When Spiro Agnew was compelled to resign the vice presidency after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges, I made the mistake of accepting an invitation to appear on David Susskind’s televised talk show. It was, I naively thought, an opportunity to discuss in detail how that complicated politician had gotten in trouble accepting cash and groceries while governor of Maryland and as vice president.
But the 1973 Susskind program quickly devolved into a clash of loud opinions among William Rusher, Roy Cohn, Pete Hamill, Jules Witcover and Frank Van Der Linden, as I sat mostly mute. During a commercial break, a producer came to me and said, “Get in there and mix it up.” I did not, and never again accepted an invitation to appear on the increasingly tendentious telecasts that masquerade as news analysis.
NPR was right to sever its relationship with Juan Williams — but not for what Williams had said about Muslims on the Fox Network’s “O’Reilly Factor.” Those comments were relatively benign. Williams now contends NPR had been itching to find an excuse to fire him merely for appearing on Fox. He’s right; my only quibble is whether NPR needed any provocation.
We journalists are not and never have been objective. We are, like all humans, conditioned by experience, upbringing, and education, and thus incapable of mindless neutrality. But we strive for fairness. The problem with a journalist participating in opinion-mongering programs on Fox — or on MSNBC — is that these programs by their very nature are unfair. They thrive on inciting and showcasing bias.
It is correct, as some thoughtful journalists have noted, that news organizations have a hard time distinguishing what is permitted of their own commentators. Yes, analysts have wider latitude to opine than do straight news reporters. But what is valued in mainstream news organizations is the judgment of commentators, and judgment is not what motivates producers of programming like “The Sean Hannity Show” or “Hardball.” Heat, not light, is their objective. Rupert Murdoch is not alone in discovering there is big money to be made catering to the worse angels of our nature.
NPR badly mishandled the dismissal of Juan Williams. The public broadcaster could have avoided the current imbroglio if it had thoughtfully and methodically issued a guideline barring appearances by its staff on these tendentious telecasts (but not on more dispassionate programs such as those on Fox hosted by Shepard Smith). Williams would then have had a choice between paychecks issued by NPR or by Fox. There’s scant likelihood he’d have chosen NPR.
Jim Naughton was President of The Poynter Institute from 1996 to 2003.