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NPR vs. Fox News: Juan Williams firing reveals deeper media fight

NPR’s firing Juan Williams comes just as controversial figures connected to NPR and Fox News – philanthropist George Soros and commentator Glenn Beck– are in a harsh rhetorical fight.

By Staff writer / October 23, 2010

NPR headquarters in Washington, DC. Public radio's firing of Juan Williams highlight's NPR's contentious relationship with Fox News.

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NPR's firing of news analyst Juan Williams couldn’t come at a worse time for public radio.

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Not only did it occur in the midst of on-air fund-raising by many public radio stations, it also happened just as controversial figures connected to NPR and Fox News – liberal philanthropist George Soros and conservative commentator Glenn Beck– are engaged in a harsh rhetorical fight.

Fox News is Mr. Williams’ other employer and the place where he made his controversial statement about Muslims. Mr. Soros recently donated $1.8 million to NPR, seen by conservative critics (and certainly by Mr. Beck) as proof (a) that NPR is a liberal mouthpiece and (b) that billionaire Soros pressured NPR to get rid of Williams.

“Up until then, opinions by NPR correspondents and analysts had been expressed in abundance, but Williams' statement on Fox, because it was expressed on Fox, amounted to apostasy,” editorializes Investor’s Business Daily. “The firing sends a message that Fox is beyond the pale and must be silenced.”

The fall-out from William’s dismissal has been sharp and swift, and it’s likely to continue.

On NPR’s web site, ombudsman Alicia Shepard reported that thousands of comments had caused the organization’s “Contact Us” form to crash.

“The overwhelming majority are angry, furious, outraged,” she wrote. “They want NPR to hire him back immediately. If NPR doesn't, they want all public funding of public radio to stop. They promise to never donate again. They are as mad as hell, and want everyone to know it. It was daunting to answer the phone and hear so much unrestrained anger.”

In addition to his gift to NPR, Soros also recently gave $1 million to Media Matters “to hold Fox News accountable for the false and misleading information they so often broadcast.” Media Matters is the progressive media watchdog which has been pressuring advertisers to drop their business with Fox News because of Beck’s alleged “hate speech leading to violence.”

Specifically, Beck’s dozens of comments attacking the Tides Foundation are being linked to the attempt by a heavily-armed man to assassinate employees at the San Francisco-based foundation, which funds environmental, human rights, and other progressive projects. The attack in July was thwarted in a shoot-out with police in which two officers were wounded.

Beck and his supporters insist that he does not condone violence. On his highly-popular Fox News show, Beck has turned around the accusation of violence, charging that Soros' $1 million contribution to Media Matters is a "wanted dead or alive poster" and a "million dollar bounty" on himself.

In the midst of all this comes the Juan Williams controversy.

Williams is an accomplished journalist and an expert on the civil rights era. But his on-air comments had become more openly opinionated in recent years, and this was why in 2008 his job title was changed from “news correspondent” to “news analyst.” On Fox, however, he was expected to be a pundit, performing alongside such provocative figures as Bill O’Reilly. There, the format is more likely to be shoot-from-the-lip.

NPR’s reaction to the current episode is likely to prolong the controversy, certainly among fans of Fox and its most successful personality, Glenn Beck.

Writes NPR ombudsman Shephard: “This latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values: NPR's values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum.”

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