Monday, November 1, 2010

ABC & NPR: WTF?

Two of the dumbest, saddest moves made by major media organizations in recent memory happened almost back to back recently. One gave credence to the idea that a legitimate commentator who strays from journalistic orthodoxy will be a candidate for dismissal; the other gave traction to the idea that a straight-up charlatan with no respect for journalistic accuracy will be a source of good ratings on Election Night. Both are pretty good indicators of a media hierarchy struggling with the arrival of a future where the established proprieties and traditions of journalism are under attack like never before.

The first case was a reactionary reach for political correctness, with no consideration of the fallout. Juan Williams, the author and longtime commentator for National Public Radio, ran afoul of NPR’s sensibilities and its ethical code recently, did so in ways that should be worrying to any journalist or observer of modern America for whom the First Amendment is more real than theoretical.

Williams appeared Oct. 18 on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” and host Bill O’Reilly asked him to comment on the idea that the United States is having a Muslim problem.

“I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality,” Williams said. “I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams, who was obviously speaking in the context of offering an opinion (like how many other journalists and observers out there today?) was cashiered on Oct. 20 with, apparently, no opportunity to personally make his case before NPR management.

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Regrettably, some of Williams’ comments indicated a willingness to validate the positions of O’Reilly, whose anti-Muslim bias has been so long a given of his world view and his on-air commentary, it’s not even remarkable anymore. Williams’ seeming approval of that bias puts him in a bad light, and in bad company.

But NPR’s rush to judgment failed to view Williams’ comments through at least one other prism, in the context of the journalistic confessional: the opinion of one 21st-century American grappling with his own visceral discontents at seeing visibly identifiable people of the Muslim faith — a discontent made that much more poignantly ironic by Williams’ own life as an African American male. What could have been a profoundly teachable moment — a topical lesson of civics and tolerance, not from the classroom but from the newsroom — was pretty much squandered by NPR’s automatic decision to drag Williams to the tumbrels.

Other, later, more mitigating comments from Williams, moments after the offending quotes above, were never considered. Neither were other comments he'd previously made, namely, that Muslims shouldn't generally be blamed for terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists. NPR’s conditioned reflex for boilerplate journalistic impartiality kicked in, and Williams’ contract was terminated.

Opposition was fierce.

“I thought NPR sort of, shall we say, overreacted a little bit,” said CBS News’ Bob Schieffer to Don Imus last week. “Maybe Juan could have been a little more artful in the way he put that, but … he’s a good person. I don’t think he deserved that.”

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee issued a statement that, despite its conservative source, accurately cut to the chase: “NPR has discredited itself as a forum for free speech and a protection of the First Amendment rights of all and has solidified itself as the purveyor of politically correct pabulum and protector of views that lean left.”

Political personality Sarah Palin weighed in with a predictably punitive conservative response: “If NPR is unable to tolerate an honest debate about an issue as important as Islamic terrorism, then it's time for 'National Public Radio' to become 'National Private Radio ... It's time for Congress to defund this organization...President Obama should make clear his commitment to free and honest discussion of the jihadist threat in our public debates - and Congress should make clear that unless NPR provides that public service, not one more dime."

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But Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News really nailed it on his ”Attytood” blog. In a column partly titled “Journalism’s new Sharia law,” he said:

“I’m not surprised this happened. NPR’s rash and ill-considered actions did not take a place in a vacuum. Increasingly, the public radio entity has become a leader … in an almost Taliban-like drive to enforce a brand of unrealistic-to-the-point-of-insane journalistic purity. By that I mean that NPR — like a number of other big-name journalistic outfits — is reacting to an age of modernity, in which new media and a new playing field have allowed for a broader and more open discussion of issues with more potential for transparency, by retreating deeper into a dank temple of objectivity when journalists are stripped of opinions and the ability to discuss things in ways that most normal people would recognize as ... being human. ...”



Bunch laments the ways in which “... the journalism world -- under assault on so many fronts, losing readers and dollars as we struggle to adapt to the new digital age -- retreats into what is increasingly becoming the media's version of Sharia law, requiring reporters and ‘analysts’ to wear their opinion burkas, and holding occasional stonings and beheadings in the public square to enforce the old world order.”

Williams has moved on nicely, thanks. He’d barely left the NPR building with some office supplies and his severance check before he was offered a three-year, $2 million gig … with Fox News. Reader Jerry, commenting at The New York Times, pithily caught the drift: “Juan Williams states that he was the only African-American male on the air at NPR. Is that true? If so [NPR President and CEO Vivian] Schiller has just made Fox's slogan of ‘Fair and Balanced’ a lot more accurate. Fox is more diverse than NPR now.”


