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Juan Williams Whitewashes His Firing

By Ben L. Kaufman · August 30th, 2011 · On Second Thought
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Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

— John Adams, in defense of the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre, Dec. 4, 1770

August traditionally is a dead news month. Normally, members from both houses of Congress are home pimping for money, pimping for votes or philandering. Wall Street is at its summer cottages, those coastal mansions with more bathrooms than a No Tell Motel has hourly rates. And it’s too damn hot to do much in the streets, if so inclined.

Not this year. God help us, but The Enquirer is being held up as a national model of newspaper innovation now that it has fired so many people, MSNBC hired Al Sharpton for a prime time show, finance reporters are bullshitting us about gold prices, and despair is drowning TV producers who were counting on days of cheap, dramatic Hurricane Irene images and overblown reporting.

Then there is Juan Williams, who can’t resist making a fool of himself with a book. Williams is doing the book circuit, whining about his firing from NPR and what he says is a lack of candor in public discourse.

I’ll overlook the irony of someone from Fox News damning the quality of our public discourse.

The Fox News star still is confused about the difference between government censorship, which he never has suffered, and losing his final, diminished NPR gig for his bigoted anti-Muslim comment on Fox.

Apparently, NPR coddled him for so long that he lost touch with reality: Screw up big-time and you’re history where image is everything and Al Sharpton can get a job and Juan Williams can lose his.

I am no fan of Williams. I never understood how NPR employed him to do roughly the same work as he does at Fox. Their audiences probably have minimal overlap but he was paid by both to comment on current affairs.

The true scandal wasn’t his firing — which enflamed conservative and reactionary American politicians, bloggers and broadcasters — but NPR employing him for so long. Good people at NPR took the fall to protect the network. The wingnuts won their battle and found reinforcement for their efforts to reduce or eliminate federal funding of NPR.

Even before firing him, embarrassed NPR told Fox to stop introducing Williams with reference to NPR. For a guy who says he was badly treated at NPR, he wasn’t shy about trading on that connection.

Alicia Shepard, who was an NPR ombudswoman during this fiasco, finds Williams’ book lacking in facts and critical thinking. Her comments appeared on the Poynter.com, a website of the nonpartisan/journalism training Poynter Institute. Given the national furor that Williams’ firing provoked, I’ll quote her at length. Shepard writes:

“When Fox News’ Juan Williams looks back on the torrent of media coverage of his NPR firing last fall, he says in his new book, Muzzled, one observation sticks out. ‘I am struck by how little of it tells the full story of what actually happened,’ Williams writes. ‘Basic facts were distorted, important context was not provided, and personal attacks were treated as truth. The lack of honest reporting about the firing and the events that led up to it was not just unfair — most of it was flat-out lies.’

“Williams is referring to NPR firing him by phone on Oct. 20 for a remark on Fox News about being nervous when he boarded a plane and saw people in ‘Muslim garb.’ He later added that no one should make rash judgments about anyone of faith. The latter was not as widely reported.

“In Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, Williams wants to tell ‘the full story’ and set the record straight. He writes often about how important it is for rational debate to occur and how critical it is to stick to the facts. He even quotes former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said: ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.’ It’s hard to argue with that, but it raises the question: What are facts? And what happens when facts are selectively used? Or people employ different interpretations of the facts?

“Williams’ book is a reminder that the great thing about writing a book from the author’s perspective is it is just that – the author’s perspective, or the author’s interpretation of the facts. In this case, Williams writes about the facts surrounding his firing. He takes no responsibility in the book for his role in the early end to his contract with NPR, after a decade with the network. There are always two or more sides, but in this book he dismisses NPR’s.

“No one — not even NPR — disputes the firing was poorly handled, but Williams wound up with a three-year contract with Fox, two book deals, and in increased demand on the speaking circuit. He dedicates the book to Fox News among others, with special props to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes. Would he even have had the opportunity to write this book if NPR hadn’t botched the ending of their mutually unhealthy relationship?

“Williams writes honestly about how much the NPR firing hurt him, and how he feared it would destroy his credibility and hurt his livelihood. He lays out the case as he interprets the facts. He talks about ‘the shunning,’ ‘chilly treatment’ from NPR executives and a 'troubling history of high-ranking NPR editors and producers expressing concern about my journalistic independence because of my role at Fox.’ It’s Williams as victim.

