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.)
Harry Shearer in the comments notes that the role of “news analyst” goes back to Eric Sevareid on CBS. Commentary was considered too risky back then; “analyst” sounded safer.
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.
This is a very nice, thoughtful piece. Nevertheless, I think there is something a bit dogmatic and overly disparaging in Rosen’s references to what used to be called “objectivity” as a “view from nowhere.” I have argued for a very long time that objectivity or whatever you want to call it is ultimately unattainable and journalists who fetishize objectivity set themselves up for failure and ridicule. However, I think there is a point to the idea that journalists should strive to attain objectivity, or whatever you want to call it.
“Objectivity” is an idea that crops up repeatedly in various settings, including journalism but also science. Sometimes the concept takes on slightly different labels. Wikipedia, for example, strives for a “neutral point of view.” Millions of words I’m sure have been wasted on Wikipedia discussion pages arguing about whether a particular sentence, idea or statement is really neutral, and of course no idea truly can be completely. And yet there is a difference, on Wikipedia and in journalism, between a ranting partisan and someone who is trying to be fair, thorough and factual in what they say. Even if this ideal is not perfectly attainable, it is approachable, and I think it is worth encouraging and striving for.
I have come to this conclusion gradually, and somewhat reluctantly. When I was younger and more foolish, I imbibed heavily from the ideas of the left, which was as passionate then as the right is now in its insistence that objectivity is an illusion perpetrated by the ruling class. I’ve come to the conclusion that activists of all stripes — left, right and centrist — dismiss objectivity in part because disparaging the very concept of neutrality or fairness gives them license to fabricate, exaggerate, engage in selective argumentation, and generally spin reality to suit whatever cause or agenda they happen to be currently pushing. And that ain’t good either.
Sheldon, there’s a big difference between a reporter being objective in gathering and analyzing information (like the method Kovach and Rosenstiel advocate in the Elements of Journalism) and the “objective” presentation of information.
The former flows directly from Enlightenment ideals; the latter is largely a marketing gimmick.
The word objectivity does not appear in my piece. The View from Nowhere is what prevents journalists from calling out those who “fabricate, exaggerate, engage in selective argumentation, and generally spin reality to suit whatever cause or agenda they happen to be currently pushing.” In that sense it inhibits the kind of objectivity you want, Sheldon.
I think one can still maintain objectivity and call out those who are not. In fact, it’s the only way to do so with any credibility. View from Nowhere is catchy but I would rather see the view from above. Judges do that all the time and when they can’t, they recuse themselves.
My mentor, Neil Postman, used to say that Walter Chronkite’s famous close “And that’s the way it is” was the most dangerous statement made on television. For any journalist or jounalistic organization to advertise that they have the only true monopoly on what “really” happened (which you would need to be able to “view the debate from above”)is a terrible falsehood and corrupts our public discourse every day.
Judges sit above legal discourse in their courtrooms so that can function as arbiter of rules of law. The content of the dispute is up to the attorneys. Journalists don’t arbitrate the rules of public discourse, they determine content and are not so much “judging” as “editing” even if that editing is on the level of the choice of which topics are included in the discussion at all.
We have debated this at length in our writings for the History Commons. We excerpt and summarize news and opinion reports on a variety of topics, and attempt not to insert our own commentary and views into the work). The site admins, including myself, have harped on “neutrality” and “non-partisanship” in our language and structuring, and we strive to present the information we provide in as non-partisan (or failing that, as bipartisan) a manner as possible.
However, as Sheldon has noted, the idea of attaining objectivity or neutrality almost begs the question, inasmuch as we are all partisans of one slant or another, and to one degree or another, simply by dint of being human. It can’t be done. I’ve found that merely selecting a line of investigation (i.e. our investigation of propaganda in the US media) forces a certain degree of “slant” or partisanship, if nothing else because of what we choose to cover and what we choose not to cover.
For example, I’ve written extensively about racism in the American media, and for whatever reason, I’ve focused strongly on conservative and right-wing pundits and politicians, not because there are no left-wing or liberal racists, but because the racist material I’ve been able to find in my Internet and library searches has been largely conservative and right-wing voices. I’ve actually gone specifically searching for left-wing or Democratic examples of racism, and have found comparatively few, but what I’ve found I’ve written about. Even the idea of searching for examples of racist propaganda specifically made by liberals or Democrats made me uncomfortable. Isn’t it adding slant or bias to our coverage by trying to ferret out some examples of racist pronouncements in the US media by the left (or the right)? If 99% of the racism I found in the media comes from right-wing sources, shouldn’t 99% of the material I write about media-presented racism come from those same sources?
