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Just Me

In which I oppose knee-jerk simple-mindedness.

Posted on 2010.10.25 at 11:14
Okay, I'm going to get this out of the way right up top. You only need to read past entries in this very blog to know that I stand in foresquare opposition against bigotry of any kind, including and especially toward Islam. If the following tempts you to respond in excoriation against me for supporting bigotry, you're an idiot.

I'm also foresquare against simple-minded knee-jerk reactions, and foresquare in favor of free, often rambunctious, sometimes offensive, but especially complex and thoughtful speech. All indictations are that Juan Williams was attempting to engage in the latter. His judgment in attempting it while sitting next to Bill O'Reilly was open to question, but thoughtful, complex, and honest commentary are what we should hope for from news commentators, even if it begins with an unflattering admission.

If you get that, great. If you don't, I can't help you.

So, without further ado, here is a letter I was forced to send to my local NPR station this morning:





Hello,

I feel WBUR is entitled to hear from a listener about their interactions with NPR, and how those interactions will affect WBUR:

I was, although I am personally and politically opposed to almost every word I have ever heard come from Juan Williams, disgusted and appalled by NPR's firing of him, so I sent a message to NPR to let them know of my disapproval.

The conversation, as it occurred, follows:

==================


Me:

I'm as lefty-liberal as they come, I dislike Juan Williams intensely, and I find almost everything he says irritatingly ill-thought-through, superficial, and partisan.

NPR was absolutely wrong to fire him over his comments on Bill O'Reilly's bloviation festival on Fox News. The fact is that what was widely reported was a small and out-of-context part of a larger statement that was, to his credit, both thoughtful and honest. He started out by discussing his feelings and reactions -- not thoughts and opinions, but visceral reactions -- in a way that many Americans share. You have to be able to look at something honestly if you're going to be able to deal with it helpfully.

NPR's knee-jerk firing sends the message that analysts and commentators should be afraid of honest discussion. That's a disgrace to journalism.

==================


Dana Davis Rehm, Senior Vice President, Marketing, Communications, and External Relations, NPR:

Dear Jonathan,

Late Wednesday evening we gave Juan Williams notice that we’ve terminated his contract as a Senior News Analyst for NPR News. We didn’t make this decision lightly or without regret. Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years.

However, his remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday violated our ethics guidelines. Unfortunately, this has occurred several times in other media. Our decision to end our contractual relationship with Juan has come after repeated conversations and warnings about some of his public comments. This was a difficult, but principled decision.

We’ve been contacted by listeners who have passionately agreed with our decision, as well as those who have disagreed with it, with equal conviction. We hear you both and respect your perspectives. At the same time, we believe that the public is better served by NPR holding firm to the values and standards that have guided us for many years.

As some listeners have also asked for more details about our funding, you can find a detailed overview of our funding on our website in our “About” section: http://www.npr.org/about/aboutnpr/ Of note, and as is explained in that site, NPR, Inc. has received no direct operating support from the federal government since 1983.

I recognize that this decision has sparked a strong debate in the blogosphere and elsewhere, and that you have a firm position on the matter. While we stand by our policy, we also regret that we were compelled to take the actions that we did.

Sincerely

Dana Davis Rehm

Senior Vice President, Marketing, Communications, and External Relations

==================


Me:

I'm sorry, but if your "ethics guidelines" prevent making a complex statement that is prefaced with a personal observation about an analyst's emotional reactions, when discussion is of public emotional reactions, then those guidelines are far from ethical. If this is what NPR calls a "principled" decision, that calls the organizations's ethical credentials into serious question.

Moreover, your response is smug, self-serving, and condescending, being, after all, no more than a repetition of the talking points NPR has released to its member stations and existing press releases, it amounts to no more than a self-justifying implication that I hadn't bothered to educate myself before contacting you, which is, frankly, insulting.

You include a paragraph on your funding which is simultaneously irrelevant to my criticism, sophomorically provocative, and misleading. This forms three powerful blows against NPR's reliability and reputation. It's juvenile and contemptible.

Your closing paragraph, again, is smug and condescending, amounting to no more than "We understand that you don't like our decision, however, you're too ignorant to understand that we're right, and you're wrong."

