individual attempting to work for both a news network praised for its accuracy and objective style of reporting and a news network known for its extreme, ideological views. Although Williams didn’t make his comment on NPR, as a public figure that has been under scrutiny for quite some time, he should have known that his comment still conflicted with NPR’s code of ethics, which attempts to uphold a certain level of journalistic standards, and that his actions would have some sort of consequences. By making such an inflammatory, prejudicial comment, Williams was clearly violating his obligation to NPR to publicly remain unbiased, thus undermining his credibility as an analyst and the network’s credibility by keeping him on their payroll. From a legal perspective, I think that NPR was entirely justified in their firing of Williams.
The issue is obviously a bit more complicated from an ethical perspective. Clearly Williams’ comment was extremely offensive and casts a negative image of both himself and the networks that he’s affiliated with, but was it negative enough to merit such a strong response from NPR? As a long-time, credible, African-American correspondent working for a well-respected network in an industry in which racial and gender minorities have little to no voice, Williams represents an essential demographic, which makes this entire situation a lot more unfortunate. But does Williams’ place in broadcasting outweigh his offensive views and comment? I’m inclined to think not.
Sure, NPR could have continued Williams’ contract with some form of limitation, or they could have continued his contract with an understanding that an additional response would result in his termination. However, the network chose to strongly enforce their journalistic standards, which is perfectly legitimate. Unfortunately, Williams’ sentiment reflects the views held by a significant percentage of Americans.
Regardless, although Williams is obviously entitled to his personal beliefs (free speech issue aside) he still shouldn’t have made his comment publicly. Yet Williams chose to make his comment on an extremely ideological television show on a borderline extremist news network, publicly proclaiming his (in the very least) prejudices against a group of people that, not coincidentally, have been the large focus of news in this country since 9/11. This sort of behavior is simply not acceptable for an objective network, and Williams, an individual with a large amount of experience in the industry, should have known that.
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