Williams Flap Ignites Controversy Over Objectivity

Melissa Block talks with Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute and Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review about the controversy surrounding NPR's firing of Juan Williams. They discuss where the line exists between being an analysis and offering personal opinions.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's firing of news analyst Juan Williams continues to reverberate. Today, Republican Senator Jim DeMint said he will introduce legislation to cut off federal funding for public radio and television.

Juan Williams' contract was terminated after he appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News on Monday, and said he gets worried if he sees people in Muslim garb on an airplane.

NPR said those comments were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined Juan's credibility as a news analyst with NPR.

Well, this has ignited lots of commentary about opinions and objectivity in journalism. And we are going to explore some of that terrain now with two journalism watchdogs.

Kelly McBride teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute. And Rem Ryder is editor of the "American Journalism Review."

Welcome to you both.

Professor REM RYDER (Editor, "American Journalism Review"): Thanks very much.

Professor KELLY MCBRIDE (Media Ethics, Poynter Institute): Yeah, thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And let me ask you first, do you think that what Juan Williams said was a fireable offense? Kelly, you first.

Prof. MCBRIDE: Well, sure. Because you can fire people for a lot of things and NPR has been pretty clear about its standards. You know, the one question that I have about the whole thing is NPR put up with this arrangement for quite a while, and I think it could have been avoided had they attended to the conflicts earlier.

BLOCK: So, Kelly, you think NPR was within its rights.

Rem, what about you?

Prof. RYDER: I think they were within their rights. You have a lot of freedom, you know, who you want to be on the air and who you dont. But I think in this case, to react so abruptly, so rashly to fire somebody without a hearing over something which, yes, was offensive but something where Juan was talking about his feelings, and then later in the conversation made it clear in another remark that he was speaking out against stereotyping, I think it led to an overly hasty decision. And, as often the case with hasty decisions, created a lot more trouble than NPR needed to bring on itself.

BLOCK: Now, in this case, Juan Williams' role here at NPR was as what we call a news analyst. He was brought in occasionally to interpret the news and give context. Would, do you think, opinion logically slide in there? How do you distinguish analysis from opinion or are they one in the same?

Prof. RYDER: Well, I think there is a difference. But certainly, as an analyst, it's a different standard I think than for a reporter. I still think that Im very comfortable with reporters expressing opinions, as opposed to conclusions based on fact.

In this case, you know, I think you give somebody a little more running room than you would have if it was somebody covering a beat.

BLOCK: And, Kelly, what do you think?

Prof. MCBRIDE: Well, I think the distinctions between reporter, analyst, commentator, columnist, are all very confusing for the public, and even confusing within newsrooms. I think they mean different things in different newsrooms. And I suspect that those distinctions weren't altogether clear even to individuals who might be working at NPR.

So Im not sure that thats the issue here. I think it was the prejudicial nature of this particular opinion.

BLOCK: You know, Juan wrote an essay on the Fox website after this all transpired. And he complained about NPR enforcing ideology. Here's what he says: It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

Do you think thats the lesson here, that reporters or journalists are being sent to the gulag if they express an opinion?

Prof. RYDER: Well, certainly a very comfortable gulag he's been sent to with this lucrative new deal with Fox. I think it's been a whole...

BLOCK: Two million dollars, I think.

Prof. RYDER: Yes, it's a whole new way of looking at gulag. I think the problem here is with the way NPR acted so hastily. And I think thats whats really compounded the problem here. It looks like they're hell bent on enforcing political correctness.

And to a lot of people, I would disagree with, but who have the notion that NPR is liberal, that it's elitist, it's - kind of just reinforces all those notions. And it's just a totally unnecessary black eye for an organization I think is one of the bright spots in journalism, and is actually increasing the amount of actual reporting it does at a time when the field is plagued with so many cutbacks.

BLOCK: NPR though says that it has very clear ethics guidelines, that opinions expressed on other outlets can be no different than anything that you would say on NPR, and that this violated that code.

Prof. MCBRIDE: Yeah, and I agree it did. And I think in most newsrooms across the country, a statement like that would have violated a similar standard that says journalists should not share their private opinions about controversial issues in a public forum.

You know, ultimately, I think what this gets to is that NPR has a different set of journalistic values than Fox does. And those two may have been incompatible from the get-go and it was just a matter of time before it blew up.

BLOCK: Well, Kelly McBride and Rem Ryder, thanks for talking with us today.

Prof. RYDER: My pleasure.

Prof. MCBRIDE: Absolutely.

BLOCK: Kelly McBride teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute. Rem Ryder is editor of the "American Journalism Review" at the University of Maryland.

We also invited NPR's CEO and President Vivian Schiller to speak on the program. She declined our request.

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