Well, you're not right, and I'm not wrong, and while I will stand foresquare in opposition to just about every editorial opinion ever mouthed by Mr. Williams, NPR's decision to fire him was so grossly unethical and improper, and your response so thoroughly inappropriate and self-congratulatory that it leaves me thoroughly regretting the $700.00 my family donated to WBUR, my local NPR station, in 2009. You can rest assured, we will not be repeating that donation anytime soon.

==================


WBUR's takeaway from this is simple: The only lever I have with which to affect NPR is my willingness to donate to my local station. WBUR is my local station. This year, I have been unemployed, and we have been unable to donate to WBUR, but the previous year, we donated $700.00 -- small change for you guys, but a substantial amount for a family donor. We will be unable to donate further to WBUR until either NPR acknowledges that its handling of both Mr. Williams, and, more importantly complaints about him, were wrong, or until WBUR is no longer associated with NPR. I am not trying to militate for the latter: I know it is impossible and pointless. The former, while incredibly unlikely, is at least somewhere within the realm of possibility, but only if enough listeners make it known to their local stations, and NPR, that this sort of unethical, unprincipled conduct is unacceptable, and has a cost.

Regretfully,

--

Jonathan Andrew Sheen

http://www.leviathanstudios.com

Leviathan of the GEI (Detached.)

jsheen@leviathanstudios.com

"What'dya expect? I'm a New Yorker!"

-Anonymous New York Firefighter, 9/12/01

Comments:


nakeefeet
nakeefeet at 2010-10-25 15:43 (UTC) (Link)
*applauds*

Well done! NPR's response was ridiculously insulting, and I love how you called them out on it.
natertatersmom
natertatersmom at 2010-10-25 15:44 (UTC) (Link)
I'm sorry, your use of the word excoriation has turned my brain to mush and made me horny, so I am unable to respond to this post in an intelligent manner.
The Hysterical Hystorian
abigail89 at 2010-10-25 16:40 (UTC) (Link)
I agree with NPR's decision to terminate Williams's contract. As a journalist, he operates by a different standard than most of us do. YOU may see it as a quashing of his free speech rights; that's fine. I expect him as a journalist to refrain from sharing his personal opinion in the context of being a journalist. Had this been a dinner party, and he was Juan Williams, private citizen, I would've had no problems with that. I would've been fucking appalled at him, but whatever. From what the talking heads say, Williams has been warned in the past; this is a personnel matter, and we aren't getting the full picture. Unless Williams wants to share with us the full measure of his relationship with NPR from his $2M perch at FOX News. Sorry, I won't be tuning in for that bit of news.

That said, NPR's handling of the termination was pretty sucky. For that, they need the proverbial slap in the face.

But, Jon, by not donating to WBUR, you hurt the station. This wasn't the station's decision to do this, but NPR, just one of the services WBUR subscribes to. My local station subscribes to NPR, PRI, BBC, APR, etc. By all means, register your complaint with WBUR. Tell them NPR is crap.

Enjoy listening to the wasteland that is commercial radio. I assure you commercial radio is far more sucky than anything NPR could do.

Jonathan Andrew Sheen
leviathan0999 at 2010-10-25 17:00 (UTC) (Link)
I expect him as a journalist to refrain from sharing his personal opinion in the context of being a journalist.

Well, no, when he is working in the role of a news analyst, and talking about the reactions of members of the general public, making a larger point than the beginning of a sentence, it is a valid part of that analysis to open that part of the discussion with the unflattering personal admission that he shares that reaction. Especially given that, when you pull what he words he was able to get out edgewise through O'Reilly's ignorant bloviating, he was saying that that is not an intelligent or appropriate reaction, even though it is a common one, it was absolutely wrong, unethical, and unprincipled of NPR to fire him for it. If they wanted to fire him for a conflict of interest for being both a Fox News and NPR analyst, I'd be behind them all the way. But NPR's statement that there is anything unethical about a journalist discussing a widespread emotional reaction opening that discussion by stating that he shares it -- which, in a worst-case interpretation, is a "Full Disclosure" statement allowing listeners to judge for themselves how much weight to give the discussion that falls -- is arrant nonsense. It does not meet any known or sane journalistic standard.

But, Jon, by not donating to WBUR, you hurt the station. This wasn't the station's decision to do this, but NPR, just one of the services WBUR subscribes to.

