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Juan Williams firing: Does journalism need more objectivity -- or more transparency?

NPR's Juan Williams was fired after remarks he made on Fox News about his anxiety over seeing Muslims on planes.

By / October 22, 2010

NPR fired Juan Williams in part for being too candid about his personal beliefs.

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Remember when journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass were fired for lying? Now, in the wake of Juan Williams's firing from NPR, it seems like the bigger risk journalists take is when they tell the truth – at least about their own feelings.

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Straddling two worlds

Mr. Williams, as dual analyst for both Fox News and National Public Radio, personified the increasingly divergent models of journalism in America: the "objective" one, symbolized by NPR, and the "opinionated" one, symbolized by Fox.

After Williams confessed to Bill O'Reilly that he feels "nervous" and "worried" when he sees people in Muslim garb on a plane, NPR fired him – while Fox News then gave him a new three-year, $2 million contract.

Williams is just the latest big-name reporter, after Rich Sanchez and Helen Thomas, to be fired for expressing a personal opinion about a sensitive topic.

Why was his remark considered such a threat to traditional journalistic standards? According to NPR CEO Vivian Schiller: "Certainly you have opinions – all human beings have their personal opinions. But it is the ideal of journalism that we strive for objectivity so we can best present the positions of people around all parts of the debate to our public so the public can make their own decisions about these issues."

Are journalists like umpires?

Schiller's argument seems to be that NPR listeners would have a harder time making decisions about issues presented by Williams because they suspect his analysis would be biased.

That makes sense. I certainly wouldn't trust the judgment of the home-plate umpire in tonight's playoff game between the Yankees and Rangers if he tweeted that he didn't like Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes.

And yet, wouldn't such knowledge of the umpire's feelings actually empower me as a fan to better judge the quality of his calls on balls and strikes?

Loony liberal or right-wing extremist?

As the Monitor's opinion editor, I get frequent complaints from readers about the ideological balance of the pieces we publish. Some clearly think I'm a hopeless Boston liberal. Others insist I'm a right-wing extremist. I usually respond by pointing them to pieces that demonstrate our sincere commitment to present a diversity of voices and ideas.

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