Juan Williams, Fox News and the NPR conundrum

For years, journalist Juan Williams has straddled the divide between two unique media worlds; the thoughtful and erudite journalism of National Public Radio (NPR), where Williams serves as an analyst, and the rowdy hothouse at Fox News, where Williams works as a contributor. Most of the time, the two worlds don't collide. But recently they did, and NPR has the bruises to show for it.

For years, journalist Juan Williams has straddled the divide between two unique media worlds; the thoughtful and erudite journalism of National Public Radio (NPR), where Williams serves as an analyst, and the rowdy hothouse at Fox News, where Williams works as a contributor. Most of the time, the two worlds don't collide. But recently they did, and NPR has the bruises to show for it.

That's because last week Williams wasn't commenting about the news, he was in the middle of it. First, he became entangled in the controversy that swirled around Bill O'Reilly's puzzling comments about visiting Harlem, which were seen by many as being racially insensitive. Williams, a prominent African-American journalist, strenuously defended O'Reilly on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and accused his critics of launching a smear campaign.

Then later in the week, Williams made news when he complained that NPR had turned down the White House's offer to have him interview President Bush and discuss race relations. Officials at NPR were uncomfortable having the White House handpick the interviewer, so they passed. Fox News though, quickly accepted the invitation, complete with restrictions, and Williams conducted the interview for the all-news cable channel.

With his often over-excited and misleading defense of O'Reilly, as well as his need to publicly side with Fox News and badmouth NPR's decision regarding the Bush interview, it seems Williams no longer straddles that peculiar media divide. Instead, he's deliberately marched over into the Fox News camp and in the process has stripped away some layers of his journalistic integrity.

Worse, real damage is being done to NPR by having its name, via Williams, associated with Fox News' most opinionated talker. In fact, Williams' recent appearance on The O'Reilly Factor almost certainly violated NPR's employee standards, which prohibit staffers from appearing on programs that “encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis” and are “harmful to the reputation of NPR.”

Content-wise, The O'Reilly Factor is a complete train wreck. As O'Reilly biographer Marvin Kitman recently noted, “Frankly, I can't listen to him anymore. As much as I praised the early O'Reilly, I think he's gone nuts. ... He just seems to go berserk more often now.”

That's no secret, and my guess is that senior executives at NPR understand that about O'Reilly. And yet NPR let Williams appear on The O'Reilly Factor in his effort to bail out the host from a brewing race-based media scandal. The fact that Williams repeatedly misled viewers while recounting O'Reilly's comments last week also did not help NPR's cause.

Evidence suggests that, behind the scenes, NPR is not happy about Williams' relationship with Fox News. If so, now is the time for the network to address the growing problem.

Complaints about Williams' alliance with Fox News are not new. For years he has drawn criticism from liberals who protest his weekly appearances on the more grown-up Fox News Sunday, arguing there are better advocates for genuinely liberal positions than Williams, who, for instance, was a supporter of Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination. Over the years though, I've found Williams to be among the most consistently focused and aggressive of the so-called Fox News Democrats, often (though not always) pushing back against the particularly egregious Republican talking points that swamp the Fox News Sunday telecast.

If Williams wants to serve as a well-paid prop, a self-described “foil,” brought in to manufacture entertaining conflict in front of the Fox News cameras for un-persuadable viewers who vote overwhelmingly Republican, that's his choice.

What changed last week was that Williams inserted himself into the news and cast himself as the great Fox News defender, and did it on The O'Reilly Factor, a program no serious NPR journalist should ever appear on.

Williams played a starring role in O'Reilly's saga surrounding Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem, because it was on that same broadcast that the host interviewed Williams and the two men talked about race in America, including damaging stereotypes that exist. (Williams was busy promoting his book, now out in paperback.) So when more and more news outlets began asking questions about why O'Reilly was surprised a black restaurant in Harlem was like a white restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Williams was quickly invited onto The O'Reilly Factor to help explain away the story.