“As NPR ombudsman from 2007 to this June, I am well-schooled in all-things Juan Williams as I got more complaints and comments about Williams during my tenure than about any other NPR staffer – most of it for things he said on Fox. During my tenure, his role at NPR was continually downgraded, largely because of things he said on Fox. NPR editors repeatedly warned him to be more careful. He writes that they were trying to censor him simply because he was also on the conservative network. One fact, two interpretations.

“In 10 years at NPR, Williams had gone from a full-time host on Talk of the Nation to a full-time senior correspondent to an increasingly more part-time senior news analyst. That is a fact. ‘Two years prior to the incident, Juan signed an agreement that reduced his pay and role and he didn’t walk away from NPR,’ said a senior editor who worked closely with him. ‘Let the facts speak. We offered him a greatly reduced contributor role and he accepted it.’

“Williams’ last contract with NPR was a fraction of what he was earning when he was an NPR correspondent. Two years ago, his contract was for up to four appearances a month. The latest was for two appearances. Williams was regularly asking — and not getting — more airtime because management was not happy with him on-air, said the editor. ‘If you are a staff person and all the sudden your employer says that we are going to cut your remuneration and cut your expectation of how many times you can be on the air,’ said the editor, ‘how would you interpret that?’

“Considering his diminished capacity, I wonder why Williams stayed at NPR.

Particularly if he felt frozen out and undervalued, as he writes. I concluded that NPR gave him the credibility among the mainstream media that he enjoyed; while Fox gave him visibility and credibility among conservatives. But then that is my opinion, not a fact.

“One fact that Williams and I would agree on is that NPR selectively used its ethics code with him. After Williams made a remark on Fox in early 2009 talking about the First Lady, his status really fell into jeopardy. ‘Michelle Obama, you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going,’ said Williams on Fox. ‘If she starts talking … her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim. If that stuff starts to coming out, people will go bananas and she’ll go from being the new Jackie O. to being something of an albatross.’ (NPR) management was not happy with that remark, especially since a number of affiliate public radio stations also complained. Read the book’s first and last chapter for his account. The rest of the book is a polemic about the need for tolerance in political debate, which any rational person would agree with.

“When I would ask management after receiving a complaint about some Williams’ remark on Fox, I got different responses. Sometimes I was told that because he was a contractor, NPR’s ethics code didn’t apply. Other times, I was told he had more leeway with the ethics code because he was a senior news analyst. After the Stokely Carmichael flap, former head of news Ellen Weiss asked Williams to have Fox remove his NPR identification whenever he was on O’Reilly. And then, in the end, NPR said it was terminating his contract early because he violated the ethics code by talking about his personal feelings. NPR is now revamping its ethics code under the guidance of Poynter’s Bob Steele, and will be addressing what titles such as ‘news analyst’ mean. If there’s one lesson for news organizations in this incident it is that they should drop the star system and always evenly apply their ethics code to all employees. Failing to do so creates problems. And Williams’ book makes that perfectly clear.”

Curmudgeon notes:

• All of those lazy journalists telling us about record prices for gold can’t be goldbugs or secret agents of Russian or South African mine owners. And they can’t all be ignorant of the affect of inflation on the value of anything. Valued against gold prices in the 1980s — with inflation — it’s no record. A few reporters have made that point, sometimes adding that compared to what the same investment would have made in the stock market, gold has been a poor choice. Not only does gold not pay interest or dividends, but it costs money to store. On the other hand, editors love a story that talks about breaking or setting records. The trouble is that when economics is involved, the MEGO Syndrome (My Eyes Glaze Over) sets in.

• Again, we’ve been treated to TV reporters with their hair messed by hurricane winds. It’s their sacrifice on our behalf. The ones who evoke my greatest admiration lean into the wind and tell us how everyone else is gone under mandatory evacuation orders because of the danger. Everyone but their videographer, sound crew, driver, and others whose lives the stations and networks endanger as they tell us what we already know: Winds and waves bend trees, toss boats and ruin homes built too close to the water.

• This year’s hurricane coverage already has the novelty of local TV showing neighbors sandbagging the same Miamitown mobile homes threatened every year when the Great Miami River leaves its banks.

• The TV hurricane coverage I’m yearning for will have a soaked, harassed and truly pissed-off cop telling the reporter on camera, “Buddy, when the chief says everyone leave, that means everyone. Get the hell off the island now. Even if you don’t mind getting killed, I do. Now move your ass and take those guys (pointing to his crew) with you.”

