Saturday, October 30, 2010

At Last! Mike Watt's long-awaited opinion of the firing of Juan Williams!

At the behest of no one, I thought I’d weigh in on the Juan Williams/NPR/Fox News debacle.

As you may or may not know, Juan Williams is a journalist who, up until October 21 of this year, worked as a news analyst for National Public Radio and a paid commentator on Fox News. On Fox, he was considered a Liberal and provided a talking point against those who would criticize the “right-heavy” news-ebrities like Bill O’Reilly and the permanent post-partum depressive Glenn Beck. “See?” They could say, pointing at Williams, “He’s a Liberal! We’re not slanted—oh, he is too a Liberal! Look how not-white he is.”

From NPR’s point of view, Williams was a conservative, and therefore, a detriment. So much so that they played hockey with his title—first he was a correspondent, then a news analyst—and demanded that their call-letters be in no way identified with him when he appeared on Fox News. Since he first appeared as host of Talk of the Nation on NPR, they’ve been tugging at their collars, worried about what un-PC thing he’d say—or think—next.

On October 20, Williams appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show against every rational person’s better judgment and added the final straw to the camel’s back that is NPR. He said, right there, on TV, in front of God and everybody, that seeing people on an airplane “in Muslim garb” made him “nervous”.

He then went on to admonish himself for such feelings and decry anyone who gave in to such knee-jerk impulses, but that part got left behind during the ensuing hoopla. To NPR, Williams having such a human reaction was intolerable, and speaking his mind about it was… well, unspeakable. So out he went.

And, of course, the rest of America went crazy scrambling from one goal post to the other in order to take sides. The Right demanded that the government immediately “unfund” NPR, even though the amount of Federal money allocated to National Public Radio via the National Endowment of the Arts barely accounts for 2% of their annual budget. Sarah Palin called it “shameful” that such censorship was paid for by tax dollars. Which, as any loyal listener will attest, is almost completely untrue, of course. As John Oliver put it on The Daily Show, NPR holds fund raisers “11 months out of the year!” Tax money? Not so much. Private donations, certainly. And with every donation of ten bazillion dollars or more, you get your choice of a free coffee mug or NPR tote bag.

On the Left, folks squirmed, declaring “good riddance” to the dissenting viewpoint. How dare Williams subject them to the other side of the argument? “He’s making us see both points of view again! Make him stop!” Others were uncomfortable with the idea of such obvious censorship, without bothering to look up the definition of the word, and thought that NPR should cool their jets and offer Williams his job back. To the latter, Right opponents shouted, “Screw your apologies! This is war!”

Meanwhile, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, admonished Williams and defended her decision at a press conference wherein she said, and I’m paraphrasing, “He had no right to express such an outrageous opinion. That’s something he should discuss with his publicist or psychiatrist!”

Which seemed to translate as, “We fired this conservative schmoe for being a whoring nutjob.”

As a less-than-impartial observer, a fellow journalist, a loyal NPR listener and someone who can process oxygen into carbon dioxide as opinions with the best of them, all I was able to do over the last week or so, amidst the arm-waving and garment-rending, was shake my head.

Fox News doesn’t pretend to be anything but a Right Wing Noise Machine. In fact, that might be their mission statement. (Personally, I try to avoid more than a couple of minutes of that channel because I end up wanting to buy Glenn Beck a puppy and tell him everything’s gonna be okay, fork over my lunch money to Bill O’Reilly so he doesn’t beat me up behind the gym, or send a box of desperately-needed vibrators to Gretchen Carlson so she’ll, well, exhale once in a while.) The one thing they don’t pretend to be is unbiased.

NPR, on the other hand, prides itself on being a balanced news outfit, and, for the most part, it is. At least, they tend not to sneer too audibly when discussing G.O.P. strategies, and they’ll call out a Democrat for being a dolt just as quick as they will a Republican. My all-time journalistic hero, Steve Inskeep, has cornered such luminaries as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Nicholas Sarkozy without flinching, and then sing pun-filled songs about moray eels to the tune of “That’s Amore`”. Inskeep doesn’t just call a spade a spade, he slaps it around and declares it to be a goddamned shovel. And I usually dig the shows “All Things Considered” (not to be confused with Doonesbury’s “All Things Reconsidered” with Mark Slackmeyer) and the occasional dose of “Fresh Air” and not just because I’m tired of the other Pittsburgh radio stations playing “Highway to Hell” on every rotation.

I rarely paid much attention to Juan Williams. I had heard a couple of his “Right-of-Left” opinions in the past but, you know what? Other people’s opinions don’t generally send me leaping from a car going 75 m.p.h. down I-79 (which is how and where I usually listen to NPR). If Williams thinks that Michelle Obama dresses like “black militant Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress”, that’s his right, I suppose. It ain’t particularly funny, but it didn’t make me sharpen my pitchfork either.

NPR’s position was that Williams’ conduct on Fox News, particularly making that single “nervous” statement, was counter to the company’s position of journalistic neutrality. Basically, because he worked for NPR as a news analyst, he was never off the clock. When he appeared on Fox News, he did so as an NPR representative, whether they were publicly proud of this fact or not. Oddly enough, Fox News didn’t have too much trouble with him presenting “Left-of-Right” viewpoints on NPR, when he had them. But Vivian Schiller, wringing her hands and condemning the kooky concubine, felt that Williams was way out of line, feeling the way that he did and telling people.

