Tuesday, October 26

Causing Havoc: NPR's Whack-A-Juan Game

Vivian Schiller
When Bob Conrad first posted his take on the Juan Williams vs. NPR shakeup, I was quick to disagree. Too quick? Yes and no.

Conrad's position is better crafted if you read his take on the dust up, but the summarized version, simply put, is that NPR was within its rights to fire Williams. There is no dispute there.

Conrad also goes on to show the documentation, including the memo sent to everyone who works for NPR and the posting that outlines an entire history for consideration. Within the post is the real reason: NPR didn't like Williams working as both a "balanced news analyst on NPR; more opinionated pundit on Fox." (Minor point: He has been asked to give opinions across multiple outlets for years.)

The postscript might make some more sympathetic to NPR. And for others, the explanation leaves even less to be desired.

That is my contention. NPR may have been within its rights to fire Williams, but the fact that it wasn't satisfied with being within its rights was a mistake. It wants to be right too. And in being right, it wants the public to say it was right too. Too bad.

Being right is often a matter of opinion. And the initial case laid, that Williams made allegedly bigoted remarks, is open for debate.

Were Williams' Remarks Bigoted Or A Mechanism For Discussion?

They were not. You have to watch the entire clip to understand it. I did several times, but I only found a partial clip. He shared a personal experience, qualified on the front end and expanded upon it beyond this video, talking about how Americans must learn to distinguish between radical extremists and non-radical muslims. He also tried to reiterate this in his reaction to the firing.

My first thought for this post was to place this in a different context, mentioning the Confederate flag, which became (to some people) a symbol of slavery and racism. Or maybe it is like the swastika, often considered a symbol of hate.

In this case, Williams taps into the same thinking about "full muslim garb." He is not alone. Many Americans have taken such dress to represent something that it may or may not be. I don't share this feeling (or any feelings like that). But I do understand feelings like that. So perhaps it is better to explain from a personal experience.

Years ago, at the urging of one of my closest friends, I joined the NAACP (which seemed to have a milder platform then than it does today). My intent was to help the NAACP carry a broader and more inclusive message. My supporters in this pursuit were my friend, Nev. State Sen. Joel Neal, and Rev. Jesse Scott.

The first time I had the floor at an NAACP meeting, I was nervous. Rev. Scott had even told me I had every right to be nervous, because many people within the room would look on a caucasian NAACP member with suspicion, especially in a community that had recently been likened to the Mississippi of the West (whatever that means). Sen. Neal had even quipped that I had every right to join, given that the "C" in the NAACP stood for colored. My color just happened to be white. (If I was translucent, he also joked, I would not be allowed to join.)

So, does sharing this public speaking experience, and the fact it made me nervous, make me a bigot? Although I would be hard pressed to feel nervous speaking anywhere today, I think not. At worst, I was ignorant. But ignorance is readily cured with open dialogue, assuming people are open with their feelings. (As a side note, I was also nervous speaking to my first class at UNLV, with a mixed audience.)

Looking back, I never did as much as I wanted to do for the chapter then. But there were several other people that I enjoyed and appreciated meaningful friendships with from that point on.

I would like to think that is where Williams was coming from in his commentary. But, I can understand why those who might have had a much more sheltered set of experiences might not see where he was coming from. His commentary was a bridge to mutual understanding that humanized the story and helped people relate. At the other end of this bridge, was compassion.

The NRP Public Relations Debacle.

NPR has already admitted it handled the situation poorly, especially in that NPR President Vivian Schiller saw no trouble in sharing her personal views of Williams. She has since publicly apologized, which begs the question why the network didn't extend the same opportunity to Williams.

There were dozens of ways NPR could have kept itself out of the spotlight or handled the mess, including not renewing his contract or insisting he apologize (which might have convinced him to resign). But regardless of all of these other options, there is a bigger issue.

NPR is still insisting not that it was within in rights, but that it was right in its decision. This insistence comes well after all its admissions of mistakes and apologies and regrets. And yet, they persist.

What they don't understand is this: Whether NPR is right or not, the network chose to pursue a court of public opinion for validation over the firing. If you pursue public opinion for affirmation of anything, you might expect to be grossly disappointed. And, once disappointed, don't make the mistake of arguing to be right or continuing to whack someone you already fired.

NPR was within its rights to fire Williams, but it fired Williams for the wrong reasons. Period. And until NPR accepts that, all it will do is fan the fire of those who disagree.

If they do it enough, then it is very likely they will be fired too, losing one to three percent of income that comes from taxpayer funding (or perhaps that figure is more). But even if they keep their funding, this is one of the stories that will make it difficult to see NPR the same way again. The New York Times included.
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