• In its rush to find the intellectual counterweight to Fox News ranters, MSNBC has scored a triumph of sorts. MSNBC handed its 6 p.m. weekday slot to the Rev. Al Sharpton. His show features discussions about major news stories. The Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes reported quoted MSNBC President Phil Griffin saying that Sharpton “fits in with the MSNBC . . . sensibility."

• News that Sharpton would be hired stirred weeks of controversy. Some critics noted how the job follows his successful lobbying of the FCC to approve the Comcast-NBC Universal deal last year. Comcast owns MSNBC. He is said to be the first person in the industry to be rewarded in that way. Some black journalists renewed their complaint that MSNBC is one of many cable networks that has hired black people based on their celebrity status rather than their journalistic skills.

• Sharpton canceled his appearance at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Philadelphia. "Rev. Sharpton took offense to the story that was written (in The New York Times) and thought that was the position of NABJ," Roland Martin, the NABJ secretary, said. Despite explanations that the quotes spoke only for the NABJ members interviewed, "he was still upset by that and felt that by coming here and being a part, that would be the story." Brian Stelter reported in The Times that the MSNBC "move would respond to complaints from the NAACP that 'currently, there are no African American hosts or anchors on any national news show, cable or broadcast network, from the hours of 5 p.m.-11 p.m.' But it is less likely to satisfy black journalists, who have continually criticized the networks for their failure to place journalists of color in these key prime-time slots. (O)ne NABJ member told colleagues without challenge, 'This would still be just another non-journalist media "celebrity" receiving a TV show based upon their name recognition, not their years of experience, training, ability and talent.' "

• That comment, from Columbus, Ohio, blogger Jeff Winbush, went viral. Winbush told the Journal-isms website, "I was not attacking him personally. I bear him no ill will. I simply want to see black journalists get a fair shot as well."

• Many journalists at the NABJ convention expressed surprise that Sharpton, who so often has sought out television cameras and microphones, would be so "thin-skinned," as one put it. Others have noted that the MSNBC evening lineup is devoid of journalists of any color as hosts and that Sharpton's hiring could open opportunities for black journalists to work in other roles on the show.

• Not good enough, said Carole Simpson, a retired ABC News anchor. She told Mallary Jean Tenore of the Poynter Institute, "(Sharpton) was not a journalist. It seems like having a name is more important than your credentials and the news you’ve covered, and how well you did as a reporter and how much you did as a thinker and writer about the issues of the day. Who’s going to get the eyeballs? … That’s the bottom line. It’s all about eyeballs. It’s the drive for ratings . . . but he doesn’t sound like a professional broadcaster. Somebody sounding like that wouldn’t typically be hired by any station. Yeah, as a pundit. He’s an intelligent man. I give him credit for that. But he doesn’t sound like a professional broadcaster. But he’s controversial, he’s provocative, he yells, and so they’re looking for personalities and not journalists. The problem that I have, as NABJ has, is fine — hire somebody of color — but how about a journalist? Not a reverend. I don’t get it."

• Earth to Carole Simpson: Much TV news isn’t about news today. That’s so Cronkite, or, in Cincinnati, so Al Schottelkotte. What cable companies and networks call news is one product in the entertainment portfolio. Maybe it takes a Sharpton to bring this home, but TV no longer provides Americans, who rely on it for what they think is news, a common set of facts on which we can debate and pursue public policy.

The Enquirer is set to shrink its page size again and, at least initially, add pages. It will feel thicker. On the other hand, large photos and huge headlines already leave little else to read. Smaller photos and headlines would suffice but the paper has fired the reporters and editors necessary to gather, write and present that news.

• So here’s the fuller poop on a story about The Enquirer changes that colleague Kevin Osborne reported earlier this month while I was fishing in northern Ontario. In a memo to staff, Publisher Margaret Buchanan said changes would further shrink page size to 10.5 inches by 14.5 inches and shift in printing to The Dispatch in Columbus. She said “Gannett announced it has signed a letter of intent with The Columbus Dispatch for the possible printing of The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Kentucky Enquirer in a new, more compact, easy-to-use format. The change would begin in the fourth quarter of 2012 . . . If the agreement is finalized, it would mean that our facility at Western Avenue would close . . . Enquirer Media employees working in places other than Western would not be directly affected by this move. However, it’s possible that the printing arrangement and new format might bring changes in how we currently manage news deadlines, delivery and ad formats. It’s important for all of us — especially those in public-facing jobs — to be knowledgeable about the situation.”

