Friday, October 22, 2010

The firing of Juan Williams: Right or Wrong?

National Public Radio's decision to fire Juan Williams earlier this week has sparked just as much debate as his actual comments on FOX News Channel that started the controversy.  Some people feel NPR was wrong to dismiss Williams. Others think the move is justified and, in some cases, overdue.

I make no bones about it-- I am not a fan of FOX News Channel's prime time programming.  I don't care for the bombastic, one-sided slant of the hosts.  By the same token, I don't watch MSNBC's prime time lineup often, either.  That said, I think focusing on Juan Williams' single comment about Muslims is unfair without considering the full context of the conversation he was involved in with host Bill O'Reilly and fellow guest Mary Katharine Ham.

If you ask me, Juan Williams made a clear and concerted attempt to make sure everyone understood that what he was about to say was not rooted in bigotry, but in typical fashion, everyone seems to be focused only on the one sentence. That's not fair to Williams.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I think the fact that Williams admits getting nervous because he sees someone who identifies himself "first and foremost as a Muslim" by the way they dress is a bit ignorant.  But, the real issue deals with Williams' objectivity moving forward. His bosses at NPR felt Williams had compromised that important quality.

One big problem I see in discussion of this issue is the use of the term "journalist." Just about anyone can be a journalist by simply documenting events. If you write in a daily diary, you are-- in effect-- a journalist because you are documenting your daily activities or thoughts.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams has been a journalist for many years, writing several books on the civil rights movement and politics. But, the issues at play here-- in my mind-- are the differences between reporters, commentators and pundits which can all fall under the journalist umbrella.

If Juan Williams is considered a reporter-- someone who covers daily news assignments-- he was in the wrong to reveal a biased opinion on a prominent news issue. Objectivity is imperative in reporting if the public is to believe that an issue is being presented for them to interpret, not the reporter.

If Juan Williams is considered a commentator-- someone who offers perspective based on expert knowledge-- I would still think he was wrong for what he said. Think back to the 1980's when Howard Cosell and Jimmy the Greek each created controversy with on-air comments about African American athletes.   Cosell did not return to ABC's Monday Night Football the following season (1984) and CBS fired Jimmy the Greek (1988) almost immediately.

If Juan Williams is considered a pundit-- someone who offers his/her opinion on issues-- I believe he did nothing wrong. As previously stated, I don't agree with what he said, but-- if considered a pundit-- he was not wrong to express his opinion. Being "politically incorrect" does not necessarily make someone or something wrong.

The bottom line is this-- It has become very difficult for readers, viewers and listeners to keep things straight when one person splits his/her professional allegiance between so many outlets.  I understand and embrace the fact that a person should be able to own and market his/her own thoughts.  But, when expressing those thoughts through the open media, I don't think it's too much to ask for some consistency.  Don't pass your self off as an objective reporter on television, then write a pointed opinion piece in a publication, followed by a point-counter-point debate on radio. (Just a hypothetical example.) Be one thing or the other. Then everyone, including employers, know exactly where you stand and can make decisions accordingly.

What do you think?  Chime-In!

1 comment:

  1. Not being anything related to a journalist, I admit that I never thought about the points that you make; reporter, commentator or pundit. And in light of those professional facts, I agree that the context of the comments must be considered before any decision to fire is made. Great opinion!