The chattering class is all atwitter over the recent incidents involving Juan Williams and Keith Olbermann. Normal people may not have paid much attention, but maybe you should. I suspect that, as is often the case, the chatter has obscured the real, and important, lessons to be learned from both.
NPR listeners know that Williams was fired after saying on a Fox network talk show that the sight of a Muslim in traditional regalia boarding an airplane makes him nervous. If you’re an MSNBC viewer, you probably saw that Olbermann was off the air for a couple of days, as punishment for having given money to several Democratic candidates during the campaign.
The Williams case ignited one of those instant verbal firestorms, with conservative voices – many of them on Fox – decrying NPR’s “liberal bias.” Even many of NPR’s friends doubted that the firing was deserved and criticized the way it was handled. (Williams came out fine, of course, with a fat Fox contract.)
Olbermann’s suspension has also generated a lot of hot air, much of it emitted by the man himself in a lengthy self-justifying rant when he returned to his program. Ted Koppel, a voice from the Golden Era of television news (as he recalls it), weighed in to criticize not only Olbermann but the whole current shout-fest that takes up much of the 24 hours a day that now must be filled by the cable channels.
The important and largely unmentioned issue underlying both cases, it seems to me, is that we’re living through a revolution in the medium that supplies most Americans with most of our news. We’re seeing a culture clash. Juan Williams and Keith Olbermann personify the conflicting values and standards.
On one side, we have television news as we’ve known it in this country, with the broadcast networks and CNN, as well as radio’s NPR, all committed to the traditional standard of objectivity. Objectivity, at least as I teach it, is the application of the scientific method to journalism. It requires the relentless pursuit of what Bob Woodward famously termed “the best obtainable version of the truth.” As mainstream journalists define it, objectivity demands the separation of fact from opinion.
On the other side, we now have the ideological model of journalism exemplified by Fox. This is a model imported, like Rupert Murdoch himself, from across the Atlantic. Sure, Fox advertises itself as “fair and balanced,” but that’s not at all what it really intends to be. Just spend an evening with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
Now the NBC “family of networks” has made room for an ideological offspring of its own. MSNBC clearly wants to be for liberals what Fox has so successfully become for conservatives. Keith Olbermann might sue if he reads this, but he sounds to me like the liberal version of Bill O’Reilly. (MSNBC has no equivalent to Glenn Beck, who is truly one of a kind, for which we can all be grateful.)
I’m not arguing that our traditional approach to journalism is inherently superior to the ideological model. After all, that model has served Great Britain and much of Europe pretty well for a long time. But it’s sure not what we’re used to, and confusing to many, even within the industry.
Juan Williams, I suspect, is both happier and richer at Fox than he was at NPR. His mistake, and NPR’s, was to think he could work simultaneously in such different worlds. I doubt anybody can do that.
Keith Olbermann isn’t NBC anchor Brian Williams. He doesn’t intend to be and shouldn’t be judged by the same standards. Olbermann, who supports his causes openly on his show, should be free to put his money where his mouth is. Brian Williams doesn’t and shouldn’t.
For us consumers, the important thing to remember is this: Fox and MSNBC are playing by different rules than the broadcast networks or NPR. If you like your news straight up, you’ll prefer the latter. If you like it with a twist, you know where to look.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.