At a luncheon at the Atlanta Press Club last week NPR's President and CEO Vivian Schiller had this to say to reporters:
"The only thing that matters to me in this case is how Juan as a news analyst conducts himself, and whether it's in violation of our journalistic ethics. It's really that straight forward. Now I don't need to get into a debate about is this show news, is this show opinion. That's... Let's... Let somebody else talk about that. My only interest here... This action was not anti-Fox(News)... This action was pro-journalistic standards. And a news analyst cannot continue, credibly to... to... to analyze the news, if they are expressing opinions about divisive issues. It's really that simple." (Emphasis added)
Those words came immediately after Ms. Schiller insinuated that former NPR analyst Juan Williams was possibly in need of psychiatric help because of his admission on "The O'Reilly Factor" that since 9/11 he sometimes feels anxious when seeing devout Muslims board an airplane. (She has since apologized for her choice of words).
It's now been almost a week since NPR announced it was firing Williams. Ms. Schiller, of course is still trying to stem the flood of responses flowing in to NPR stations around the country.
On Friday, even the NPR ombudsman admitted the firing of Williams had been handled badly.
On Sunday, according to Fox News' James Rosen, Ms. Schiller issued a written apology to NPR affiliate managers saying, “While we stand firmly behind that decision [to terminate Williams’s contract] ... I regret that we did not take the time to prepare the station community and provide you with the tools to cope with the fallout from this episode. I also regret that this happened when the staff and volunteers of many stations were deeply engaged in pledge drives.”
But more importantly and more intriguing to me however is the outright lie that Ms. Schiller told reporters last Thursday in Atlanta. It was a deception on several levels.
The first deception was that she gave the quote about Williams as news analyst after directly insinuating that he should speak to his psychiatrist. If Mr. Williams even has a psychiatrist on retainer certainly such a fact should be treated with more respect. But as a matter of record, Juan Williams has no such resource.
Second, Ms. Schiller attempted, through her response -- as quoted above -- to pretend to keep her involvement in the matter, "all business." But this quote came after aggressive questioning by reporters at the very event where she mocked Williams in her limited remarks addressing his termination.
Third, Ms. Schiller ended that comment with a blatantly untrue assertion. News analysts are asked to give their analysis of the news specifically from their unique opinion. Generally speaking news analysts are asked to take on such responsibilities after years of expertise in journalism, after decades of observing news events, and understanding the long term implications that are a result of these events. Williams' background was suitable for such an assignment, and he had faithfully carried out those duties with NPR for more than a decade.
Fourth, Ms. Schiller surely must know that the news of the day almost always consists of divisive issues, and the very thing NPR was paying Williams to do was to express opinions about those issues. -- Ironically the original issue that prompted Williams' comments on "The Factor" were related to the debate over the mosque at Ground Zero. Yes, that's a divisive topic, but also one of the biggest news stories of the year and even, perhaps, of the decade.
Finally, Ms. Schiller is dishonest, but she is also hypocritical. NPR continues to employ other journalists, such as Nina Totenberg, who once actually opined on a major news outlet about her desire to see a Senator with whom she disagreed be stricken with AIDS, or, even better, that Senator's grandchild.
If journalism is about anything it should be about telling the truth, as best one knows it, to the best of one's ability. And it should be done so with transparency.
Ironically Juan Williams' comments to Bill O'Reilly on "The O'Reilly Factor," were a gentle chiding to the host to be more tolerant.
Williams is someone I personally disagree with about 70-80% of the time. Nonetheless he has the right to not be misrepresented, nor to be mistreated, and Vivian Schiller has done both.
NPR should replace Schiller if it truly cares about being seen as an important journalistic outlet where the genuine ethics of truth in reporting are respected.
As of now Schiller has made a mockery of that which she claimed to be practicing.
Kevin McCullough is the nationally syndicated host of "The Kevin McCullough Show" weekdays (7-9 a.m. ET) & "Baldwin/McCullough Radio" Saturdays (9-11 p.m. ET) on 215 stations & Sirius/XM. His new book from Thomas Nelson Publishers, "No He Can't" hits the streets March 2011.