We have dealt with similar issues in other areas of investigation, particularly the 9/11 project, where long ago we decided not to extensively cover the less credible conspiracy theories — laser-guided jetliners, holographic technology, buildings filled with explosives, missiles designed to masquerade as 747s, and the like. Ultimately, we made that decision because we, the small number of us in a position to decide, decided the conspiracy theories were not believable, and we didn’t want to turn the investigation into a repository of “wild” 9/11 conspiracy theories. We’ve never been comfortable with the decision, but the alternative makes us even less comfortable. Sheldon, your observation is probably as good a summation as it gets: “Even if this ideal is not perfectly attainable, it is approachable, and I think it is worth encouraging and striving for.” Whatever the alternative is, it isn’t journalism in the sense that I have always viewed the subject.
The real issue in all of this is a man expressed his real and sincere personal feelings in order to illustrate how fear and logic are at the front of the emotional battle many Americans struggle with in our desire to be moral, unbiased, and just. It takes courage to be honest like that in our current PC society.
If we apply any of the present-day PC standards/conjectures that define a racist or bigot, I suspect that most southern democrats of the 1960’s and before, would fall into that category. Racism was very alive and well on both sides of the color and political bar 50 years ago. So I suspect that somewhat less than 90 per cent of racism in the US is Republican. Robert Byrd comes to mind.
The problem with what Williams said about his ‘real and sincere personal feelings’ is that he didn’t actually make the point that Americans struggle with irrational fears. He confirmed those irrational fears by agreeing with them, but he never stated flat-out that they are irrational. Fearing someone in ‘Muslim garb’ because they’re ‘first and foremost a Muslim’ (??) is not a legitimate thing to fear. It is a fear that many many many Americans hold and I do think it’s important to address that fear… but a news analyst implying that those fears are justified? Unacceptable.
I get so frustrated when people continue to blame ‘our PC society’ for stuff that should just be common sense. Racism and Islamophobia are wrong and if we hide behind the ‘oh well everyone feels that way’ shield, they will never go away. All that ‘political correctness’ has done to our society is made it less socially acceptable to be a bigot. That’s an improvement on society… Islamophobia is one of the last remaining ‘acceptable’ bigotries and I think it’s about time that the news media are stepping up to say that it ISN’T acceptable.
The problem with criticizing phobias is that it is too selective. It is quite fashionable among the Left to cultivate a spectrum of phobias: of fundamentalist Christians (or any Christians for that matter), of Tea Partiers, etc. I agree that Islamophobia is irrational, especially when it is directed at those who display their religion in obvious ways: these are people you can almost guarantee will not pose a threat to anyone. But to say that we shouldn’t consider the possibility that some people, acting on their Islamic beliefs, might perpetrate an atrocity is equally irrational, as the absence of the World Trade Center clearly proves.
What is irrational is fearing Muslims dressed in Muslim garb since, to date, none of the Muslim terrorists in this country wore Muslim garb. I fear Muslims for two reasons. The acts of terroism in this country were committed by Muslims and I don’t know which Muslims are terrorists waiting to strike.
The role of “broadcast news analyst” has been taken by NPR whole-hog from the storied days of the CBS Evening News, when Eric Sevareid occupied that slot. In those days, commentary was verboten on the news, so “analyst” was the closest one could come. The role was to issue what Washington newsies now routinely deride as “thumb-suckers”, think pieces involving, as the npr ombud noted, quick thinking.
One wonders why NPR didn’t just drop the pose and label Williams a “commentator”, a position they have in their universe of broadcast roles.
But then, I go back to the npr ombud’s explanation of why local public stations approved language for underwriting spots (ads) for my documentary that NPR Washington rejected: the national network, she wrote me in an email, may just be more fearful.
She didn’t specify of what.
Given what we’ve seen since Williams’ firing from Palin, DeMint, et al, I think we now know exactly what they’re afraid of.
“Given what we’ve seen since Williams’ firing from Palin, DeMint, et al, I think we now know exactly what they’re afraid of.”
Both Cokie Roberts & Juan Williams should have been dropped from NPR long ago because they are bad at news analysis.
One of her many low points was when she attacked Obama for going on vacation to visit his dying grandmother in Hawaii during the 2008 campaign because “it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach, and, you know, if he’s going to take a vacation at this time.”
I sent this to Alicia Shepard on the September 6th, 2009 Fox News Sunday (Howard Dean talks about Van Jones 19 minutes into this segement video I can’t find the video of the later roundtable – the Fox News search engine leaves a lot to be desired).
