NPR’s decision Wednesday to fire Juan Williams and Fox News Channel’s decision Thursday to give him a new contract put into sharp relief the two forms of journalism that compete every day for Americans’ attention.
Williams’ NPR contract was terminated two days after he said on an opinionated segment on Fox News that he worried when he saw people in “Muslim garb” on an airplane. He later said that he was reflecting his fears after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.
NPR said Wednesday night that Williams’ comments were “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices.” According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman, offered Williams, who was already a paid contributor to Fox, a new three-year contract worth nearly $2 million in total.
After dismissing Williams, one of NPR’s senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the corporation’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern U.S. journalism. By renewing Williams’ contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias.
Those competing views of journalism have been highlighted by the success of Fox and MSNBC and the popularity of opinion media that beckons some traditional journalists. That Williams was employed by both Fox and NPR had been a source of consternation in the past.
Last year, NPR made it known that it did not want Williams identified as an NPR employee in appearances on “The O’Reilly Factor,” the Fox News program hosted by conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly.
“This isn’t the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan’s public comments,” Vivian Schiller, NPR’s chief executive, wrote in an e-mail to affiliates.
She said that his most recent comments “violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so.” Schiller, the general manager of NYTimes.com before she moved to NPR in 2009, declined an interview request.
Like many other news organizations, NPR expects its journalists to avoid situations that might call its impartiality into question — an expectation written into the organization’s ethics code.
That expectation, however, can erode under the glare of television lights and the informal nature of Twitter. At outlets like NPR, some journalists have found it difficult to refrain from sharing their opinions, especially when they are speaking in forums that lend themselves to it, like “The O’Reilly Factor.”