Juan Williams fired: pitfalls of the 'insta-opinion' age

Journalists like Juan Williams, fired Wednesday, are laboring under increasing demands to share their personality and opinion while at the same time abiding by traditional ethics rules.

Fox News screengrab
Juan Williams appeared on the Fox News television program 'The O'Reilly Factor,' on Monday.

Juan Williams, the venerable NPR news analyst and civil rights era expert, joined a growing list of journalists fired for making bold statements on the air or online – in his case, telling Fox News's Bill O'Reilly that people in Muslim garb on airplanes make him "nervous."

In NPR's view, Mr. Williams stepped over a boundary by needlessly offending American Muslims. Juan Williams was fired Wednesday. But a quick dismissal for stating a fear that many Americans share, media experts say, also sends a puzzling message to reporters, who are laboring under increasing demands to share their personality and opinion while at the same time abiding by ethics rules. Those rules don't always jibe with the "insta-opinion" atmosphere of new media like Twitter and Facebook.

"This case reinforces the need for institutions like NPR ... to instill the elements of journalism ... and to be clear what the standards are for blogs and TV appearances," says Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Media organizations need to think hard about whether they should have double standards – about whether you should say in blogs or on Twitter what you wouldn't put in the newspaper."

Speaking on Fox News, where he is a contributor, Williams told Mr. O'Reilly, "I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Williams's firing cuts to an increasingly sensitive topic in US culture: how to talk about Islam in the wake of 9/11 and how reporters and media groups approach discussions about Muslim culture.

"In this particular case, because Juan Williams did say something that a lot of people think, as insensitive as it may have been, it sounds like it could have been a good opportunity for him to come to grips in a public way with what he thinks and a lot of other people think," says Dan Kennedy, an assistant journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston. In that light, "firing him was taking it a little too far."

Even journalism observers who have been critical of Williams's appearances on Fox News, which is ideologically opposite in its presentation compared with NPR, felt the firing could send the wrong message to journalists, as well as citizens. These observers point to various efforts to expand and inform national debates – something that Williams himself, in a column Thursday, said he was trying to do in his O'Reilly appearance.

"At some point political correctness overwhelms common sense," writes Jacob Heilbrunn, author of "They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons," on the Huffington Post. "Yes, there should be taboos when it comes to public discourse. Some taboos are necessary and even vital. Yes, trash-talking about Muslims has become dangerously prevalent. But firing Williams only feeds those sentiments."

In a new Rasmussen Reports survey, 57 percent of adults say that America has become too politically correct, while 23 percent say the nation is not politically correct enough. Seventy-four percent regard political correctness as a problem in the United States today.

Williams is the latest entry in a growing list of journalists whose employment ended after trying to state their opinions quickly and plainly. They include CNN producer Octavia Nasr, for bemoaning the death of a Hezbollah cleric, CNN host Rick Sanchez for calling Jon Stewart a "bigot," and longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas for saying that Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine."

The Williams firing shows that NPR, in many ways, is an example of a news organization trying to navigate new media without muddying the role of journalism in society, says Jen Reeves, an associate journalism professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

"It's confusing to the general public what journalism is anymore," says Ms. Reeves. "Our job as journalists is to question the culture and present it to the general public to think about. But instead we're constantly [playing up people's fears]."

She adds, "The way Williams presented himself was at a level of personal opinion that, as a journalist, is not appropriate."

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