NPR’s decision on Wednesday to fire Juan Williams and Fox News Channel’s decision on Thursday to give him a new contract put into sharp relief the two forms of journalism that compete every day for Americans’ attention.
Mr. Williams’s NPR contract was terminated two days after he said on an opinionated segment on Fox News that he worried when he saw people in “Muslim garb” on an airplane. He later said that he was reflecting his fears after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.
NPR said on Wednesday night that Mr. Williams’s comments were “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices.” According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman, offered Mr. Williams, who was already a paid contributor to Fox, a new three-year contract worth nearly $2 million in total.
After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias.
Those competing views of journalism have been highlighted by the success of Fox and MSNBC and the popularity of opinion media that beckons some traditional journalists. That Mr. Williams was employed by both Fox and NPR had been a source of consternation in the past.
Last year, NPR made it known that it did not want Mr. Williams identified as an NPR employee in appearances on “The O’Reilly Factor,” the Fox News program hosted by the conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly.
“This isn’t the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan’s public comments,” Vivian Schiller, NPR’s chief executive, wrote in an e-mail to affiliates.
She said that his most recent comments “violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so.” Ms. Schiller, the general manager of NYTimes.com before she moved to NPR in 2009, declined an interview request.
Like many other news organizations, NPR expects its journalists to avoid situations that might call its impartiality into question — an expectation written into the organization’s ethics code.
That expectation can erode under television lights and on Twitter. At outlets like NPR, some journalists have found it difficult to not share their opinions, especially when they are speaking in forums that lend themselves to commentary, like “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, called the Williams case an “object lesson in how different news organizations have different values.” She said the ethics guidelines at many news organizations matched those at NPR.
“If you make some outlandish statement on your Facebook page or at a public event somewhere, you are still representing your newsroom,” she said. “So there are consequences to that.”
The consequences can differ widely, though, depending on the news organization. Mr. Williams is one of just a few prominent liberal contributors at Fox News, a channel with a bigger bench of conservative contributors. A Fox News spokeswoman declined to comment on Mr. Williams’s new contract. But The Los Angeles Times published a statement from Mr. Ailes, who said: “Juan has been a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints since his tenure began at Fox News in 1997. He’s an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by Fox News on a daily basis.”
Many prominent conservatives pounced on Mr. Williams’s firing. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, told National Review Online that “I think it’s reasonable to ask why Congress is spending taxpayers’ money to support a left-wing radio network — and in the wake of Juan Williams’s firing, it’s clearer than ever that’s what NPR is.”
On the “O’Reilly Factor” broadcast that contained his remarks, Mr. Williams had been set up as the liberal foil. After Mr. O’Reilly conveyed to viewers that there was a “Muslim dilemma” in the United States, he asked Mr. Williams to explain, “Where am I going wrong?”
Mr. Williams answered, “I hate to say this to you because I don’t want to get your ego going. But I think you’re right.” He proceeded to talk about being nervous on an airplane that had passengers in “Muslim garb.”
Mr. Williams tempered his remarks, though, by reminding Mr. O’Reilly that all Muslims should not be branded as extremists. “We don’t want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked because they hear rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy,” Mr. Williams said, and Mr. O’Reilly agreed.
Still, his comments quickly came under fire online. On Wednesday, CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called on NPR to “address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats.”
Mr. Williams said in an essay published Thursday on FoxNews.com that he was fired “for telling the truth.”
He continued in the essay: “Now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.”
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