October 22, 2010

Fired? Was He Credibly Employed?

Here’s the paragraph that stuck in my craw from NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s column about the firing of Juan Williams:

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.

There’s a long section about outside work and contributing to other news organizations. The first point is key:

1. The primary professional responsibility of NPR journalists is to NPR. They should never work in direct competition with NPR. An example of competing with NPR would be breaking a story or contributing a feature for another broadcast outlet or Web site before offering the work to NPR.

What was Juan Williams doing working for FOX News in the first place? How was that allowed under NPR’s code of ethics? Why wasn’t he told “no”?

The problem here is entirely the fault of NPR management: Journalists employed by otherwise serious news organizations should not be taking paid positions as pundits with competing news organizations. If their work with NPR is unsatisfying or doesn’t pay the bills, then NPR journalists ought to seek other employment.

I suspect, however, that NPR was happy to have Williams on FOX for the PR value. How does that square with the NPR and SPJ codes of ethics? What Juan Williams was (because NPR allowed it): A media star with a “contract.” What he should have been: A journalist with a job.

Further, serious news organizations should not allow their journalists anywhere near 24-hour cable infotainment such as FOX, MSNBC, or CNN.

One last point: Nothing about this situation is a First Amendment (free speech) issue.

UPDATE: KSFX visits my media ethics class and interviews me about Juan Williams.

3 Responses

  1. Sven 

    Is this really about ethics, journalism or ideology? It seems to me NPR’s overriding goal is maintaining a certain kind of coffee-house ambiance, where you expect a certain kind of sunny, suburban prudence. On NPR, Williams wasn’t so much a journalist, “analyst” or what have you (he’s pretty clearly a hack); he was a familiar voice.

    NPR allowing its familiar voices to ramble on Fox is like Disneyland allowing its mascots to visit strip clubs in costume. They can get away with it for a while – because Disneyland’s customers don’t frequent the Ba Ba Bing Club – but inevitably there’ll be a scene.

  2. acline 

    Sven… If NPR is going to publish a code of ethics, then I can make it about ethics 😉 But, yes, there’s a lot more going on here. I think “maintaining a certain kind of coffee-house ambiance” captures one aspect of this very well.

  3. Sven 

    Sorry, that was intemperate. NPR’s political autism really sticks in my craw.

    This morning Scott Simon was happily chatting away with the Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti about the upcoming election. Continetti is quite intelligent and occasionally offers some interesting insight.

    But it’s pretty clear to me that the reason Continetti is a regular NPR contributor (he’s going to be among the analysts on election night) is that he’s smooth as silk. He offers many of the same outlandish, incendiary claims that he makes at Kristol’s joint and on cable teevee, only in a polished, indoor voice. And he is very rarely challenged by his NPR hosts.

    I find this as obnoxious as the cable shout-fests. It’s just another form of theater, with a veneer of reasonableness substituted for the rock ’em sock ’em.