Clamoring about how news organizations were guilty of “rank dishonesty” in covering the O'Reilly controversy (they're trying to “shut you up”), Williams conveniently sidestepped the host's most inflammatory remarks from the telecast. Williams had nothing to say about O'Reilly's condescending suggestion that “black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves.” Again and again, Williams took to the airwaves to defend O'Reilly, including on Fox News host John Gibson's radio program, and again and again Williams simply flushed that quote down the memory hole and pretended it never happened. I assume that's because the quote did not fit into Williams' defense of O'Reilly being the victim of a smear campaign, or simply being misunderstood.

Meanwhile, appearing on The O'Reilly Factor, Williams wouldn't touch O'Reilly's Quote of The Week:

And I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship.

Days later, on September 30, Williams appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal, and a caller very specifically asked him to address that quote. Williams though, ripped it out of context and told viewers that O'Reilly made that comment as a way to compare the peaceful scene at Sylvia's to the ugly stereotype of black America that's portrayed through gangsta rap videos. But that's simply not true. The discussion O'Reilly and Williams had about rap video images came well after O'Reilly made his initial comments about Sylvia's. It's simply not accurate to suggest O'Reilly told the “no difference” story about Sylvia's amidst a larger discussion about gangsta rap. But Williams, playing defense for the Fox News host, did his best to re-tell the story in an O'Reilly-friendly way.

Writing an essay for Time magazine, Williams made an absurdly shallow (and dishonest) attempt at explaining the details of the controversy. According to Williams' thin spin, O'Reilly was unfairly “slammed” simply “for saying he went to a restaurant in Harlem and had a good time.” That's like saying Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) got slammed for simply not flushing the toilet at the Minneapolis airport. Williams could not even bring himself to reprint O'Reilly's quote about being surprised that Sylvia's was just like any other restaurant “even though it's run by blacks.”

Of all his media appearances last week, it was Williams' stint on The O'Reilly Factor that was most noteworthy, simply because Williams provided O'Reilly with crucial political cover by rushing to his defense. I understand why O'Reilly was desperate for Williams to appear on The O'Reilly Factor. I cannot understand, however, why NPR allowed it.

Public broadcasting guidelines clearly state that when appearing on outside programs “journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.” They should not appear on programs that are “harmful to the reputation of NPR.” And, “They should not participate in shows, electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”

Let's take them one at a time. First, when he appeared on The O'Reilly Factor last week to announce that there was a media conspiracy in motion to try to shut Bill O'Reilly up, was Williams expressing views that he would not air on NPR? My hunch is yes. And FYI, according to a Nexis search of the transcripts, Williams did not discuss O'Reilly on NPR last week. Second, is The O'Reilly Factor a program that is harmful to NPR's reputation? Of course. And third, is it a program that encourages (wild) speculation? It is.

Additionally, the NPR Code of Ethics forbids all NPR journalists from participating in appearances that “may appear to endorse the agenda of a group or organization.” Fox News, as an organization, has an open political agenda, and by defending O'Reilly on The O'Reilly Factor, NPR's Williams was endorsing that organization's agenda, which was to attack and smear anyone who raised questions about the host's incendiary comments.

Clearly Williams' appearances on The O'Reilly Factor ran counter to NPR's established guidelines. Or can you name a single other “news” program that, based on public broadcasting standards, would be more inappropriate for an NPR employee to appear on and pontificate?

And last week wasn't the first time Williams sprinted to O'Reilly's side during an embarrassing media moment. Back in January when O'Reilly appeared on CBS' Late Show with David Letterman, the host, during some entertaining banter, zinged his guest by claiming 60 percent of what O'Reilly says is “crap.” O'Reilly was widely seen as the loser in the televised tête-à-tête.

Once again, Williams rushed onto The O'Reilly Factor to help his glass-jawed pal get back on his feet. Williams, acting like he'd never seen two grown men argue on television before, decried Letterman's “antagonism” towards O'Reilly and all the “horrible things that he said to you.” Williams compared Letterman to a serial killer and expressed amazement that O'Reilly didn't have a “black eye.” After all, he'd been in a “knife fight” on the Letterman show.

The fact that O'Reilly doles out far nastier insults to his Fox News guests on a nightly basis went unmentioned by Williams.