And when I donate to WBUR, some of my money goes to support NPR. The only stick I have to wave at NPR is my opinion, of which they are contemptuous. So, just as others will go after TV networks through their sponsors, I can only use what minuscule leverage can be passed on to NPR through my local Public Radio station. When that station complains to NPR that their unethical conduct is losing them donors, perhaps that will carry weight that the outrage of listeners somehow lacks with NPR itself. As I wrote, We will be unable to donate further to WBUR until either NPR acknowledges that its handling of both Mr. Williams, and, more importantly complaints about him, were wrong, or until WBUR is no longer associated with NPR. I am not trying to militate for the latter: I know it is impossible and pointless. The former, while incredibly unlikely, is at least somewhere within the realm of possibility, but only if enough listeners make it known to their local stations, and NPR, that this sort of unethical, unprincipled conduct is unacceptable, and has a cost.

I stand by that.

Edited at 2010-10-25 05:01 pm (UTC)
The Hysterical Hystorian
abigail89 at 2010-10-25 17:23 (UTC) (Link)
he is working in the role of a news analyst

That's right. He's a NEWS analyst. Analyze the news. FOX may have no standards regarding analysis, may condone idiots like O'Reilly going off like bombs all over the place--that's just fine. I don't consider O'Reilly a journalist by any stretch of the imagination, nor FOX a credible 'news' source. I expect someone as brilliant as Williams to contain himself and analyze the facts, not give me his personal feelings on the matter. Like I said, if he offered his opinion in the context as a private citizen, I can accept that. Even couching it the way he did, he violated the ethics of journalism.

As public radio listeners/supporters, we both know what your donation means to your station. I will end my comment with by encouraging you to not drop your financial support. There are many shows I don't like, but I'm not going to not give because I can't stand WCQS's Sunday evening programs. I live for their classical music service, and in my mind I give to that.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
leviathan0999 at 2010-10-25 17:36 (UTC) (Link)
I expect someone as brilliant as Williams to contain himself and analyze the facts, not give me his personal feelings on the matter.

So is the ever-increasing wave of Islamophobia that is polluting the nation not news? Is it somehow inappropriate to analyze it through an honest discussion? More to the point, if Williams had begun his analysis with, "You know, I don't feel the way so many people do, and I can't begin to understand why they feel that way," would you feel it was appropriate to fire him for it? Because that's also a personal opinion being expressed, and if one's a fireable offense, so is the other.

As a news analyst, Williams, both in his role as a paid analyst on Fox, and that on NPR, has always offered opinions. That's been his job, to analyze the news in the context of his point of view. I disagree strongly with almost all of his opinions, but that's not the point. He was NPRs go-to Right-Wing analyst, and provided that side's viewpoint cogently and powerfully. To suddenly declaim that it is not his job to voice opinions or emotional reactions -- especially when the news he is analyzing is coverage of a publicly widespread and growing emotional reaction -- is just wrong.

As public radio listeners/supporters, we both know what your donation means to your station.

And as people who just manage to scrape by, we also know what that money means to us. Before I give more of it to my local station, I need to see how responsive they are to my concerns a serious ethical failure that they are supporting. As it stands now, however, I can't support them if that support is to be passed on.
heron_pose
heron_pose at 2010-10-25 19:29 (UTC) (Link)
Ah, pal, I want to agree with you, but I watched the *entire* O'Reilly clip (with Williams and What'shername) and Williams offered neither *just* his feelings/opinions NOR a complex analysis.

At least 3 times, he assured O'Reilly that O'Reilly's tendency to be scaremongery against "Muslims" was right, was fine -- because of course an American person is going to be scared when they see Muslims, dressed in their "Muslim garb" and drawing attention to the fact that they are Muslims. Gosh, that's just scary! And sure, it would be nice, he continued, if O'Reilley would distinguish between radical fundamentalist Muslims, just as we do with radical fundamentalist Christians, it's just "a fact" just a "fact" that the Times Square Bomber stated that the war of America vs. Muslims was only just beginning, and there are so many "facts" that justify widespread fear of Muslims.

The implication being, you Muslims wearing your Muslim garb to draw attention to your scary religious affiliation should really stay home, because real Americans are afraid of you, and rightly so, even if we recognize the distinction between radical fundamentalist Muslims and moderate Muslims.

