Former NPR Ombud fact checks new Juan Williams book, ‘Muzzled’

When Fox News’ Juan Williams looks back on the torrent of media coverage of his NPR firing last fall, he says in his new book, “Muzzled,” one observation sticks out.

“I am struck by how little of it tells the full story of what actually happened,” Williams writes. “Basic facts were distorted, important context was not provided, and personal attacks were treated as truth. The lack of honest reporting about the firing and the events that led up to it was not just unfair — most of it was flat-out lies.”

Williams is referring to NPR firing him by phone on Oct. 20 for a remark on Fox News about being nervous when he boarded a plane and saw people in “Muslim garb.” He later added that no one should make rash judgments about anyone of faith. [The latter was not as widely reported.]

In “Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate,” Williams wants to tell “the full story” and set the record straight. He writes often about how important it is for rational debate to occur and how critical it is to stick to the facts. He even quotes former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

It’s hard to argue with that, but it raises the question: What are facts? And what happens when facts are selectively used? Or people employ different interpretations of the facts?

Williams’ book is a reminder that the great thing about writing a book from the author’s perspective is it is just that – the author’s perspective, or the author’s interpretation of the facts. In this case, Williams writes about the facts surrounding his firing. He takes no responsibility in the book for his role in the early end to his contract with NPR, after a decade with the network. There are always two or more sides, but in this book he dismisses NPR’s.

No one — not even NPR — disputes the firing was poorly handled, but Williams wound up with a three-year contract with Fox, two book deals, and in increased demand on the speaking circuit. He dedicates the book to Fox News among others, with special props to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes. Would he even have had the opportunity to write this book if NPR hadn’t botched the ending of their mutually unhealthy relationship?

Williams writes honestly about how much the NPR firing hurt him, and how he feared it would destroy his credibility and hurt his livelihood. He lays out the case as he interprets the facts. He talks about “the shunning,” “chilly treatment” from NPR executives and a “troubling history of high-ranking NPR editors and producers expressing concern about my journalistic independence because of my role at Fox.” It’s Williams as victim.

As NPR Ombudsman from 2007 to this June, I am well-schooled in all-things Juan Williams as I got more complaints and comments about Williams during my tenure than about any other NPR staffer – most of it for things he said on Fox.

During my tenure, his role at NPR was continually down-graded, largely because of things he said on Fox. NPR editors repeatedly warned him to be more careful. He writes that they were trying to censor him simply because he was also on the conservative network. One fact, two interpretations.

In 10 years at NPR, Williams had gone from a full-time host on “Talk of the Nation” to a full-time senior correspondent to an increasingly more part-time senior news analyst. That is a fact.

“Two years prior to the incident, Juan signed an agreement that reduced his pay and role and he didn’t walk away from NPR,” said a senior editor who worked closely with him. “Let the facts speak. We offered him a greatly reduced contributor role and he accepted it.”

Williams’ last contract with NPR was a fraction of what he was earning when he was an NPR correspondent. Two years ago, his contract was for up to four appearances a month.  The latest was for two appearances. Williams was regularly asking — and not getting — more airtime because management was not happy with him on-air, said the editor.

“If you are a staff person and all the sudden your employer says that we are going to cut your remuneration and cut your expectation of how many times you can be on the air,” said the editor, “how would you interpret that?”

Considering his diminished capacity, I wonder why Williams stayed at NPR. Particularly if he felt frozen out and undervalued, as he writes. I concluded that NPR gave him the credibility among the mainstream media that he enjoyed; while Fox gave him visibility and credibility among conservatives. But then that is my opinion, not a fact.

One fact that Williams and I would agree on is that NPR selectively used its ethics code with him. After Williams made a remark on Fox in early 2009 talking about the First Lady, his status really fell into jeopardy.

“Michelle Obama, you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going,” said Williams on Fox. “If she starts talking … her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim. If that stuff starts to coming out, people will go bananas and she’ll go from being the new Jackie O. to being something of an albatross.”

Management was not happy with that remark, especially since a number of affiliate public radio stations also complained.

(Read the book’s first and last chapter for his account. The rest of the book is a polemic about the need for tolerance in political debate, which any rational person would agree with.)

When I would ask management after receiving a complaint about some Williams’ remark on Fox, I got different responses. Sometimes I was told that because he was a contractor, NPR’s ethics code didn’t apply. Other times, I was told he had more leeway with the ethics code because he was a senior news analyst.

After the Stokely Carmichael flap, former head of news Ellen Weiss asked Williams to have Fox remove his NPR identification whenever he was on O’Reilly.

And then, in the end, NPR said it was terminating his contract early because he violated the ethics code by talking about his personal feelings.

NPR is now revamping its ethics code under the guidance of Poynter’s Bob Steele, and will be addressing what titles such as “news analyst” mean. If there’s one lesson for news organizations in this incident it is that they should drop the star system and always evenly apply their ethics code to all employees.

Failing to do so creates problems. And Williams’ book makes that perfectly clear.

Alicia Shepard was NPR Ombudsman from 2007 through June 2011.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RGEKSWZ5YY2ISXAKUWDPBNCCVM Nate Bowman

    Oops.
    Apologies to Ms. Shepard.
    She does say at the end to “always evenly apply their ethics code to all employees.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RGEKSWZ5YY2ISXAKUWDPBNCCVM Nate Bowman

    I find Ms. Shepard’s attitude here distressing.

    She is behaving as if she had trouble with Mr. Williams all along.

    Actually, she spent quite a bit of energy defending the criticisms raised by listeners against Mr. Williams. The very same actions she is now citing as valid reasons for Mr. Williams’ dismissal.