Message #: 5607-10008307
Date Created: 9/6/2009 9:31 PM EDT
Subject: False statements on Van Jones by NPR correspondents on Fox News Sunday
Body: On Fox News Sunday today, first Mora Liasson and then Juan Williams said Van Jones didn’t think Al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11.
This is despite the fact that he says he mistakenly signed the petition and those have never been his beliefs. Howard Dean even made that point earlier in the show, but they didn’t seem to be listening.
Although the program is on Fox, they are NPR employees and their outrageous statements reflect badly on NPR.
I received this canned response (which must have been sent to many who complained about William being on Fox)
Thank you for contacting the NPR Office of the Ombudsman. We appreciate your feedback on NPR’s Juan Williams.
NPR staff is held to a strict code of ethics and practices. These standards are in place to protect and support the integrity, impartiality and conduct of our journalists. We encourage you to review the code, which is posted online.
Because of his role for multiple media outlets, several listeners have contacted us to learn more about Williams’ professional involvement at NPR and elsewhere.
NPR News Analyst Juan Williams is also a contributing political analyst for the FOX News Channel and a regular panelist on FOX News Sunday.
It is not uncommon for NPR reporters to appear on other networks, such as CNN and PBS. The integrity of Williams has been carefully vetted by NPR staff, and their extensive knowledge in journalism qualifies him to fulfill his given role. I encourage you to view his biography on NPR.org: Juan Williams
On the NPR website you can also find the column by NPR’s Ombudsman in which she addresses these issues.
Again, thank you for bringing your observations and thoughts to our attention. Your comments have been forwarded to the Ombudsman for her consideration.
Office of the Ombudsman
Message #: 5607-10008809
Date Created: 9/7/2009 3:18 PM EDT
Subject: More on Mora on Fox News
I just got a pre-written response to my complaint about Mora Liasson & Juan Williams saying false things about Van Jones on Fox News Sunday.
The response was entirely about Williams and it linked to a column which just mentioned Liasson briefly.
But Mora Liasson made the most egregious comments on Fox News Sunday. Williams just echoed them.
And she is a reporter for NPR.
Neither of them should have said Van Jones thought Al-Queda wasn’t behind 9/11.
That is wrong even assuming he knew the text of what he was signing. And a number of people said what they were told they are supporting was different from the text.
And even though I read in your column Williams is no longer identified as being with NPR on Fox News, it doesn’t matter. He is still associated with NPR.
And then I got their canned response on Liasson.
Dear Mr Rhodes ;
Thank you for contacting the NPR Office of the Ombudsman. We appreciate your feedback on NPR’s Mara Liasson.
NPR staff is held to a strict code of ethics and practices. These standards are in place to protect and support the integrity, impartiality and conduct of our journalists. We encourage you to review the code, which is posted online.
Because of her role for multiple media outlets, several listeners have contacted us to learn more about Liasson’s professional involvement at NPR and elsewhere.
NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson is a political contributor for Fox News Channel, and also appears as a FOX News Sunday panelist.
It is not uncommon for NPR reporters to appear on other networks, such as CNN and PBS. The integrity of Liasson has been carefully vetted by NPR staff, and their extensive knowledge in journalism qualifies Liasson to fulfill her given role. I encourage you to view her biography on NPR.org: Mara Liasson
On the NPR website you can also find the column [the link was to the same column] by NPR’s Ombudsman in which she addresses these issues.
Again, thank you for bringing your observations and thoughts to our attention. Your comments have been forwarded to the Ombudsman for her consideration.
Office of the Ombudsman
I never received a reply addressing the issue that both said something that wasn’t true.
As I read this, all I can think of is the scene in Office Space when the consultants, Bob and Bob, ask Tom Smykowski what he actually DOES at Intitech. And all he could say is “I deal with the ________ customers!!!!! I have people skills!”
That job in the movie is the analyst position at NPR. No one is really sure why you have it or what you do.
NPR is not consistent, though, because they tolerate Nina Tottenburg (sp?) giving her very biased – to the left – point of view on panels she appears on regularly. Fox also employs Mara Liasson to function similarly to Juan W. So what of her? The outrage is the inconsistency. If they have a policy for their journalists, so be it. But apply it fairly and consistently.
You failed to mention one of the odder parts of this saga, that Juan Williams worked for Fox News as a contributor/commentator BEFORE NPR hired him. So if they had a problem with him being on Fox News and espousing an opinion, which he was already doing, why did they hire him? He mentioned in passing that “this crew” was particularly aggressive with him on his appearances at Fox. He further mentioned that he had problems at times with the different “crews” in charge. So I am gathering from that, that NPR has a high turnover at the executive level and that whoever hired him didn’t have a problem but that subsequent “crews” have.
