Richard B. Simon

Richard B. Simon
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Contributing Editor, Relix magazine. Adjunct Assistant Professor, Dominican University of California. Instructor, City College of San Francisco. Proprietor, SCORP10N BOWL blog. Co-founder, Frisco Freakout.

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OCTOBER 24, 2010 1:13AM

Juan Williams And NPR

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by Richard B. Simon

Apparently, there is some sort of uproar over National Public Radio's decision this past week to fire "analyst" Juan Williams, after Williams -- on Bill O'Reilly's show on Fox "News" -- admitted to becoming nervous when he sees Muslims in religious garb on an airplane.

Williams was certainly expressing -- with brutal honesty -- a view that many Americans hold. There is some admirable quality to that -- and the idea that Williams was fired from his ten year job at NPR for admitting to his honest response (which he qualified by explaining that Americans need to delineate between Muslims and Muslim extremists) is ... discomforting.

That said, Williams is supposed to maintain a certain standard of conduct in order to remain employed by NPR, which with its member-subscription model, is among the last and best news outlets to survive the collapse of a news industry owned by corporations demanding quarterly returns. And apparently, it's in Williams' contract that he not express views in public or on other news outlets that would be off-limits on NPR, because it damages NPR's credibility.

Williams' comments, if directed at another ethnic group in America, would be widely regarded as outrageous. Imagine:

"When I see an African American man walking down the street toward me, I get nervous."
"When I see that my banker has a Jewish last name, I get nervous."
"When I see that my surgeon is a woman, I get nervous."

All may be honest -- but none should be voiced in polite company by a public figure, and especially not someone who represents a news outlet that is partly funded by the Federal government.

Those quick to hurl stones at NPR for being overly "liberal" in firing Williams should note that, just a few days earlier, NPR barred its employees from attending the Jon Stewart "Rally For Sanity" in Washington next weekend, for the same reason. NPR employees are expected to maintain journalistic impartiality. Again, that's reasonable, because NPR receives government funding (though much less since the mid-1990s, when Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution decimated federal funding for public broadcasting for its perceived liberal worldview.)

While Williams' firing last week seemed clunky, at best, NPR was addressing a much larger problem that it should have dealt with a long time ago.

Williams and Mara Liasson, both NPR commentators, have long worked for Fox "News" as well as for NPR -- both, for years, are identified on-air on Fox as representing NPR.

Although David Brooks, who represents conservatism on numerous NPR and PBS programs as well as in the New York Times OpEd pages, argues (last night on the PBS News Hour) that NPR shoots right down the middle in both coverage and commentary, in FoxWorld -- as has become obvious this week -- NPR is the farthest-left bastion of the liberal media.

The great problem for NPR -- and I'm not sure they even realize this -- is that by appearing on Fox News programs tagged as "NPR Commentators" they represent NPR -- and Fox viewers understand that they are representing a liberal worldview.

This gives Fox viewers the mistaken impressions that 1. Williams and Liasson (an African American man and a caucasian female who are likely intended to serve as symbolic stand-ins for Obama and Clinton) are expressing liberal points of view -- when clearly both are fairly conservative; and 2. that NPR is a liberal organization, rather than an impartial news outlet.

I'll quote from a note from a conservative friend with whom I once jousted:

You seem to think I only get my information from Fox News or Glenn Beck, when in all reality the first time I ever watched the Glenn Beck show was about five months ago, and most of the time I do not get home in time to see his show and do not even TIVO it even though we have the capability.  I am actually a bigger fan of Special Report with Brit Hume, but now with Brett Baier that provides viewpoints from multiple points of views to include Mara Liason and Juan Williams from NPR.


This gentleman remains convinced that because Williams and Liasson express their views on Fox, he is being exposed to liberal views. That also means that when Williams or Liasson agree with Britt Hume or Brett Baier or Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, then those Fox personalities are being centrist, moderate, bipartisan, and reasonable -- and anyone who disagrees must be really far out there to the left.

This damages NPR's credibility, because, again, it falsely leads Fox viewers to believe that NPR commentators -- even the most conservative of them -- are by definition expressing liberal views. And that defines NPR as a liberal media outlet, rather than the straight news outlet that it is.

And, honestly, their roles as opinionators at Fox undermine Williams' and Liasson's credibility as news analysts on NPR.

NPR, in recent years, asked Williams and Liasson to stop identifying themselves as representing NPR -- but the damage has been done. Fox viewers see both as representatives from liberalism, and NPR as a liberal bastion. It all helps to innoculate Fox viewers against actual fact -- but it also serves as fodder for the conservative extremists who now seek, once again, to strip NPR of its funding, because they perceive NPR (thanks now to Williams and Liasson) as a hotbed of liberalism.

Really, NPR should have given both Williams and Liasson the choice long ago -- NPR or Fox -- or given both the boot. The double-agency endangers NPR's funding and therefore its very existence. Now, if they fire Liasson, it will be seen as a purge.

That Williams is now serving the right wing agenda by assailing his long-time employer day and night from his new $2 million gig at Fox (where he'll still be seen as representing NPR -- only now as a "whistleblower") indicates that, at best, he lacks judgment.

That Williams believes that Fox really wants his two cents, rather than for him to fill Alan Colmes' former role as liberal stooge -- and black, liberal stooge at that -- is pretty solid proof that he's a fool.

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AFTERMATTER:

Here's Williams on "Good Morning America" -- as reported by the Washington Post -- repeating the FOX party line:

"I've always thought the right wing was the ones who were inflexible and intolerant. Now, I'm coming to realize that the orthodoxy at NPR, if it's representing the left, is just unbelievable. And especially for me as a black man, to somehow, you know, say something that's out of the box. They find it very difficult. . . . I think they were looking for a reason to get rid of me. They were uncomfortable with the idea that I was talking to the likes of Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity."
(emphasis added)

Williams is actually underscoring how right NPR was to dump him -- and how wrong they were to not have done it long ago.

His role on Fox "News" is to damage NPR's credibility by presenting NPR as a creature of the left, rather than a reasonable, fact-based news outlet. And so it continues.

Liasson should do the right thing and resign from one post or the other -- she's putting her employer, NPR, in the same jeopardy.

 

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"a view that many Americans hold."

I've been seeing this comment a lot in the past few days. I don't get panicked when I see someone in "Muslim garb" anymore than when I see someone in "Hip Hop garb" or "Redneck garb". Please don't lump me in with assumptions.

And lets be honest, the whole Williams thing isn't about what Juan said, it is about faux "news" and the conservative element trying to eliminate the NEA and public broadcasting. After all there is no greater threat to the corporate media than true freedom of speech.
Thanks, Oc. I didn't say "all", I said "many".

On point two, I agree.
If NPR is unable to tolerate an honest debate about an issue as important as Islamic terrorism, then it’s time for “National Public Radio” to become “National Private Radio.” It’s time for Congress to defund this organization.
MISS EGBE! I don't think that's the point. If you listen to NPR's or PBS's coverage of terrorism and the War on Terror, you will find it fairly exhaustive, reasonable, and fact-based. Their commentary presents "both sides" -- perhaps to a fault.

In this case, though, Williams' role on Fox is to discredit NPR -- because NPR presents fact-based news -- and this is antithetical to Fox's model of presenting opinion-infused factoids and calling it "news".

Congress' defunding of NPR would be disastrous -- it's the only major news organization whose model is linked not to profit but to serving the public.

Nice to hear from you!