October 24, 2010

Firing Juan Williams

So, Bill O’Reilly, one of the main Fox gasbags, had a hard time on ABC's The View when he announced  that Muslims attacked us on 9/11.  In the ensuing flap, two of the hosts, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar, walked off the set in a huff, but later returned.  Since then, O’Reilly has been talking about his View appearance, ostensibly looking for support, and last Monday, he got into a conversation on this with Juan Williams, a news analyst under contract with NPR who also has a contract with Fox News and appears regularly on O’Reilly.  

Here’s what Williams said, after professing that he was not a bigot: “…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.” 

Now, Williams is probably not a bigot, based on most reports, but what he said was foolish for someone who walks both sides of the line.  Williams has long been a ‘lightning rod’ (to use NPR’s own words) because of the opinions he expresses during his other appearances.  In this February 2009 post by NPR’s ombudsman, we learn that Williams himself appreciates the difference between what he says (or how he says it) on Fox and what he says (or how he says it) on NPR after some comments he made about First Lady Michelle Obama.  He was even asked to remove his NPR affiliation from his appearances on Fox.  

And in this latest instance, it at least appears that Williams has violated the NPR Code of Ethics which (when this post was originally published)  said in part: "10. 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. They should not participate in shows in electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis." And while the ombudsman feels that the firing was handled poorly, she agrees with NPR for doing it. 

Juan Williams exercised his freedom of speech, and NPR exercised their freedom to employ independent contractors who act in accordance with their employer's rules. The bottom line is that sometimes expressing your own opinion can get you in hot water -- not because you're not allowed to have an opinion, or voice one, but because sometimes there are consequences. 

Should everyone who expresses an opinion that differs from their employer's face termination? Nope.

But should someone who has to know he's crossing the line - since this is not the first time it's happened - be surprised when he does get fired?

Nope.