I love some of NPR’s programs, but I too have noticed and am sick of Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts’ horrible statements in their public “journalistic” roles. Its not that I even mind that they are liberal, but their statements are often grossly unkind, impolite and unprofessional, and quite unpleasant to listen to.
Well I hope that the fall out from this, whether they keep their funding at Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which is were the public money really is) or not, continues to slap them around a bit, as it has been long overdue.
And finally, the CEO does need to resign over her psychiatrist comment. I hope to see that happen this week.
The problem with Mr. Rosen’s – pardopn the expression – analysis here is that, as a self identified ‘liberal’, he suffers from the same blind spot as the foks at NPR.
That is to say, Rosen like the folks at NPR, actually believes that the ‘analysts’ and ‘reporters’ at NPR are taking a ‘view from nowhere’, because he lacks the capacity to detect where objectivity ends and left of center bias begins.
The suggestion that NPR’s culture is one of ‘agendalessness’ is myopic. The ‘analysts’ and ‘reporters’ at NPR regularly inject left politics (most often identity politics) and personal opinion.
White males, for example, are regularly stereotyped as racist, so apparently NPR does not disapprove of all sterotyping. To creatures of the left of course, the notion that all whites are racist (or perhaps all whites but themsleves) and all ‘people of color’ are ‘oppressed’ isn’t a radical POV but obvious ‘facts’ appreciabel to thise with the ‘view from nowhere’.
Radical leftist ideas such as identity politics and ‘whiteness studies’ inform much of the ‘view of race from nowhere’ at NPR. (For the uninitiated, whiteness studies is a peculiar, postmodern inspired academic ‘field’ predicated on unevidenced assertions and circular arguments to the effect that whites invented the concept of race in genereal and the white and black races in particular early in American history to ensure white dominance over blacks. They are apparently not troubled by the fact that concepts of white and black races predate American history and exist outside of Anglo-Saxon cultures, nor are they bothered by the obvious cirularity of the suggestim that a pre-existing ‘white race’ could have ‘invented’ race to oppress the black race).
I’m sorry, but if you don’t understand the difference between “the View from Nowhere means advertising your agendalessness” (which is what I said) and “NPR, as everyone knows, is actually agendaless” (which is what you said I said) then I cannot help you much. The difference might be subtle, it might have a complication or two in it, but there is a difference.
The fact that the word “objective” is missing from this analysis, is telling I think. It’s as if your saying NPR is expecting Analysts to practice some sort of esoteric, new-fangled, code speech. Whether or not Objectivity in politics is possible (in some metaphysica sense) we all know what it means to try to be objective.
Finding out that someone expected to give objective opinions of the current political landscape is afraid of muslims on airplanes, undermines my ability to take him seriously.
Cokie Roberts is your example of analyst-speak. This may be shooting ducks in the barrel. It could be that Roberts is just not a very good analyst rather than the quintessence of the NPR style. Did you have the same complaint about Daniel Schorr? What about the role of the analyst on non-political stories? Do you find NPR has the same problem in economic-diplomatic-scientific-healthcare-sports analysis? Or is the View from Nowhere primarily a political problem?
NPR was the news organization that produced The Giant Pool of Money, which you single out as an exemplary explainer. Following Shearer, perhaps NPR should drop “analysis” and “commentary” as categories, eliminating the traditions of Roberts and Sevareid — and to start explaining instead.
BTW: if you did not receive my e-mail this weekend, you should check the display of the comments section in your archive following your (successful) redesign. Archive links that return the old blue design display comments properly (even though they are closed); those that return the new “black eyeglasses” design suppress the display of comments in postings where comments are closed, which undercuts half the value of the site.
PS: your old “Preview Comments” before “Submit Comments” was poster-friendly, especially for checking that links were formatted properly. You should restore it.
We’re going to be adding that back in, Andrew. I got your note about the missing comment threads and we will see what we can do about that, too.
What a Socialist POS this group has now become. I guess Sorros pulls the string for you idiots!
Charming. That is all well and good. But please explain to me how NPR could justify ignoring some of the blatant, personal comments expressed by Nina Totenberg, many times, on many topics, starting with the “wish that Jesse Helms gets Aids” episode and not have enforced their “policy” fairly, across the board prior to this. It smacks of retribution, retaliation and reverse discrimination.
Vivian Schiller has thrown herself face first into an identity-politics minefield and can’t stop making snow angels. It’s wonderful.
