The statement read: “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
That was NPR terminating the contract of Juan Williams after remarks on Fox News Channel about his fear of Muslims. “The deluge of email crashed NPR’s ‘Contact Us’ form on the web site,” wrote Alicia Shepard, the NPR ombudsman, who called the dismissal poorly handled. You can sample the explosion of commentary here. My own views most closely parallel what Will Bunch said about it.
What the hell is a “news analyst?”
I am less interested in adding to this debate than in isolating one key element in NPR’s pressthink: a job category, news analyst, that is distinct from reporter and show host on the one hand, or commentator or columnist on the other. Officially, the reason Juan Williams was fired is that he failed to follow NPR policies for what a “news analyst” is permitted to do. This is from CEO Vivian Schiller’s memo to NPR affiliates:
NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts.
By all accounts, NPR grew more and more uncomfortable with Williams as his appearances on Fox began to draw complaints. “After other inflammatory comments on Fox, in April 2008 NPR changed Williams’ role from news correspondent (a reporting job) to news analyst,” the ombudsman writes. “In this contract position, he was expected to report, think quickly and give his own analysis – while carefully choosing his words on any given subject.”
Okay, so let’s review…
NPR has reporters, like Don Gonyea. They are supposed to report on what is going on and they never give their views.
NPR has show hosts, like Michele Norris. They ask the questions, introduce taped reports and lend a consistent voice and tone to the program. They have to stay neutral.
NPR has guests like Elizabeth Warren: They are participants in events, officials and experts. Guests state their views, which stand out against the neutral background created by the hosts and correspondents.
I think most of us can follow the logic of that. But watch what happens….
NPR has news analysts: They aren’t like correspondents, columnists or commentators. They’re expected to do their own reporting; they aren’t permitted to give their views or take positions.
So what is it that a “news analyst” does? One of the answers NPR gives is tautological: analysts give their own analysis. Another (via Alicia Shepard) is that they “think quickly” on the air. But that is not a job description or a distinct role. Analysts are supposed to choose their words carefully, she says, which is true for anyone who is on the radio talking to millions of people. They are supposed to be “fact-based,” but that is what reporters are supposed to be, too.
I repeat: what is a “news analyst,” really? Across NPR, within its vast listenership, or among the participants in the public controversy still swirling around Juan Williams, I don’t think anyone has any idea. It’s almost a content-less category. The term “analysis,” as NPR is using it here, means something so obscure, tendentious and peculiar to the culture of professional journalism that the vacuous and tautological statements I’ve quoted are probably the network’s better option.
Nonetheless, I will try to describe what it actually is.
In September, Peter Goodman, a top economic correspondent for the New York Times, decided to leave the Times for the Huffington Post. The explanation he gave is that he could no longer tolerate certain codes of newswriting that are supposed to signal to readers that the author has no view of the matter. “With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on,” Goodman told Howard Kurtz.
He said he was not looking for room to rant. At both the Times and the Washington Post, Goodman felt he was engaged in “almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.” He wanted to remain a reporter, but also say what he thinks. The Huffington Post offered him that, so he jumped.
Goodman’s frustration helps us understand what an NPR news analyst is, and why it’s such a strange category. Like Goodman Unbound, an NPR analyst has a certain latitude. He doesn’t have to get some think tank guy to say what the journalist may be thinking, whereas a “straight” reporter would have to obey that cumbersome rule. But unlike Goodman Unbound, the NPR analyst is still constrained from saying what he thinks. Schiller’s words again: “[Williams] was explicitly and repeatedly asked to respect NPR’s standards and to avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings, as that is inconsistent with his role as an NPR news analyst.”
So an analyst no longer has laundry duty, and can speak on her own authority in sizing up situations; but she cannot take positions, enter into public controversies, or level with us about her own views. That leaves a very narrow range of permissible speaking styles, and this is what an NPR analyst really is: someone who has mastered this bizarrely restricted rule sheet. An analyst tries to convey a sense of “what’s really going on” without disturbing the illusion that NPR people never come to conclusions, conduct arguments, reveal their own convictions, or decide which side is bullshitting us more.
It’s easier to understand this strange category if we look away from Juan Williams for a moment and focus on NPR’s “senior news analyst,” Cokie Roberts, who appears most Mondays on Morning Edition. Roberts is the child of a famous political dynasty. Her people are establishment Democrats so it is likely she is an establishment Democrat; but no one on the air ever remarks on this, and she speaks as if she has no political life at all, although her entire career has been an immersion in Washington politics.
