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Juan Williams and Katrina

I sympathize with Juan Williams.  It hurts to get canned, especially after many years of dedicated service to an organization that suddenly turns on you.  Williams has every right to be upset about how his firing was handled by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, especially since the comments that got him fired, as unsettling as they are, have largely been taken out of context.

What Williams doesn’t have a right to do, however, is to knowingly blur the lines between respectable journalism and what FOX News does.  For all its faults – not the least of which is employing too few journalists of color and catering to a largely white audience through its often-pallid programming – NPR does a decent job of sticking to long-held, basic standards of ethical journalism.  FOX News laughs in their face.

This doesn’t mean that NPR doesn’t make mistakes, or that it isn’t susceptible to shortsighted media trends, or that it’s immune to pressures from corporate donors.  It does mean that NPR is one of the few media outlets left that isn’t driven by the sensationalism and spectacle behind much of what passes for mainstream news and analysis these days.  Perhaps that’s why Karl Rove and Sarah Palin have called to end NPR’s federal funding, even though only 2 percent of NPR’s budget comes from government sources.

FOX News holds journalistic standards like objectivity in utter contempt, and more than any other business has contributed to the decline in journalistic standards as networks and other cable outlets have imitated their practices in a race to the bottom for ratings and advertising revenue.  For these reasons, this unusual media ménage-a-trois between FOX, NPR and Juan Williams was destined for an unhappy ending from the start.  At some point, Williams must have realized that things would turn out this way.  NPR should have known better, too.  When they signed him in 2000, he had already been at FOX News for three years.

Over the past decade, Williams’ comments on FOX gave NPR several opportunities to regret their decision.  It’s quite possible NPR executives feared backlash if they fired him during the Bush administration, but Schiller’s timing and handling of the situation couldn’t have been worse.  It’s only added fuel to the anti-government fire spreading across the nation like a pre-election gift to Republicans betting on the oppressive liberal card to take over Congress.

Williams’ sudden status as a media martyr makes him even more valuable to FOX News executives, eager to employ analysts willing to play their “fair and balanced” charades.  The $2 million contract Williams signed with FOX News the day after his firing from NPR was a bargain for FOX News Chief Roger Ailes, who is now marketing FOX as a defender of free speech.  Ailes has stated publicly that Williams “is an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by FOX News on a daily basis,” and that “Juan has been a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints since his tenure began at FOX News in 1997.”

This sounds like good news for FOX, but is it true that Juan Williams is a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints?  Evidence to the contrary can be found by researching Williams’ comments on FOX News over the years.  And his 2006 book Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and the Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It is many things, but it’s far from a “liberal” book.

On November 17, 2006, Juan Williams was invited to address Thurgood Marshall College at the University of California, San Diego.  As long as he stuck to Justice Marshall, Williams delivered an informative and sometimes inspiring message, which included forcing students to consider their privileged social position at one of the country’s elite institutions of higher education.  Yet, when he changed the subject to Hurricane Katrina, Williams claimed that while it was certainly a terrible tragedy, those living in the Lower Ninth Ward were in harm’s way because they had made poor life decisions, such as having babies out of wedlock and doing drugs.

Not only are these typical conservative arguments about poverty, they are deeply insulting to the fate and memory of the thousands of people killed and displaced during and after Katrina, including almost every resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, which remains a ghost town five years later.  Although different in focus, Williams’ comments are more reminiscent of statements made by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, than those made by any liberals about the country’s worst tragedy in recent history.

While discussing Katrina, Williams ignored structural inequalities that lead to complex social problems – like unwanted pregnancy and drug addiction – that are symptomatic of poor socioeconomic status and limited opportunities for social advancement.  When I asked Williams what he thought about the role that structural racism played in Katrina’s massive destruction of human life and property, he dismissed my question as misguided and ill informed, despite the fact I had spent time working with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.

Completely dismissing the fact that before Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward had the highest level of black home ownership of any neighborhood in the United States, and was a vital stepping stone out of poverty for the New Orleans black community, Williams suggested that the people killed and exiled from the Lower Ninth Ward were not the victims of structural racism that led to government negligence, but their own bad morals and poor decision-making.

Clearly not a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints, Juan Williams is a complex figure whose firing has rightfully generated a discussion about ethical standards in an age of sensationalist journalism.  It seems that NPR executives could have avoided the current backlash if they had thought more carefully before making a terrible decision: not the move to fire Williams, but to have hired him in the first place.

Objectivity in news may be an impossible goal, but FOX’s “fair and balanced” mantra is political satire that even Jon Stewart and Stephan Colbert can’t top.  Anyone associated with it cannot be expected to maintain basic standards of ethical journalism for long, not even Juan Williams.

SCOTT BOEHM is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, San Diego.  He can be contacted at sboehm@ucsd.edu.