Such interesting ideas here, and a great job of putting into words that which so many of us understand intuitively, but have difficulty expressing. I actually found it difficult to believe Mr. Rosen was “liberal,” as so few are able to see (or is it “willing to expose?”) the core problem of being unable to admit such a thing as “liberal bias,” while at the same time reviling those conservatives who make no pretense of neutrality.
I listened to Cokie Roberts on NPR only 2 or 3 weeks ago expressing disdain for political punditry, then ended the discussion with a liberal-biased, backhanded insult of a conservative candidate in question, resulting in laughter among those on the air with her. If that had been Juan Williams’ remark on FOX of a liberal candidate, would he have been dismissed then and there?
Which of these statements is the most inflamatory?
– I get nervous around people dressed in Muslim garb.
– You are worse than a clown, you are more like a terrorist.
– If there is justice, you will get AIDS, or one of your grandchildren will get it.
I think we all see what’s really going on here.
“The idea is to give her enough room to permit crap detection without losing the political protection that the View From Nowhere affords NPR.”
Your idea is savvy is my idea of insulated Beltway protector of conventional wisdom, which may be superficially non-partisan but certainly serves the powerful, and adds to the crap.
The view-from-nowhere concept is a laughable illusion, even for weathermen, let alone anyone who reports on subjects related to politics or society. Reporting “just facts” that are reducible to simple, declarative sentences has little or no value. But anything beyond that opens up so many possibilites of describing “what really happened” that a reporter cannot include all of them, and some type of filtering is needed. That is where the view from nowhere becomes the view from somewhere. And I see nothing wrong with this, as long as journalists are aware of the limitations that their filters impose on the quality of their reporting, apply some self criticism, and edit their copy. Isn’t this supposed to be part what makes journalism a “profession”?
I just want to say how much I agree with Bob Koyak’s comments about the illusory nature of objectivity. If you have ever read a story that involved a subject with which you are intimately familiar you have experienced first hand the impact of point of view and experience on our understanding of reality. These are not scientific subjects. These issues are by their very nature subject to our biases. Juan Williams, by verbalizing those biases, honors the truth. From his point-of-view of course.
I found Rosen’s article to be interesting but I disagree with some of his points. In my opinion, the job of an analyst is to study the material presented to him or her, and then pronounce what they believe the material to be saying. While this may be an oversimplification, it gets to the bottom of what many people believe an analyst to be. So, if I do an analysis of provided material and give that analysis to you, am I not just giving you my opinion of what the material said? Who is to say if my analysis is correct? What if someone else has a different analysis? Isn’t that just a matter of one person opinion versus someone else opinion.
As for objectivity in the media, I feel the media hasn’t practiced objectivity probably since the 1950’s. Somewhere along the way the media has stopped reporting the news and starting reporting their opinions about what has been happening in the world. For a long time, the media was decidedly anti-US Government with the exception of the Clinton years and with the Obama presidency.
Thx Mr Rosen. This is a good read…I’m blown away that there’s anyone left in the US who still needs to be hand-held thru such a thesis. It’s probably easier for we the American political conservatives to recognize the charade b/c until the 1990’s, there was no biased news reoprting on ‘our side’.
I see a critical (really critical) omission in your piece though. Some readers have mentioned it above, and it begs a response…what about the double standard in the case of Juan Williams? (ref examples above: Tottenberg, Cokie Roberts, etc)…fundamentally, the firing of Williams is about his associations and the content of his views…NOT that he crossed some journalistic line in the sand.
NPR profile and market are definitely different from FOX News’. The debate on why Juan Williams was fired from NPR will forever go, not because of the brutal way it was carried out by the management at NPR, but for the racist tone it has taken. Employers have legal rights to discharge their employees as they deem fit as long as they abide by the law of the land. It seems NPR’s action goes outside this periphery.
Mr. Williams is the sacrificial lamb in the right-left heated fights in recent time. It was just unfortunate that he did not pick his words as he comments on the utmost ‘Islamaphobic’ comments from Mr. Riley. Comments have a way of boomeranging, and that is what has just happened!
Thanks for this post. As an avid NPR listener, it’s nice to hear an explanation as to why I cannot help but immediately switch off the radio whenever Cokie’s or Juan’s analyses are on. In our house, we don’t call them the “view from nowhere” but rather “uninspired conventional wisdom.”
Jake Tapper tries to thread the needle between “analysis” (OK) and punditry (not-OK).
[…] only used as a prop in Fox’s efforts to incite faux-news propaganda. NYU professor Jay Rosen put it more carefully, saying that given NPR’s ironclad commitment to the objective view from nowhere, “there […]
Jay Rosen is a very carefully profesor, he help my several times, and it was very kind with me.