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Did He Deserve to be Fired? NPR Cans Analyst Juan Williams
On a rare day when the President of the United States is in town, the talk of KPLU's newsroom was not on Obama's visit, but Juan Williams' firing by NPR. Williams told Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly on Monday "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." NPR CEO Vivian Schiller and VP of News Ellen Weiss made the decision late Wednesday to fire Williams, stating "...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."
Since daybreak, the story has gotten thicker. Williams did some firing of his own Fox. He criticized NPR for contraining their journalists, who he says are "being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought." Fox then announced they were expanding Williams' role on Fox News. Meanwhile, NPR's Schiller apologized to Williams' for remarks she had made Thursday that he should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or publicist." NPR.org's The Two-Way reports Schiller called her remarks "thoughtless."
NPR's Ombudsmen Alicia Shepard weighed in, saying Schiller and Weiss should have given Williams the option to quit either one agency or the other. But it seems clear the last straw was laid with Monday's comments on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox. In an email to NPR member stations, including KPLU, Schiller wrote, "this isn't the first time NPR had serious concerns about some of Juan's public comments. Despite many conversations and warnings over the years, Juan has continued to violate this principle, without going into detail."
My single encounter with Juan Williams was during an appearance he made in October 2008 for KPLU at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry. Part of our community outreach for our election coverage that year, Looking Back to Look Forward, host Williams interviewed me on stage about my reporting on health care reform. At one point, he turned to me and asked "Are you in favor of universal coverage?" I nearly fell over. I realized I was speaking with someone who easily shifted between his role in news and commentary. "That's not my job," I answered, explaining that presenting context, fact and the best possilbe balance of opinion on the topic was my goal. "Aww, come on..," he urged. The professionally awkward moment passed, but haunts me. Of course I have opinions - all journalists do. But we also strive to keep certain lines clear and unblurred. In an age when many online news sites claim both advocacy and objectivity, the responsibility remains with our readers and listeners to judge how well we provide them with useful, intelligent information. Public media thrives on our contact with our audience. I hope you'll weigh in with your comments below this post. NPR is asking that you direct your comments on its handling the Juan Williams incident to NPR's Listener Care line (202) 513-3232, Hours: 7am to 2pm PT, Monday through Friday) or to the general Contact Us form online. You can also refer listeners to the NPR Ombudsman at 202.513.3245 or at this link.