Juan Williams sides with Fox News over NPR

If Williams was appreciative of NPR for bending the rules to allow him to flack for O'Reilly on Fox News, Williams had a strange way of showing it. The day after his September 25 ill-advised visit to The O'Reilly Factor, Williams was featured in a Washington Post article about the fact that NPR passed on an interview that Williams was offered with Bush to discuss race relations, as well as the brewing controversy in Jena, Louisiana, over charges of excessive prosecution for six black teens there.

Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, told the Post she “felt strongly” that “the White House shouldn't be selecting the person” for the interview. Williams lamented how he was “stunned by [NPR's] decision to turn their backs on [Bush] and to turn their backs on me.”

I think NPR execs might have been too polite to express it publicly, but based on the tenor and response to Williams' much-hyped interview with Bush last January, back when the president was out selling his surge strategy for Iraq, it's possible NPR brass simply didn't think Williams was up to the task of going one-on-one with Bush.

As firedoglake blogger TRex noted, the January sit-down Williams conducted with Bush, “was a travesty.” The problem? “Williams was in full, Fawning Fox News Toady-mode, pitching softball after softball at the president and offering no follow-up questions. It left the line between journalism and PR way behind and crossed into the territory of worship.”

Indeed, one memorable moment came when Williams assured Bush that Americans were praying for him. At the time, NPR listeners took notice and they were not impressed.

So why would NPR send Williams, armed with the same lapdog approach, back to White House to interview a president who, since January, has managed to become even less popular?

Plus, there's a backstory. In his seven years in office, Bush has basically stiffed one of the nation's most prestigious government-funded news organizations and granted NPR just a single interview; the Williams puff session in January. To this day, Bush has refused to allow an NPR anchor or new correspondent to interview him on a range of topics, the way ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox have all been allowed to do. What exactly is Bush afraid of? (Williams is an analyst, not an anchor or news correspondent.)

Then again, the antagonism should not be surprising since the administration's contempt for public broadcasting is well documented. (Question: Do NPR bosses allow Williams to maintain a high profile at Fox News as a way to defend public broadcasting against relentless right-wing critics who claim NPR has a liberal bias?)

So I'm not surprised NPR balked. And I'm not surprised Williams ran to the media to tell his sad tale of woe.

But the story doesn't end there. Because after NPR passed on the interview, Williams went ahead and did it in his role as a Fox News contributor. Fox then made a big deal about how NPR had turned Bush down, complete with issuing a name-calling press release about how “appalling” NPR's treatment of Williams had been.

In truth, Fox News' treatment of Williams, and his Bush interview, was even more insulting. Because what did Fox News actually do with Williams' interview? Fox News basically ignored the contents. As best I can tell, Fox News last week aired less than two minutes from the interview in which Bush discussed race. In fact, Fox News spent more time talking about how NPR punted on the interview than it did broadcasting that portion of the interview. (During the interview, Williams also asked Bush about the 2008 campaign and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Fox News aired more of that.)

There was a telling moment when Williams appeared on The O'Reilly Factor to hype the Bush interview. O'Reilly, a public broadcasting hater, went on and on about how NPR turned down the White House interview offer. Turning to the interview, O'Reilly announced, "[W]e'll run a clip of it because it has to do with Ahmadinejad." [Emphasis added.] As for race or the Jena 6? O'Reilly couldn't care less.

Same with John Gibson's The Big Show; the host asked Williams about Bush's comments regarding the 2008 campaign, as well as Ahmadinejad. Zero interest, though, in Bush's comments about race or the Jena 6 demonstrators, whom Gibson had already mocked on the air for allegedly inventing claims of racism in America.

But that's what Fox News does; Fox attacks black America.

Note that while making the rounds on his spin control tour last week, Williams appeared on Gibson's radio show, where he mentioned that they're both employed by Fox News.

“They don't much like that at NPR, do they, Juan?” asked Gibson with a chuckle.

“Oh boy. Ugh,” came Williams' response.

If NPR is unhappy with Williams' increasingly high-profile and controversial appearances on Fox News, then now is the time to tell him that he has to choose between the two media outlets. Although from the looks of things, with Williams providing cover for O'Reilly and then trashing NPR for not obediently accepting the White House guidelines for a Bush interview the way Fox News did, it looks as if Williams has already made his choice.