NPR listeners are supposed to get the benefit of this immersion through her membership in what I have called The Church of the Savvy. The savvy don’t take positions; they discern what’s happening under the rumble of partisan politics and the manipulations of the media age:
Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passon, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit… The savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature.
Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his or her observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sighted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy. This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself.
Analysis as Cokie Roberts practices it means performing this savvy script upon the week’s events. She speculates on what voters are likely to do, or seem to be saying. (Listen to a typical example.) She discerns political motive in statements that pretend to be about public purpose. She calls upon Washington history to show us how we’ve heard it all before. She chuckles at the openly inauthentic. She serves up audible eyerolls when someone says that it’s time to get the country moving again or the money out of politics. Hundreds of sentences of hers start with, “Well, if you believe the polls….”
Advertising your agendalessness
That’s a little too much voice for “straight reporting,” as professional journalists understand it. But it’s a lot less voice than Look: here’s what I, Cokie Roberts, establishment Democrat, Washington insider and amateur feminist historian think… The idea is to give her enough room to permit crap detection without losing the political protection that the View From Nowhere affords NPR.
The view from nowhere is a professional ideology that positions the news provider between polarized extremes. It tries to generate trust by advertising the agendalessness of the journalist. This (and not “liberalism”) is the official ideology at NPR. Juan Williams was held to be in violation of it. You can hear this in Vivian Schiller’s memo:
“In appearing on TV or other media… NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows… that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
More fundamentally, “In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.”
And you can hear it in Brian Stelter’s report for the New York Times:
After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias.
I like that phrase, “View-from-nowhere polemics.” It captures the absurdity of the position of the viewless analyst.
Analysis means drawing conclusions
Real analysis is when you can bring to events a body of knowledge not given by those events, which permits you to re-frame what happened and reveal something we would not have seen without access to your knowledge. The value is greatly diminished if, for fear of seeming too opinionated or violating some bureaucratic commandment, the analyst can’t tell us what he thinks.
Simple example: I flew on Virgin Airlines last week and noticed that the power plugs they boast about turned themselves off because the plane cannot handle the load when too many laptops are plugged in. I can tell you what happened and what the company said, but for analysis I had to turn to James Fallows and his nerdy readers. They had the knowledge needed to figure out what’s going on and draw conclusions.
But an NPR analyst cannot do that. Maintaining the view from nowhere is more important to NPR than offering serious analysis to listeners, but from what I can tell no one there understands this. What they should do is explain to their audience that real analysis is too risky for them, but that crashes too many professional illusions and it is not going to happen.
Let’s wrap up. Here is what I, Jay Rosen, New York Jew, liberal Democrat, and professional student of the press think… Given its existing codes NPR was in an untenable position from the moment Juan Williams started working for Fox, where his job is to be a liberal foil for the conservative alternative in news. There was no way he could abide by NPR’s rules–which insist on viewlessness as a guarantor of trust–and appear on Fox, where the clash of views is basic to what the network does to generate audience, and where Williams relished the give and take with outsized personalities like Bill O’Reilly.
NPR recognized the problem but tried to finesse it by re-classifying Williams as an “analyst.” Big mistake. The job of analyst, as NPR defines it, is so tightly constrained that it excludes almost everything Williams was doing for Fox. So why didn’t NPR simply get rid of Williams years ago when he began to generate view-from-somewhere controversies with his appearances on Fox? The likely reason was identified by Farai Chideya, who used to work at NPR: a diversity problem. NPR had almost no black men on the air.
This was the simmering situation that boiled over last week and now has the Republican party on the march against NPR. On Monday, I will be a guest on NPR’s On Point program, discussing this troublesome episode with Alica Shepard and columnist Mona Charen.
I hope to make some of these points, but it’s live radio, so who knows what will happen?
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
You can listen to my appearance on On Point here. (Warning: it plays on contact.) Among the things I said: “On Fox, news exists in order to generate controversy, controversy generates resentment, resentment generates ratings.”
PressThink, seven years ago: Bill O’Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News. “The Fox News host is a new type in the press, but an old type in politics. And O’Reilly’s style–resentment news–is gaining.”
