"I believe the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism."
The author of that quote, Walter Williams, founding dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, would arguably have suffered apoplexy at NPR's unceremonious and cowardly sacking of senior news analyst Juan Williams last month — over the phone no less. It is equally obvious that the NPR hierarchy is oblivious to the ideals of the late Missouri journalism dean.
Juan Williams, a 10-year employee of NPR, was dismissed for the following expressed on FOX News' Bill O'Reilly show. "Look Bill I'm not a bigot. 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."
In all honesty, however, I believe NPR did nothing illegal in firing Mr. Williams — even overlooking its flimsy and self-serving calling him a "valuable contributor" but stating "his comments were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practice and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR." NPR's censurably indecent approach notwithstanding, there are far too many "unfirable" sacred cows among government, union and faculty employees.
However, for NPR to trot out its editorial standards and practice as having been undermined by Mr. Williams is the ultimate in chutzpah. How does that compute when its chief executive, Vivian Schiller, addressing the Atlanta Press Club, opined that Williams should have kept his feelings between himself and his "psychiatrist or publicist."
And, it requires very little research to learn of NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg's open suggestion that it would be fair for the late Sen. Jesse Helms or one of his grandchildren to catch AIDS. Or, that Sarah Spitz, NPR producer for the show "Right, Left and Center," wrote that she would "laugh loudly like a maniac" while watching Rush Limbaugh have a heart attack. Of the three, Ms. Schiller did offer a belated apology to Mr. Williams but what "editorial standards and practice" did he violate?
I seldom find myself in agreement with Juan Williams' stances on issues; however, I have always respected him for his intellect, honesty, integrity and his capacity for courteous, balanced and fair discussion. A decent and honorable man, he has earned the respect of his peers and his viewers for his dignity and respect for the views of others along with his articulate expressing of opinions.
That the parent organization, the entity that pays the bills and salaries, has the right to choose its political slant is indisputable. But, in the field of opinion journalism, an institution that includes the words "National" and "Public" in its title, opens a credibility gap by canning a respected journalist for merely expressing a view.
Juan Williams merely stated an uneasiness in boarding aircraft occupied by those in Muslim attire. He did not question their right to fly and he did not express any desire for their removal. To the contrary, he has consistently called for moderation and restraint in views toward those of Arab descent — on that same show, Williams reminded O'Reilly that it was wrong to call all Muslims extremists because some happen to be terrorists.
For NPR to have fired Mr. Williams for expressing an honest and reasonable opinion (which, by the way, is what opinion journalists do) is both shameful and preposterous. The manner in which he, a highly respected, 10-year analyst, was canned — telephonically rather than face-to-face — suggests NPR sought an excuse to cut him loose.
As one might expect, NPR has received far more brickbats than bouquets for the shabby treatment of its former senior analyst. There is a right and a wrong way to conduct business — common courtesy and human decency was breached in the opinion of fair-minded Americans.
Finally, NPR, along with other public radio and television stations, receives federal funds in the way of subsidies (some 15 percent of their revenue) from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, set up by Congress to funnel federal funds to stations. Perhaps it is time to put the brakes on taxpayer funded intolerance?
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.