By Hagit Limor, 2010-11 SPJ President | October 25th, 2010
I don’t know Juan Williams but according to some emailers either I’m his best friend or his worst enemy. Or worse, an enemy of the state.
That’s because no matter what I said about the firing of the former NPR analyst, folks on the right or left were going to use it as fuel for their place in the blogosphere and toward the bulls-eye target formerly known as my email address.
What Williams does for a living represents a part of journalism with which I’m unfamiliar personally. I’ve always been a reporter, objective down the middle, staying away from opinion-making or mongering. This blog and the Quill columns represent my first toe-dip in an area that veers from the straight and narrow.
So when various news agencies contacted SPJ for a comment on the Williams dilemma, I felt comfortable with the Society’s stance.
First, for those who haven’t followed the controversy, Juan Williams worked for NPR as a correspondent and then analyst but also served as a paid commentator for Fox News on shows like “The O’Reilly Factor.” Last week, he told the host of that show, Bill O’Reilly, “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 a plane, I got to 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.”
That was one comment in a longer segment during which Williams also made clear he felt it was important to distinguish moderate Muslims from extremists. It seems no one heard that part. The one quote about getting worried over Muslim garb kaboomed through the internet and came to represent to many people the entirety of one Juan Williams.
Outraged listeners demanded action. NPR fired Williams, saying his comments violated NPR’s ethics code, later adding they were the last straw in a long list of comments they found beyond their standards.
Thus ensued the second round of fireworks, as conservatives and some liberals argued Williams had a right to speak his opinion in the format of a show like O’Reilly’s, and that NPR should hot have fired him for what the First Amendment guarantees all citizens.
That’s when reporters started calling SPJ to get our point of view.
Perhaps you can see from the above, I just can’t let go of my reporter’s instinct to tell all sides in an objective manner. I would make a horrible juror. I see all sides. But when it comes to representing SPJ’s position, I’m pretty clear.
There are two issues here. It may be convenient for some to link them but they are separate.
There’s Williams’ First Amendment rights, which the Society of Professional Journalists first and foremost would fight to protect. We stand for, live by, eat, drink and breathe First Amendment protections from any entity, governmental or otherwise, muzzling speech. Period.
What we don’t do is tell businesses how to run their shops. We don’t get involved in hiring and firing. We respect a paper or station or website’s right to make personnel decisions based on their internal standards. This was strictly a business decision.
That’s not to say SPJ’s Code of Ethics doesn’t speak to the original comments. It’s crystal clear. Journalists should “avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.” That covers what someone wears or how they identify themselves.
How you feel about the entire Williams chapter depends on whether you believe he was serving as a reporter at the time he made his remarks or as a commentator. There is a difference between fact-based, objective journalism versus opinion-oriented columns, blogs and television shows. Juan Williams obviously felt he was walking one side of that line. NPR felt he was walking the other.
All he has to show for the ordeal is a new $3 million deal with Fox News. And an email box full of comments from the left and right. On that point, Juan, I feel your pain. Apparently, my “two issues” point of view doesn’t sit well with some. I stand behind my words anyway. Even without that $3 million deal.