Should Juan Williams have been fired?

(note: There are numerous updates to this post. The latest is posted at the bottom.)

The story of the day today seems to be NPR’s firing of Juan Williams, who exercised the poor judgment to go on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox to admit to being concerned when he sees Muslims on an airplane, but cautioned O’Reilly not to brand Muslims as terrorists. Because O’Reilly makes all discussions about O’Reilly, the forum does not allow a guest the opportunity for full explanation. Williams, by all accounts a pretty smart guy, had to know that O’Reilly uses guests as props for his own version of reality. And last week O’Reilly did brand Muslims as terrorists.

NPR has tried to find a comfortable role for Williams since his failed stint as the host of Talk of the Nation. It kept trying to find a role for him at the network, finally settling on “news analyst,” a partial admission that he had opinions.

After he compared Michelle Obama to “Stokely Carmichael in a dress” on Fox in February 2009, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote that she’s not convinced NPR listeners objected to what Williams said, but where he said it:

That may be the cause of the criticism. Williams tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox.

His “Stokely Carmichael” comment got the attention of NPR’s top managers. They are in a bind because Williams is no longer a staff employee but an independent contractor. As a contract news analyst, NPR doesn’t exercise control over what Williams says outside of NPR.

“Juan Williams is a contributor to NPR programs as a news analyst,” said Ron Elving, NPR’s Washington editor. “What he says on NPR is the product of a journalistic process that includes editors. What he says when he is not on our air is not within our control. But we recognize that what he says elsewhere reflects on NPR, and we have discussed that fact with him specifically in regard to his remarks on Fox News regarding Michelle Obama.”

This recent comment may have undermined his credibility with some NPR listeners. But I question whether listeners, overall, object to what Williams says outside of NPR or the fact that he says it on Fox.

There were almost 2,000 comments on the NPR story about Williams’ firing, but it’s difficult to get a sense of what public radio listeners think about it because one popular conservative blogger urged his legions to go there and fill the comments section.

But here are two that define the general reaction.

First from one who opposes the NPR action:

I have been listening to NPR for decades, literally. I could not believe this story when I heard it. Now that I know that it is true, I am nothing short of furious and deeply disappointed. Juan Williams is one of the few voices of reason out there. He represents a viewpoint, to be sure. But unlike all the screaming voices out there, he is a reasonable and brilliant man. As such he reaches across the great chasm that divides our people. There are others on both sides of the political spectrum that are like Juan, but very few. This was a reactionary and incredibly stupid blunder on NPR’s part. Unless he is reinstated, I am done with NPR. No more contributions, no more listening.

I should point out here that public radio stations and NPR are two different entities.

And one from a person who supports NPR’s move.

I agree with NPR’s decision. NPR is the only news source I trust in the current news media environment where objectivity is either optional or not even on the menu. It is inexcusable to paint all Muslims with a broad brush. His comments about McVeigh and Cristianity do not disguise his intent to promote an unfounded irrational fear of Muslims. NPR saw right through it… and so did I. Thanks NPR.

Your turn:

Williams was an occasional guest on MPR’s Midday. His last appearance was in December when he evaluated Barack Obama’s first year in office:

Update 11:37 a.m. – Williams responded to his firing today.

Update 1:04 p.m. – Sara Meyer, Midday producer, reminds me that Williams’ last appearance on Midday was last month.

Update 1:09 p.m. – The head of NPR has sent this out to public radio stations, who are apparently bearing the heat from NPR’s action:

First, a critical distinction has been lost in this debate. NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. 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. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts.

Second, this isn’t the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan’s public comments. Despite many conversations and warnings over the years, Juan has continued to violate this principal.

Third, these specific comments (and others made in the past), are inconsistent with NPR’s ethics code, which applies to all journalists (including contracted analysts):

“In appearing on TV or other media . . . NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows . . . that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”

More fundamentally, “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.”

Unfortunately, Juan’s comments on Fox violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so.

We’re profoundly sorry that this happened during fundraising week. Juan’s comments were made Monday night and we did not feel it would be responsible to delay this action.

This was a tough decision and we appreciate your support.

1:51 p.m. — Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, appearing on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, gave us a preview of the column she’s promising on the subject “I think it’s just that the different roles that Juan played — being a news analyst — worked for NPR but it didn’t work for NPR to be more inflammatory. And people think what he said about Muslims was inflammatory and didn’t advance the debate,” she said.

2:18 p.m. – Poynter is hosting a live chat on the issue. Go here.

3:33 p.m. – Williams gets a big payday from Fox. $2 million over three years.

4:15 p.m. – Here’s the Talk of the Nation segment, a portion of which had been cut by MPR because of the membership drive.