NPR Ombud: Record Response to Juan Williams Went from ‘Fire Him’ to ‘How Dare you Fire Him?’

If journalistic objectivity is the core value that caused NPR to end its relationship with Juan Williams, then debate will only intensify over its role in journalism.

NPR announced Thursday that it ended its contract with Williams following remarks about Muslims he made on “The O’Reilly Factor” earlier in the week.

In her memo to member stations, NPR president Vivian Schiller said, “This isn’t the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan’s public comments.”

During an appearance on “Talk of the Nation” Thursday, NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik said it wasn’t the specific opinion that was most problematic, though it offended many — it was that Williams expressed an opinion at all.

“I got off the phone just a few minutes ago with our CEO, NPR’s top official Vivian Schiller,” Folkenflik recounted. “She said it really, ultimately, isn’t what substantively Juan Williams said that she and Ellen Weiss, our head of news, objected to. It was the notion that he’s expressing such strong personal opinions and has done so more than once over the years, a number of times.”

Folkenflik explained that in Schiller’s view, eliciting opinions is the role of NPR news analysts and journalists, not expressing them.

“NPR officials feel that the journalists at NPR get to exercise First Amendment rights so widely by having these microphones to speak to millions of Americans every day, and to report on and talk through very contentious issues, it shouldn’t be their opinions that we’re looking for,” Folkenflik told “Talk of the Nation” host Neal Conan and listeners.

In a story published on NPR.org Thursday night, Folkenflik connected the Williams decision with another recent, controversial NPR move.

“Schiller compared Williams’ dismissal to NPR’s recent decision to ban news staffers from attending the upcoming Washington rally of political satirist Jon Stewart — who frequently targets conservatives. She says it’s important to maintain journalistic objectivity,” Folkenflik wrote.

NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard was also a guest on “Talk of the Nation.”

Shepard reports in her column that her office received a record 8,000 e-mails Thursday about the Williams decision, which was made because “management felt he had become more of a liability than an asset.”

Shepard questioned the timing, however. “I’m not privy to why this announcement was so hastily made. NPR could have waited until his contract ran out, or possibly suspended him pending a review. Either way, a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare.”

Shepard said on “Talk of the Nation” that when this first came to the public’s attention on Wednesday, it “inundated the ombud’s office … with ‘fire him,’ ‘fire him,’ ‘fire him.’ Thursday, ‘How dare you fire him?’ ”

During the broadcast, Shepard suggested that a better option than termination would have been to offer Williams a choice between his NPR work and his work for Fox News.

Williams on Thursday signed a $2 million contract with Fox News. He also stated on FoxNews.com that he was fired from NPR for telling the truth. Williams said this of the decision:

“This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.”

In her original statement about the change, Schiller said Williams had violated the NPR code of ethics. Williams says he did not say anything on Fox that he would not have said on NPR.

The Associated Press reported that Schiller told the Atlanta Press Club Thursday that “whatever feelings Williams has about Muslims should be between him and ‘his psychiatrist or his publicist.’ ” Schiller has since apologized for that statement, saying, “I spoke hastily and I apologize to Juan and others for my thoughtless remark.”

This is not the first time Williams and NPR have publicly aired conflicts over his work.

In February 2009, NPR asked Williams to stop using his NPR title when he appeared on Fox News; this request came after Williams said of Michelle Obama, “she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer Spacer Spacer

dress thing going.”

At the time, Shepard wrote, “NPR has more than 400 reporters, editors, producers and analysts on its news team, and none is more of a lightning rod than Juan Williams.”

Shepard noted that Williams’ status with NPR had changed the previous spring from staff correspondent to contract analyst, “largely to give him more latitude about what he says. He’s now paid to give his opinion.”

In September 2007, NPR declined an interview with President George W. Bush, whose office said he would grant access only to Williams. At the time, Dana Perino, White House press secretary, said, “The president has talked with Juan before and we know him well. He’s active in trying to keep good relations with us.”

Williams said NPR’s decision to decline the interview “makes no sense to me”; he then interviewed Bush for Fox News.

In January 2004, Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s ombudsman at the time, defended Williams’ interview with Dick Cheney after listeners complained that Williams was too easy on the vice president.

View an archived chat on the Williams firing and other recent cases of people (Rick Sanchez, Octavia Nasr, Helen Thomas), who lost their jobs over comments perceived as bigoted.

Poynter also conducted a related chat with Jay Rosen and David Weigel on the subject of objectivity after Weigel left the Washington Post due to opinions expressed to an e-mail group.

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