Friday, October 22, 2010

Why was Juan Williams fired? Pt. 2

Alicia Shepard, ombudsman (-person?) for NPR has weighed in on the firing of Juan Williams.

Shepard chose a missive from Mohamed Khodr, a Winchester, VA. doctor, to exemplify the objection to Williams:
"NPR must and should take a stand against this bigotry and tell Williams' he must choose NPR's code of ethics or be let go to join the racist bigoted fearmongerers of FOX,” continued Khodr. “NPR can't have it both ways."

NPR's management acted. In a statement released at 12:27 a.m. Thursday, NPR said Williams' remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
If concern existed that NPR bowed to pressure from Muslims in firing Williams, the two paragraphs above do little to help ease that concern.

Shepard tried to provide specifics missing from the official announcement:
“News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation,” said Schiller in an email to NPR member stations, some of which are upset about Williams' firing.
It's a personal public position on a controversial issue to feel nervous around persons who are obviously Muslim when the planet is experiencing an ongoing rash of Islam-linked violent extremism?

There's NPR's problem right there:  It shouldn't be controversial.  Williams' claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it is rational to experience nervousness around obvious Muslims in the current context.  It simply isn't rational to think that every obvious Muslim is a terrorist.

Lottery tickets serve to illustrate.  Suppose you see an intact lottery ticket on the ground.  It is rational to experience some hope that it is the winning lottery ticket, recognizing that the probability is low.  It is not rational to assume that the ticket is for sure the winning ticket, given the low probability.

But let's examine this ethical issue more closely.  NPR's stance is that journalists may not take public positions on controversial issues because it undermines their credibility.

Think about that for a moment.  If I hold to controversial position C and announce it publicly, I lose credibility.  On the other hand, if I hold to controversial position C and keep it secret, I have credibility.  By this measure, the deceitful journalist who hides his controversial opinions is more ethical than the journalist who is honest about the same.

What kind of code of ethics is that?

I'll tell you what kind of code of ethics it is:  It is a code of ethics designed first and foremost to give the company more control of its brand.  Regardless of the truth, NPR wants to foster the impression that its journalists do not hold controversial opinions.  NPR is lying to you.  Implicitly, that is.  For the greater good.  The greater good of NPR, that is.  Supposedly.

The firing of Williams is all about maintaining a particular image at NPR.  That is manifest as Shepard adds to the supposed justification for sacking Williams:
The issue also is whether someone on NPR's payroll should be allowed to say something in one venue that NPR would not allow on its air. NPR’s ethics code says they cannot.
 And the precise wording on that portion of the NPR ethics code is:
10. In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.
I think Shepard is stretching it on this one.  The stipulation about TV (and other media) appearances occurs under the heading "Outside work, freelancing, speaking engagements."  The enumerated portions of the code follow that general order.  Williams' arrangement with NPR stipulated that he was not identified in association with NPR when appearing on Fox.

Shepard continues:

NPR, like any mainstream news outlet, expects its journalists to be thoughtful and measured in everything they say. What Williams said was deeply offensive to Muslims and inflamed, rather than contributing positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America.
 Sorry, but what a crock.  How does suppressing the truth that some of us feel nervous around Muslims contribute positively to the debate about the role of Muslims in America?  On the contrary, it muzzles debate regarding aspects of that role.  Don't Muslims who count as good and decent American citizens deserve the truth?

Muslims need to face the fact that their brand is tarnished, whether deservedly so or not.  The ethical response is not to suppress that truth.

Oct 29, 2010:  Paragraph 14 updated to correct an omission, with the following change:   "The greater of NPR, that is."=>"The greater good of NPR, that is."

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