The messy flap over Juan Williams' firing from NPR is disappointing all around.For its part, NPR may have overreacted a bit. Yes, Williams' remarks about his feelings about Muslims make me uneasy (as my wife pointed out, what if you replaced from his remarks the word "Muslim" with "Jew" or "African American" or whatever?). But what he said seems a lot more ambiguous to me than others I've criticized for anti-Muslim sentiment (see this, this and this). He certainly could have been understood the wrong way, and obviously was by many. But having followed and admired Williams for a long time, I find it hard to believe he has a deep antipahy for Muslims. Given the murkiness of this one, at the most NPR should have handed down a suspension, not an all-out dismissal, don't you think? Reasonable and unreasonable minds will long disagree about this one.
That said, if you think I'm going to go easy on Williams, then hear this: his remarks about the incident on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday, October 22, were unforgiveable. He said: “I’ve always thought the right wing were ones that were inflexible and intolerant and now I’m coming to realize that the orthodoxy at NPR, its representing the left.”
What really bothers and surprises me about this remark is that Williams, of all people, blithely tossed out the age-old canard that NPR is ideological in its outlook and character -- and left-wing at that.
(I don't mind adding that, in spite of my disagreements with what many conservatives say, they are not, by definition, "inflexible and intolerant" any more than liberals. Williams, whom I've long respected for his usually thoughtful, nuanced and clear-eyed analysis and his aversion of simplistic labels should know, too. But that's not my focus today.)
I have listened to NPR religiously and continuously since I was in high school in the late-1970s. Like most mere mortals, I cannot claim perfect objectivity about these things, but I believe with complete conviction that NPR is neither right nor left. It is about as close to being "objective" and "balanced" as any of our media in the United States. (We can argue all day whether there is such a thing as true objectivity and balance in media, no matter how hard they try; thus the quote marks above.)
If anything, the Williams firing was an example of a news organization that was trying to bend over backwards (maybe to a fault this time) to preserve its reputation as unbiased. Indeed, Williams' appearances over the years on Fox News, which quite clearly encourages journalists to express a point of view, apparently induced a lot of heartburn at NPR, which operates under strict journalistic guidelines meant to head off bias.
I should reveal that for several years NPR was a client of mine. So, go ahead, accuse me of bias. But having gotten a pretty good glimpse (though by no means complete) of this organization from the inside, I feel even more qualified than the average listener to make the claims I do about NPR.
The real problem I have with so many of those who accuse NPR of ideological bias is that they either don't listen to NPR, they choose selectively from its offerings or they only know the network from what Limbaugh and Beck say about it.
I've tried hard to understand the objections many conservatives have about NPR -- folks like Newt Gingrich, who has long called for cutting federal funding for public broadcasting and who are now seizing that cudgel again since the Williams firing. It appears their gripe is only ostensibly about ideological bias. Rather, they're really trying to tap into sentiment out there that disdains what many believe is a smarty-pants, elitist tone. Conservatives have long played off this hostility (Nixon, for example, made much of the effette East Coast intellectual elites), and Sarah Palin, Fox News and the Tea Partiers have picked up this baton more recently. This theme is what this is really about, not NPR's bias, and it's what really annoys me about this debate and about what Williams said on "Good Morning America".
Those who say that NPR is the opposite of Fox News are right in one respect, but not the one they mean: it's not the liberal answer to Fox's conservativism (MSNBC has taken on that role). No, NPR represents fair and balanced journalism while Fox, with a knowing wink, only pretends to.
P.S. Now, for all of you readers who are ready to write a 2,000-word rebbutal below, lecturing me on how anti-American NPR is, please do this first: go to the NPR website and pull up all the stories that ran on its programs over the last week. Or just pick "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." If you conduct an honest content analysis of which points of view are represented in NPR's reporting, I can almost guarantee you'll see extraordinary balance between left and right, and a large number of NPR shows (think "Car Talk") contain no political points of view at all. Do the same over a month or a year, and I'll bet the proportions come out even closer to 50-50. If you do, and you still feel NPR stands for National Pinko Radio, I'll read what you say. If you don't, well, then you're wasting your time and mine.
P.P.S. A fun fact: at a PBS conference in February 2003, Gingrich declared, “It’s one of the great mysteries of how life evolves that I now find myself driving to work listening routinely every morning to NPR.” Give him credit for his candor.