Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Juan Williams Affair


The problem with the Juan Williams affair is not his comment to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly; that Muslims in full dress on airplanes make him nervous-- but Fox News itself. Over the course of many years, as the nation became more and more deeply immersed in its cloud, NPR bent over backwards to ensure its reports were free from taint of opinion irrespective of ideological origin. NPR performs a crucial service to the public despite a constant barrage of attacks from the right.

Juan Williams wandered off the NPR reservation when he signed up to be a commentator for Fox News. The reaction by NPR brass-- to fire him, for his comment to O'Reilly-- was wrong. He could have remained a pundit on NPR, like the late Daniel Schorr, so long as he never reported news again. The problem is that Williams is identified by NPR audiences as a journalist.

Fox is the most popular cable "news" outlet on television. It uses poorly trained journalists with bones to grind and grievances that deliberately stir fact and fiction and base emotions of fear and flight. When I listen to Fox News and its deliberate confusion of opinion and journalism and its effect on audiences, I think of feedlot cattle circling into narrowing chutes.


Yeah, this is basically my take on the whole thing.

I mean sure, I've got a couple of differences. For instance, the essay excerpted above is correct to observe that NPR could have retained Williams purely as an opinion guy. But the catch is that Williams would be a pundit who is made nervous on airplanes by "Muslims in full dress." That is, Williams would be a stupid and xenophobic pundit--thinking that all Muslims present a terrorism threat isn't too terribly far from thinking that all black people or all Hispanic people present a street gang threat. So yeah, NPR didn't have to fire him, but his comments on FOX made him pretty useless for a serious and trying-to-be-objective news organization.

But I wholeheartedly agree with the essay's main thrust. It's not so much Williams' comments on FOX that are unpardonable as that he was working for FOX at all.

At this point in my blogging history, going on eight years Thursday after next, I no longer feel compelled to explain why FOX News cannot in any way be considered what we imagine when we think of the word "news;" indeed, FOX has by now been clearly established as not much more than a right-wing agitprop machine poorly disguised as a cable news channel. No argument, this is fact. So any "journalist" who signs a contract with FOX severely undermines his credibility as a journalist. I mean, FOX is kind of the opposite of journalism: if you work for them, you're being paid to confuse people, rather than enlighten them.

NPR should have fired Williams the moment he started his relationship with Rupert Murdoch. To paraphrase Jesus, you cannot serve both truth and lies. Only within the bizarre corporate news media landscape, and this includes "public" NPR, which gets the majority of its funding from corporate sources, do major news organizations have to pretend that FOX is somehow legitimate, that, in some mysterious way, Murdoch's conservative propaganda vehicle is trying to do essentially the same thing as NPR, or the New York Times, or even Murdoch's recent purchase, the Wall Street Journal. That's why NPR needed some kind of pretext for dumping Williams. That's why they nailed him on what appears to be something of a technicality buried deeply inside the lectures and readings of ethics classes taught in journalism departments at colleges and universities. NPR is afraid to say that FOX is totally full of shit.

But whatever the reasons, I'm glad to see him go. I've always thought he's kind of lame.