Wow. If you donate to Boston’s WBUR you can specify that none of your money should go to NPR. What a statement about the Williams controversy!
Here’s Mona Charen’s column for National Review about the On Point discussion: NPR Confronts Its Own Tea Party. She airbrushed me out! “I appeared on the public-radio program On Point this week with National Public Radio ombudsman, Alicia Shepherd, and listened to her defend NPR’s firing of Juan Williams…”
Juan Williams on the Diane Rehm show addresses directly the question of what an NPR analyst is. It’s in his answer to the first question Rehm asks him. He says that as an analyst he gives NPR listeners the benefit of his long experience as a former White House correspondent and Washington columnist, with many sources in town and the ability to get his questions answered. He also says that the people in the audience will trust a reporter more if they know how that reporter thinks on the pertinent issues, which is the same observation I made on On Point.
Alicia Shepard corrected me on the air: Williams was already a commentator on Fox when he was hired by NPR as a show host, not a correspondent. So I changed that section to make it accurate. She also said in a column after the show that as ombudsman she received 22,769 complaints about the episode.
James Fallows at The Atlantic: Why NPR Matters.
In their current anti-NPR initiative, Fox and the Republicans would like to suggest that the main way NPR differs from Fox is that most NPR employees vote Democratic. That is a difference, but the real difference is what they are trying to do. NPR shows are built around gathering and analyzing the news, rather than using it as a springboard for opinions. And while of course the selection of stories and analysts is subjective and can show a bias, in a serious news organization the bias is something to be worked against rather than embraced. NPR, like the New York Times, has an ombudsman. Does Fox?
Culture war comic relief: Long-time “viewers” of NPR warn that they are going to “stop watching” because they are sooooo upset about the Juan Williams firing. More on these “viewers.” And: PBS ombudsman is flooded with calls and letters from people who want to complain to NPR about the Juan Williams firing.
We have already begun a thorough review of all aspects of our performance in this instance, a process that will continue in the coming days and weeks. We will also review and re-articulate our written ethics guidelines to make them as clear and relevant as possible for our acquired show partners, our staff, Member stations and the public.
The news and media world is changing swiftly and radically; traditional standards and practices are under siege. This requires us to redouble our attention to how we interpret and live up to our values and standards.
Something to watch for: whether this review is conducted in a public and participatory way, or done -behind-the-scenes. That will tell us a lot about NPR’s future direction.
More Vivian Schiller from one of the first interviews she gave after the Juan Williams thing blew up:
Schiller also said it’s “sophomoric” to deride objectivity as a lie of omission, that hiding a journalists’ biases is a bad thing: “Yes, we are humans. We have opinions. None of us are impartial, that objectivity and absolute truth as concepts are unattainable. It does not follow that providing the most objective and most impartial work possible is not a worthy goal for professional journalists.”
In any discussion that involves news executives, advancing the discussion of “objectivity” past this single point (no one can be totally objective, but it’s still worth striving for) is almost impossible. Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s the mask of impartiality or… an ideological food fight. Those are the two alternatives. Eluding that frame is very, very difficult.
James Poniewozik at Time.com… Juan Williams: Did He Have a Problem Opinion, or Do We Have a Problem With Opinions?
If you’ve read me regularly at all, you know I believe it’s counterproductive and useless for journalists to behave as if they have no opinions; no one believes it, and audiences only become more suspicious. (See here for my fuller feelings on fuller disclosure.) All these firings are in some way the collateral damage of the new era of new-media journalism—where openness is encouraged—colliding with the ingrained rules of old journalism, which wants to survive but not necessarily to change.
The Poniewozik post includes a clip of Juan Williams on The O’Reilly Factor after he was bounced from NPR. It should be watched.
Jake Tapper thinks he can thread the needle between analysis and opinion. Consciously striving to be “agnostic” is the trick of it, he says. (Hat tap, Andrew Tyndall.)
Public radio finances. The notion of “defunding NPR” is essentially a right-wing fantasy. (Politico: Defunding NPR? It’s not that easy.) The thing to look for is whether Republican congressmen have the cojones to cut off funding to local stations, which are often very popular in their districts. Dollar value in direct appropriation from Congress to NPR: $0. Congress funds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting instead. Dollar value in direct funding from CPB to NPR: $0. The money goes to the local stations.