Like you, I've been pissed with Juan for a good, long, time; like you, I think NPR could've done this smarter -- for one thing, they could actually quote the editorial/ethics rules of which JW ran afoul.

I would even agree that BilboReilly made it impossible for Williams to bring any subtlety to the exchange by talking over him whenever JW tried to backpedal. But this isn't the first time O'Reilly has behaved that way, and JW *knows* it. If he continues to work on that show, which does *not* allow nuanced or complex discussion of issues about the news, he's being ethically irresponsible.

OTOH, you can withold funding from WBUR just because they pissed you off -- that's fine. You need that money more than they do, and you don't have to justify your failure to give generously to an outfit that has acted stupidly.

In other words, I *don't* thing NPR was ethically wrong, and I *don't* think they're quashing free speech at all. For gods' sake, they let David Brooks bloviate all the time on there, and I don't think he's afraid of being canned. I do think they were clumsy, as non-profits are wont to be. And *you* aren't ethically wrong to choose not to donate to someone who has pissed you off.

But Williams was totally out of line, has been for some time, and it's not as if they're losing a valuable, radical, outlier line of thinking by letting him go.

Whew! Back to grading.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
leviathan0999 at 2010-10-25 21:08 (UTC) (Link)
Well you have one clear "advantage" -- that can't be the right word! -- over me here. I'm never ableto stomach more than a couple of seconds Bill-O, so I only saw a bit.

But I must also point out that Williams -- in what you're quoting above, not just my previous incomplete description -- has a point, and what he's pointing out is honest and, unlike Bill-O's ignorant spew, not unjustified. Because the forces who have waged war against the United States are not a multi-faith, multicultural, multi-ethnic rainbow coalition of Bad People. They are a group that shares a number of commonalities, and one of the big ones is that they subscribe to a particular, warped, twisted, hyper-"conservative" (for want of a better word) strain of Islam. The same strain that fueled the Taliban in more than a decade of violent repression of anybody who didn't believe exactly as they did -- or at least look, dress, and act the part.

You need only ask our friend Sarah, a Muslim living in Cairo, Egypt, how that strain is making steady and terrifying progress in that cosmopolitan city, and how every day she comes in to teach her class to find more and more young women who have been cowed into wearing the veil, and beginning to surrender their personhood and agency to that strain of that religion.

And of course we know -- you know, and I know, and Juan Williams knows, that the vast majority of times he sits on a plane, and devout and conservative Muslims board, it means he's sharing his ride with quiet men of good conscience and conviction, and service to God. But we also know that when someone boards a plane intending to strike a blow against the Great Satan by setting his underpants on fire, if he cries out in triumph, the words will be "Allahu Akbar!" And we know that if he feels sufficient devotion to his "faith" -- in quotes to differentiate it from the faith that gives such comfort and guidance to Sarah and countless billions of other peaceful, loving human beings throughout the world -- to dress for it, that garb is what he will be wearing.

So Williams doesn't say, "You're Muslims, you must be scary terrorists." He says, and he's not wrong, that the thought occurs, "Are these the ones? is this the time that another peaceful flight will end in flames and death?"

If we can't start to deal honestly with that fact, then how do we fix it?

Edited at 2010-10-25 09:09 pm (UTC)
heron_pose
heron_pose at 2010-10-25 22:04 (UTC) (Link)
If Williams had *only* thought to himself, and admitted that thought "are these the ones" etc., then NPR would have been wrong.

He went beyond this, though, in suggesting that BilbO and others are at best *justified*, and at least *excused*, for their racist spewing. Admitting that one has irrational fears should be followed by expressions of regret -- esp. when this kind of spewing only gives radical Islamists more reason to believe that Americans hate Muslims. Cuz that's going so well.

The thought does occur -- but dealing with it doesn't mean telling BilbO and all other good Amurcans that it's okay to fear and hate Muslims, cuz, hey, if they dress like Muslims and make a big deal out of being Muslims, they are just asking for it.

We fix it by reminding everyone that "all schoolshooters are white boys" doesn't = "all white boys are schoolshooters", and thus that they should use similar reasoning in re: Muslims.

So, I agree with you, we need to deal honestly with our irrational fears and hatreds; but Juan Williams was trading on American ignorance rather than trying to deal with it, in my mind. That's all. I think.
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