OK. The famine-thin Enquirer will feel fatter. That’s good. If it continues to substitute large photos and headlines for news stories, that’s not good. And think about it. If the paper prints earlier, that means deadlines will be earlier. Bad. If The Enquirer prints after The Dispatch, that could mean later deadlines. Good.

A Gannett corporate press release quoted Buchanan, saying the Cincinnati and Kentucky Enquirers would cover “ the same amount of news as the previous format (and) this new approach would enhance the user experience by allowing for a fuller use of color and photographs and improved readability. By better serving our readers, we would continue to provide advertisers a trusted environment with which to engage their consumers.”

Gannett says current Enquirer content would remain in the redesigned newspaper.

• In his Poynter.org column, analyst Rick Edmonds said, “(A)n innovative press configuration that produces a compact, sectioned paper finally got its first customer nationally this week. Gannett’s Cincinnati Enquirer will covert to the format a little over a year from now . . . The Dispatch itself will make the same conversion in early 2013. The smaller format saves a lot on paper costs. Also, based on a prototype I saw, it paradoxically results in a print edition with more pages, more heft and better display opportunities for editorial content and ads.But it is a radical change — at pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from the incremental trims in page width and height that have been the norm for nearly a decade. Why would Gannett go first? Several reasons:

“Gannett has been more open than most American publishers in experimenting with smaller formats. When it needed to buy new presses for its Shreveport and Lafayette, Ind. papers, it switched them to the tall and narrow Berliner format, successfully by the company’s account.

“Savvy cost control has always been one of Gannett’s selling points to Wall Street. As Gannett Blog’s Jim Hopkins wrote, this is a fit with a bunch of other marketing and downsizing initiatives the company has unveiled this year.

“Cincinnati is on the leading edge of the company’s makeover to a more digital mix of products. Put another way, Gannett has been willing to cut way back on staff and newshole in The Enquirer’s print edition, and more of that is in the offing given weak ad revenue results so far this year.

“That leaves The Enquirer a perfect match to the system’s selling point of bulking up flimsy broadsheets on light advertising days.

“Gannett was able to combine the format change with outsourcing printing and can then sell The Enquirer’s presses. The trend for several years now, especially among the larger chains, has been either to take on other newspaper printing contracts (as The Dispatch is doing) or to exit the printing business and outsource.

“Columbus will be retrofitting its existing presses to a so-called three-around configuration offered by Pressline Services. A single sheet passes through the presses three times rather than the usual two times. That results in a sectioned paper with lots of color availability, about the size of a typical tabloid but not as squarish in shape. Jim Gore of Pressline had commented in our earlier interview that many potential clients “want to go second,” but finding a first mover had proved unexpectedly hard. Gore told me Tuesday he has one prospect “only 30 to 45 days behind” The Enquirer and Dispatch in planning a conversion. He is hopeful others will follow, well before the compact versions of the two papers hit the streets.

“Gannett and The Dispatch said that the prototypes had been tested extensively in focus groups with readers and got a good reception. Another part of the planning phase has been to give advertisers a look. The changeover creates a bit of a pricing dilemma since a full-page or large fractional ad unit is just as dominant but not as big. Part of Gore’s pitch is that the switch creates better display opportunities for advertisers to get their messages noticed.

“The pace of adoption may be a test of whether wait-and-watch continues to be the industry norm or whether Gannett will be the lead cow. Of course, investing in an expensive retrofit makes sense only for companies that believe print’s life expectancy spans at least a decade or more, and are willing to put money where their mouths are.”

• In Monday’s Enquirer, Cliff Peale looks at the growing competition among local hospitals for lucrative cardiac care. Peale notes how heart surgery — including vascular — is highly profitable. Missing from his story was the issue of payment. If all of the hospital groups are going to produce the desired income for increasing numbers of specialists, who is going to pay? Insurers? Taxpayers? There isn’t anyone else. Does this mean we’ll all have to have heart surgery for hospitals to make their optimistic financial goals? After all, no one is predicting a boom in Tristate population. A skeptic would ask if there will be even greater pressure to opt for expensive surgical interventions where cheaper diet, exercise and medicine might suffice. A cynic would note that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a heart surgeon, every patient looks like a candidate for a highly-compensated scalpel.

• The impoverished Enquirer reporting staff must have found dark humor last week in The Enquirer carrying a New York Times story from Cincinnati . . . written by former Enquirer reporter Steven Rosen.


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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