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Juan Williams' firing reflects fear and favor in the media

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  October 23, 2010 08:48 AM

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Poor Juan Williams. He learned the hard way that journalists hired to report or analyze the news without fear or favor can't expect to air their personal prejudices and still pretend to be impartial -- except that too often, they still can.

What makes Mr. Williams' situation particularly disappointing is that the view he expressed -- that he "feels nervous when he sees religiously attired Muslims on planes" -- reflects a profound ignorance both of Islam as a religion and the ways in which terrorists operate.

First, to the firing. Without knowing all the facts behind NPR's decision to fire Mr. Williams, I think it was wrong if NPR canned him simply for stating an opinion -- however ignorant -- while nonetheless permitting him to work simultaneously as an NPR "news analyst" and a FOX station opinion "commentator."

(Hypocrisy alert: for all his bloviating about free speech for Williams, Bill O'Reilly played a lead role in the firing by Comcast of long-time Boston newscaster, Barry Nolan, who was canned in 2008 for distributing fliers at an Emmy award dinner expressing his personal opinion that O'Reilly didn't deserve the award.I guess that's one opinion that O'Reilly doesn't think deserves First Amendment protection!)

But the real question for NPR and other news outlets is why they permit Williams and other reporters to wear both news and commentator hats in the first place.

It didn't used to be that way. Until recently, reporters weren't allowed to serve on both the "opinion" side of a news operation and the "news" side. Of course, reporters always have had personal opinions (and have a right to them). But their job was to report all sides of a story, keep their personal opinions out of it, and let the readers and viewers draw their own conclusions.

The blurring of lines between "news" and "opinion" is one of the worst things to happen to journalism in recent years. The proliferation of media platforms and, apparently, job contracts that permit journalists to work both sides of the fence leads inevitably to confusion between what is news and what is personal bias.

The rise of pretend-news shows like the O'Reilly Factor and the Daily Show, as well as in the use of opinion pieces masking as "news analysis" on the front pages of the Boston Globe, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and NPR, has further muddied the distinction between news and commentary.

The result is that viewers and readers struggle to find "trusted sources" of news -- a situation that doesn't bode well for traditional news outlets trying to compete against infotainment programs.

Now, to the ignorance reflected in Juan Williams' expressed fear of getting on airplanes with people whose dress identifies them as Muslims.

Someone needs to explain to Mr. Williams that the Saudi and Egyptian men who carried out the 9/11 attacks weren't wearing Muslim garb. To the contrary, they had shaved their beards and donned western-style clothing in an effort to board the plane without attracting notice.

Mr. Williams should feel relieved when he sees a person on an airplane who is wearing his identity publicly and proudly -- that person has nothing to hide!

Beyond the a-historical and illogical nature of Mr. Williams' remarks, however, lies nothing more than a fear of difference. It's the same kind of fear that leads some white people to feel nervous when a black man boards a subway train -- and it is equally irrational and ignorant.

None of us is free from the chains of ignorance and fear, but few of us have a platform like FOX news or NPR upon which to air them. Access to such megaphones implies an ethical responsibility (if no longer a job requirement) that people who ostensibly report the news won't use their media outlets to amplify racial or religious bigotry, their own or others.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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