NPR Redefines “Journalist”

So NPR decided to fire Juan Williams for supposedly “violating the network’s ethics policies” without even talking with him face to face about his remarks on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”

In a public statement, Vivian Schiller, NPR’s CEO, made an insulting crack that implied Mr. Williams was being treated for mental illness.  Less overtly inflammatory, but important nonetheless, Ms. Shiller stated the following:

“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,” said Schiller in an email to NPR member stations, some of which are upset about Williams’ firing.

“As you all well know,” she continued, “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.”

One problem?  The policies were not violated!

Let’s first review what Mr. Williams actually said

 “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Their Ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, justifies support of the firing based in part on the claim that he violated the Ethics Code by expressing personal views–a violation even if done away from NPR.

The issue also is whether someone on NPR’s payroll should be allowed to say something in one venue that NPR would not allow on its air. NPR’s ethics code says they cannot.

But the ethics code specifically states “NPR journalists” all the way through.  In her commentary and other NPR reports, we find that back in April 2008, NPR had changed Mr. Williams’ position from, as Ms. Shepard puts it, “news correspondent (a reporting job) to news analyst.”  One NPR report states: “His status was earlier shifted from staff correspondent to analyst after he took clear-cut positions about public policy on television and in newspaper opinion pieces.”

In other words, NPR had already acknowledged that Mr. Williams was taking positions on issues and expressing personal opinions.  NPR also acknowledged this to the extent that it had changed his role from journalist to analyst.  

Is NPR now claiming that it considers its analysts to be journalists?  If so, they need to take a look at many others besides Mr. Williams.  And Ms. Schiller should be breathing a sigh of relief that NPR exempts its CEO from its ethics code.

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