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NPR News is facing sharp criticism for terminating the contract of our news analyst Juan Williams.�This network fired him Wednesday for violating its ethics policy over comments he made about Muslims on FOX News.
Juan's comments - and NPR's response - have prompted questions about where journalists should draw boundaries in what they say. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Williams appeared last night once again on "The O'Reilly Factor" - the same FOX program where he made those initial comments that seeing fellow airline passengers dressed in Muslim garb makes him nervous. This time Williams told host Bill O'Reilly his remarks were misconstrued, but that his ouster by NPR was about something else altogether.
(Soundbite of TV show "The O'Reilly Factor")
Mr. JUAN WILLIAMS (News Analyst): I don't fit in their box. I'm not predictable black liberal. And let me tell you something else. You were exactly right when you said you know what this comes down to - they were looking for a reason...
Mr. BILL O'REILLY (FOX News Host): They were looking...
Mr. WILLIAMS: ...to get rid of me...
Mr. O'REILLY: Right.
Mr. WILLIAMS: ...because I appear on FOX News.
Mr. O'REILLY: That's right.
Mr. WILLIAMS: They don't want me talking to you.
FOLKENFLIK: The cable news channel assailed NPR for much of the evening, while leading Republicans called for the U.S. Congress to cut off federal funding for NPR. One of the first was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - himself a paid FOX commentator.�
Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Republican House Speaker): I think it is an act of total censorship. I think that the U.S. Congress should investigate NPR and should consider cutting off their money.
FOLKENFLIK: Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin - also possible Republican presidential candidates with similar ties to FOX - chimed in with the same call, as did others in more of a position to do so - such as South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and Ohio Representative John Boehner.
NPR receives roughly two percent of its annual income directly from federal sources such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts, but its member stations rely more heavily on such sources.
Despite the criticism, NPR's CEO, Vivian Schiller, stood her ground yesterday.
Ms. VIVIAN SCHILLER (CEO, NPR): As a reporter, as a host, as a news analyst, you do not comment on stories.
FOLKENFLIK: She said such restraint was a vital part of NPR's code of ethics, which states that news staffers cannot say things in other public forums that they could not say on NPR's airwaves as well.
Ms. SCHILLER: Certainly you have opinions - all human beings have their personal opinions. But it is the ideal of journalism that we strive for objectivity so that we can best present the positions of people around all parts of a debate to our public, so that the public can make their own decisions about these issues.�
FOLKENFLIK: Schiller had her own verbal miscue yesterday. In an address to the Atlanta Press Club, she said perhaps Williams would have been better served confiding his thoughts to his psychiatrist or publicist - a flip line for which she later apologized.�
Still, some journalists with no ties to FOX blanched at the controversy. On her talk show, "The View," ABC's Barbara Walters suggested Williams' status as a news analyst for NPR, who opined regularly on FOX, was confusing.�
(Soundbite of TV show "The View")
Ms. BARBARA WALTERS (Talk Show Host): If you are a journalist - where you're supposed to be straight and narrow and not give opinions - that's one thing. But if you are someone who is giving your opinion, then you're allowed to give your opinion. You may or may not agree.�
FOLKENFLIK: Precisely where professional boundaries lie these days can be tricky to define. Witness the recent firings of Rick Sanchez and Octavia Nasr by CNN and the forced retirement of Hearst newspapers columnist Helen Thomas. Each made controversial remarks in a public setting, but none of them did so on their own employer's airwaves or pages.�
Mr. DANIEL OKRENT: We value the - not the absence of opinion but the illusion of the absence of opinion.
FOLKENFLIK: Daniel Okrent is the former public editor of the New York Times, and he calls it a conundrum for the modern press.�
Mr. OKRENT: I can't give you a conclusive position on it about what the right way to go, what the wrong way to go is. I do know that once opinion comes into play, it gets to be very shaky ground.
FOLKENFLIK: Okrent says the danger is in having someone from a news organization that prizes studied neutrality appear frequently in another outlet that rewards contention and sharply defined opinion - one like FOX News. Williams is now enjoying the full embrace of FOX, which has rewarded him with a new three-year $2 million contract and a guest slot later tonight as host of "The O'Reilly Factor."
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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