She gave Fox News the opportunity to play hero, riding to Williams’ rescue with a $2 million dollar job offer and some high ground on which to stand. But while Williams took the job, he squatted on the high ground and accused Schiller of racism, leftism, and elitism. “I don’t fit in their box,” he spat. Okay, said, but there was some saliva utilized. Schiller backpeddled, gave a grudging apology for having handled the manner with fists of ham, and the two turned their backs on each other, arms crossed and breath held. O’Reilly, on the other hand, wrote “NPR” down on his list of “People and Things Who Should Die Because I Don’t Like ‘em”.

And all of this brings me to the question at hand: when is a journalist allowed to express personal opinion? In the Edward R. Murrow days, perhaps, a respectable reporter did not say, “That Hitler’s a real asshole,” he simply reported what he saw, in Murrow’s case, bombs dropping around his ears and past relatives waving him on into the light. But what of such upstanding gentlemen as Walter Winchell, who had public figures so terrified of offending him that they invited the little weasel to every function and applied lipstick to his tuchis at every opportunity? Winchell had no trouble expressing his opinions to Mr. and Mrs. America, not to mention all the ships at sea.

From NPR’s point of view, Williams was supposed to be a neutral party, what Heinlein defined as a “Fair Witness” in Stranger in a Strange Land. If he is asked, “What color is that barn?”, he is supposed to answer, “The side that I can see is white. I cannot speak for the other sides.” He was to be a “Fair Witness” at all times, on and off the clock, because he is a public figure and a journalist. A reporter. He was not meant to editorialize.

Fox News, of course, has no trouble editorializing, declaring everything short of wax fruit an instrument of that Satan Obama, and it isn’t too far of a stretch to think that Williams was a bit of a pansy for qualifying his “nervousness” in the face of burqas. In fact, that he didn’t shove the Muslims and their garb out of the plane in mid-flight each and every time he encountered him was likely seen to the O’Reilly camp as tantamount to treason.

But was he wrong for expressing this very natural and human feeling of brief xenophobia? Williams, by the way, if it matters, is black. So any NPR-hurling of “racism” at him would be looked-upon as a pot-kettle issue. If you stop his opinion mid-sentence, though, that’s just what you’re doing. Without giving his follow-up statements of “but I realize that I’m being silly and not every Muslim in the world—very few of them, actually—is a terrorist eager to blow every JetBlue flight out of the air” the proper sound bite, that’s exactly the brush he’s being painted with. You can turn it into a “Left-Right” issue or a “PC-Non-PC” issue, but what it really comes down to is, a man, who works as a reporter for two diametrically-opposite news outlets, said something one didn’t like and got shitcanned for it. That he’d said other things they didn’t like in the past should, perhaps, be taken into consideration. If Schiller had indeed warned him in the past of going on Fox with O’Reilly and discussing the inherent evil of the Democrats—“do that and we’ll fire you and take away your Carl Kassel answering machine message faster than you can say “Wait-Wait, Don’t Tell Me’”—maybe he was playing with fire.

But we can’t pretend that journalism has evolved since Murrow, though perhaps not much since Winchell (though they share roughly the same points in history). In these days of the not-so-wild West of the Internet, where “Gonzo Journalism” has been taken up as the new name-calling, it’s difficult to find good, impartial reporting without some degree of opinionizing. It’s even taught in journalism classes (currently the second-most useless major after “Flugelhorn”): it is permitted for first-person commentary to be inserted into a non-fiction piece to provide the “human element”, so that the reader knows that Google just found your article and didn’t actually generate it, whether that’s actually coming sooner or later is a different discussion. In the era of 24-hour news shows, that line between play-by-play and color is even thinner.

So where did Williams trip? By accepting one job while working at the other? Thinking that bipartisanism and rationality still existed in the media-crazed human? Thinking that dissent was some sort of a Constitutional right (Dear Christine O’Donnell, show me where in the Constitution it says “Freedom of Speech” or “Freedom of the Press”!)? Or does it really come down to sugaring one employer’s gas tank too often and finally getting caught for spitting on the sidewalk?

I, for one, certainly miss impartiality in the news, but these days when actual “news” is so rare to encounter, I’ll take even the resemblance of fact that I can look up later over what Lindsay Lohan is fucking today.

I don’t feel a whit of sympathy for Williams. I mean, really, how could I? I say stupid shit every day and no one ever hands me $2 million dollars. And I have no intention of ceasing my patronage of NPR, whether they “censored” Williams or simply “censured” him. And since my own columns are read less frequently than a Surgeon General’s warning on a pack of cigarettes, I figure I’ll say whatever the goddamned fucking hell I please. But if I ever go to work for NPR, I’ll think twice about applying for a night job at Fox. Or vice-versa. Because, quite frankly, if I were a vegetarian, I’d have a hard time working for Oscar Mayer.


Paul Scrabo said...

Well said, Mike!

Anonymous said...

"Fox News doesn’t pretend to be anything but a Right Wing Noise Machine"

Untrue. They pretend to be "Fair and Balanced". They also pretend to be a legitimate news org. They clearly are not. However, unlike Rush Limbaugh who proudly admits to telling only PART of the story (the right wing part) Fox News loves to brag that they are telling the FULL story. Nope, not really, they are telling only part of the story too.

Sorry, sir, but NPR can fire whomever they want for whatever reason they want. Nuff said.

Mike Watt said...

Never end a post with "Nuff said". Firstly because it's silly. Second, there's always more to be said, or researched or investigate. And you are right, NPR has the right to fire anyone they like.

Anonymous said...

Nah, I just like Stan Lee is all. Nuthing personal. Keep up the good writing/blogs though. Entertaining reads!

~ Your fan, Brooke