It was only a matter of time. NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams was dismissed from the (partially) publicly-funded outlet on the grounds that he did not meet their “editorial standards” after having expressed nervousness about Islam. But Williams has had a strained relationship with NPR for a few years now — at least publicly. In fact, the report on the contract termination from NPR makes it clear:
Williams’ presence on the largely conservative and often contentious prime-time talk shows of Fox News has long been a sore point with NPR News executives.
How long? Well, in 2007, Bush press secretary Dana Perino reached out to Williams and NPR to do an interview with the president. NPR turned down the opportunity:
Williams said yesterday he was “stunned” by NPR’s decision. “It makes no sense to me. President Bush has never given an interview in which he focused on race. . . . I was stunned by the decision to turn their backs on him and to turn their backs on me.”
Ellen Weiss, NPR’s vice president for news, said she “felt strongly” that “the White House shouldn’t be selecting the person.” She said NPR told Bush’s press secretary, Dana Perino, that “we’re grateful for the opportunity to talk to the president but we wanted to determine who did the interview.” When the White House said the offer could not be transferred to one of NPR’s program hosts, Weiss took a pass.
Williams called his bosses, who expressed concern that the only interview Bush has granted NPR during his tenure was also with Williams, in January.
So Williams did the interview — on Fox News.
In 2009, NPR asked that Williams cease to identify himself as their a “senior correspondent” when on the O’Reilly Factor — even though that was his title in reality. The reason was that he made a comment about Michelle Obama potentially being as much of a liability for her husband as Joe Biden.
“Michelle Obama, you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going,” said Williams. “If she starts talking, as Mary Katharine [Ham, a conservative blogger] is suggesting, her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim. If that stuff starts coming out, people will go bananas and she’ll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross.”
NPR’s ombudsman noted why it was a controversy — NPR listeners wrote in with complaints about Williams’ objectivity:
“I am concerned about the objectivity Juan Williams brings to his news analysis,” wrote Alison Fowler. “He has made statements on Fox News regarding Michelle Obama that appear to paint her as an angry Black Nationalist without any basis in fact. Despite the fact that these statements were not made on NPR, they undermine his credibility as an impartial news analyst on your network.”
It’s not that she’s concerned about his objectivity — Williams is surely an independent voice if ever there was one (Morning Edition’s Scott Simon wrote of him, “Juan is one of the foremost chroniclers of the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and African-American life…I think the world of Juan, and he is on our show because the analysis that he offers is insightful, reasoned, fair-minded and interesting.”). Rather, he said something she found offensive. NPR itself didn’t much disagree:
His “Stokely Carmichael” comment got the attention of NPR’s top managers. They are in a bind because Williams is no longer a staff employee but an independent contractor. As a contract news analyst, NPR doesn’t exercise control over what Williams says outside of NPR.
“Juan Williams is a contributor to NPR programs as a news analyst,” said Ron Elving, NPR’s Washington editor. “What he says on NPR is the product of a journalistic process that includes editors. What he says when he is not on our air is not within our control. But we recognize that what he says elsewhere reflects on NPR, and we have discussed that fact with him specifically in regard to his remarks on Fox News regarding Michelle Obama.”
Elving, of course, was absolutely right to say that there’s an association with what Williams says and what NPR broadcasts. (And further that NPR has every right to exert control over who they have contribute to their network.)
The chilling part is the apparently thin line Williams had to walk — appearing on other outlets, which he was free to do as a contractor with NPR, he could stay in the boundaries of what NPR considered appropriate, even though NPR provided no guidelines. And it’s a stretch to describe Williams as engaging in hate speech — his concern over radical Islam was couched in his reportage of the civil rights movement which is widely cited as exemplary. NPR has effectively sent a message to all of its other independent contractors that it considers some speech inappropriate — including stating a discomfort that may be widely felt.
The network is also doing something else: Finally getting rid of the guy. Just look at what the ombudsman offered in 2009:
Last year, 378 listeners emailed me complaints and frustrations about things Williams said on Fox. The listener themes are similar: Williams “dishonors NPR.” He’s an “embarrassment to NPR.” “NPR should sever their relationship with him.”
The latest flap involves Williams’ comment on Fox about First Lady Michelle Obama. To date, I’ve received 56 angry emails. For comparison, this year so far, listeners sent 13 emails about Steve Inskeep, 8 about Mara Liasson and 6 about Cokie Roberts — other NPR personalities who I often get emails about.
It’s more than a year later, and they finally get to dismiss one of their few black commentators with an expertise on civil rights and call him a bigot.
Executives at National Public Radio recently asked the network’s top political correspondent, Mara Liasson, to reconsider her regular appearances on Fox News because of what they perceived as the network’s political bias, two sources familiar with the effort said.
According to a source, Liasson was summoned in early October by NPR’s executive editor for news, Dick Meyer, and the network’s supervising senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. The NPR executives said they had concerns that Fox’s programming had grown more partisan, and they asked Liasson to spend 30 days watching the network.
At a follow-up meeting last month, Liasson reported that she’d seen no significant change in Fox’s programming and planned to continue appearing on the network, the source said.
Wonder if Liasson will give up her contract now too?