    One of the specific instances is that the NPR code of Ethics specifically says that no one should say anything in public outside of NPR that they would not say on NPR. When Mr. Williams’ breach was brought to Ms. Shepard’s attention, she parroted the rationale to the public that she is now solely attributing to her former bosses.

    The same complaints have been raised against Mara Liasson whose NPR biography does not even mention her more than 10 years at FOX.

    And, as is customary for Ms. Shepard, the title of the piece has little to do with what she writes.
    Normally, when someone fact-checks, they quote something the factcheckee said and then provide evidence for how accurate, factual or true it is.She even goes on to say “What are facts? And what happens when facts are selectively used? Or people employ different interpretations of the facts?” as if some poignant or incisive discussion will result. Instead, we are left with the usual NPR he said/she said and an opinion that Mr. Williams should not portray himself as a victim.

    Also customarily, Ms. Shepard introduces an issue that has no direct connection to the one at hand and serves to confuse and obfuscate (“Would he even have had the opportunity to write this book if NPR hadn’t botched the ending of their mutually unhealthy relationship?” That’s like saying “I’m sorry asked you to leave, but would you have had all of this free time on your hands if hadn’t?”) 

    Again, typically of NPR, when Mr. Williams crossed an ethics line, he was asked to not bring up his NPR affiliation on FOX. 
    NOT “don’t do this any more”. Just “don’t let people know you’re on NPR.

    Lastly, and again typically, Ms. Shepard and NPR don’t see their own disconnect:
    The public complained that the NPR Ethics Code was selectively enforced. 
    Ms. Shepard admits as much in the middle of the article.
    The solution for NPR (of which Ms. Shepard agrees)?
    Revamp the Ethics Code!
    NOT apply it to everybody equally.

  • http://twitter.com/writingprincess writingprincess

    As a person who knows another black guy fired from an NPR radio station I guess I’m a little inclined to say that NPR seems to only be selective in its punishment of employees with minority opinions be they conservative or ultra liberal. It seems NPR has a problem with dissent. It allows its commentators to say whatever they want as along as they tow the middle liberal line. I don’t have a problem with a news organization holding a tight line on its editorial commentary but I do have a problem when that line is not applied equally and their treatment of minority journalists is disturbing.

  • Don Pasqueda

    Grumpy Demo,

    There you go again, pointing out inconsistencies, supporting them with facts. Others “think” or “feel” that Shepard did a good job. Ombudding is “hard work,” after all. I think a thorough fact-checking of Shepard’s work would reveal that you are right. What do I know though? Right?

    We cannot look back. We must move forward. The past is the past — except here, in the form of a book review. By forgetting the past, propagandists, disguised as journalists, rework “the truth.” You can have YOUR truth. Shepard (and Williams, it seems) have THE truth.

    What Shepard and Williams have in common is that they are professionals — journalists of a sort. You aren’t. Thus, you are unqualified to muster the facts, analyze the information and arrive at conclusions.

    That Shepard’s and Williams’ individual truths never meet. Well, that IS a paradox, isn’t it? Simultaneously, it is the construct of nPRs perfect journalistic symmetry. He said; she said objectivity. Williams and Shepard are comfortably at home now. Getting paid to do what they do. And you don’t matter.

    DQP

  • F. Douglas

    Thanks for the response. I think it would be good policy — the sort of thing any legitimate news organization would do, really, with a story.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Good question. I’m open to News Corp., Fox News et al fact-checking books that attack them. If someone pitches me on that story, I’d listen just as I did when someone pitched me this one. –Julie (jmoos @ poynter.org)

  • F. Douglas

    I always thought Shepard did a pretty good job as NPR’s ombudsman, which can’t be an easy task. I don’t know that anything she says here is earth shattering. She says there is another side to the story than what Williams gives, but also implies NPR was trying to squeeze Williams out because of his association with Fox (or rather, things said on Fox.)

    I’m wondering if News Corp, Fox News, et al, will now get the opportunity here to “fact check” books that attack them? I don’t recall that it has in the past. I could be wrong. If this site has been “fair and balanced” in that regard, I’d like to give it credit.

  • Grumpy Demo

    It curious, and sad, that Ms. Shepard waits until after she is no longer on the nPR payroll, to act like an Ombudsman:

    “Sometimes I was told that because he was a contractor, NPR’s ethics code didn’t apply. Other times, I was told he had more leeway with the ethics code because he was a senior news analyst.”

    “NPR selectively used its ethics code with him. “These two facts were never shared by Ms. Shepard with any of nPR’s listeners. While the “listeners’ representative” to nPR she steadfastly defended nPR’s management, with the exception of minor mistakes, and ignored listeners’ repeated inquiries about Mr. Williams’ unprofessional behavior. I know, I was one of the listeners she ignored. I wrote to Ms. Shepard repeatedly asking for an explanation of why Mr. Williams was permitted  to violate nPR’s Code of Ethics and never got anything but a form email back. Numerous times,  I formally requested on her blog an explanation citing the specific sections that Williams (and Mara Liasson) were clearly violating.Perhaps in her next column she can explain why she defended nPR’s Management’s unprofessional and unethical treatment of Harry Shearer? While also ignoring Mr. Shearer’s direct questions:http://www.npr.org/templates/community/persona.php?uid=5935964I won’t be torturing, er “harshly interrogating” myself waiting for an answer.
    FYI, Williams stayed at nPR for the same reason FOX hired him, he was benefiting from the nPR halo effect which enabled him to make a ton of money on the speaker circuit.

  • Anonymous

    I like the way you’ve clarified what’s fact, what’s your opinion, in this detailed account of Juan Williams’ termination by NPR. And it’s good news  that NPW is revamping its ethics policy. This column should be required reading for all journalism students!