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.


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