All in all, not exactly NPR’s finest moment. They’re the journalistic entity doing the most visible face-plant on this right now. But Bunch asked a right question, one that needs an answer as much from the media at large as from anyone at NPR: “[D]o we want a generation of journalists living a monastic existence, cloistered in their basements when they're not in the office so they won't be exposed to the scary cacophony of voices that is the real world?”

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Bad as NPR’s decision was, it was at least one that showed an organization trying to reinforce its idea of journalistic integrity, however misguided. NPR’s move was trumped on Friday when ABC News announced that Andrew Breitbart, the blogger whose video embroidery of comments by wrongly fired former Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod poisonously injected race into the national discourse in July, will contribute to ABC’s election night coverage on Tuesday.

Breitbart will join an ABC Town Hall meeting at Arizona State University, and part of an online-only discussion and debate to be moderated by ABC News’ David Muir and Facebook's Randi Zuckerberg on ABCNews.com and Facebook.

Color of Change, a multicultural activist Web site and community, put the word out. “ABC's decision is a slap in the face to Shirley Sherrod, to Black America, and to everyone who believes in the value of telling the truth. It's unacceptable,” the organization says in calling for ABC News and its parent company, Disney, to cancel Breitbart’s place in the network’s coverage.

“Posing as a journalist,” Color said, “Breitbart promotes and concocts fake stories and peddles them as news. It was Breitbart who showcased heavily doctored video showing two people posing as a pimp and prostitute supposedly getting services from ACORN (among other accusations).” ...

“We understand how Breitbart operates, but we expect more from ABC. Their decision to have Breitbart participate is shameful and irresponsible. It's important to have opinions from across the spectrum, but we would expect a news organization to at least try to make its platform available to those with some baseline of integrity. In this case, they've sought out someone who has clearly has none — and whose shenanigans in the Sherrod episode forced almost every major news organization to issue retractions and apologize.”

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ABC News chieftains knew they’d stepped in something almost immediately. On Friday, they stuck to their guns despite a perception issue they were already losing control of.

“Then, Saturday afternoon, after criticism grew even stronger from inside and outside the company, the executive producer of ABC News Digital indicated that Breitbart's role might be even more limited. But ABC is still giving him access to their media platform and endorsing him as a legitimate journalist in the process,” Color of Change reported.

Andrew Morse, executive producer of ABC News digital, released a statement sharpening Breitbart’s role on election night, saying, in part:

“I want to explain what Mr. Breitbart's role has always been -- as one of our guests at our digital town hall event:

Mr. Breitbart is not an ABC News analyst.

He is not an ABC News consultant.

He is not, in any way, affiliated with ABC News.

He is not being paid by ABC News.

He has not been asked to analyze the results of the election for ABC News.”

Some of Morse’s statement was clarifying; with the assortment of analysts, commentators and consultants that crowd the cable space these days, apparently Breitbart’s role won’t have the imprimatur of ABC News reinforced by compensation.

But some of the rest has to be complete nonsense. Consistent with a national vote, the results of the election will be a rolling phenomenon, with some states reporting earlier than others. If Breitbart’s not there to analyze the available results of the election on Election Night, what the hell’s he there for? His very presence at ASU will confirm the fact that he has a widely-known perspective; if ABC didn’t want him to offer that perspective, what was the point of inviting him in the first place? Conservative political analysis is what Breitbart does; regardless of Morse’s protestations, that’s why he’ll be there Tuesday night.

And anyway, since the event at ASU will be in the free-wheeling, largely unpredictable format of a Town Hall, how can ABC be certain someone in the audience won’t ask him for his analysis of the day’s events?

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The worst part of this is in how ABC News elevates Breitbart, imparts a rhetorical gravitas by his very inclusion. It would be one thing if Breitbart were a journalist with a track record for accuracy; never mind fairness and balance; the reasonable baseline threshold for participation in ABC News reports should be truthfulness from those who participate. As it is, Breitbart’s proven video fictions and his full-throated defense of those fictions put him in a gutter ABC News should want no part of — not even in the context of airing an “alternative voice.”

While ABC News managers aren’t concerned, the rank & file in the newsroom is reportedly unhappy. Greg Sargent of The Washington Post, citing an ABC newsroom source, reported Saturday that: “People in ABC's newsroom were … caught completely off guard by the news … ‘This blindsided a good portion of the team here,’ the source emails. ‘And not in a good way.’”

We can probably count on more backing and filling between now and Tuesday, with ABC News no doubt further refining Breitbart’s election-night role. But at least some short-term damage to ABC News’ reputation has been done. By elevating Andrew Breitbart, by letting him fart in the network’s church, by giving a known conservative fabulist the appearance of journalistic credibility, ABC has diminished its own.

Image credits: Williams: Fox News. Breitbart: AP/Joseph Kaczmarek. ABC logo: © 2010 ABC. NPR logo: © 2010 National Public Radio.

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