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Government, Politics & Issues

Editor's Weekly: The Williams Factor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2010 - The shouting over Juan Williams has both raised and obscured some important questions that resonate beyond this particular journalist and his former employer, NPR. Like most controversies involving race, politics and media, this one looks different depending on the context in which you view it.

The controversy began when Williams told Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly that people wearing "Muslim garb" on airplanes made him nervous. Williams' comments included the context that all Muslims should not be regarded with suspicion, but he agreed with O'Reilly that the U.S. has a "Muslim problem."

After firing Williams, NPR head Vivian Schiller said the decision was based not just on this incident but on the context of longstanding problems with Williams' sometimes-conflicting roles on NPR and Fox. NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard added further context, saying the firing may have been justified but questioning the way the firing was handled. Schiller later agreed and apologized.

Williams has raised other questions of context, saying NPR lacks racial diversity and political tolerance. As Fox continues to highlight the controversy, some NPR critics are threatening to oppose funding for public broadcasting, and others are questioning the impartiality of additional NPR staff.

As you try to figure out who's right and what's really going on, let me add one more layer of context that might help. While the specifics of this case are complicated, the larger media trends in which it arises are clearer. Three of these trends are particularly relevant.

First, the multi-platform distribution of news means journalists increasingly work through several outlets. High profile journalists like Williams may appear on radio and television. Many more reporters use Twitter, Facebook and blogs to discuss and promote the work they do for print or broadcast.

Along with the opportunity to reach more people comes the hazard of inconsistency in substance and tone. This inconsistency apparently was an issue in the Williams' situation. It's a potential problem for other reporters as well, and one that many newsrooms have not yet faced squarely.

A second trend is the emphasis on personality in news presentation. The blogosphere especially blurs the line between reporting and opinion, and Fox programs, such as "The O'Reilly Factor," thrive on the personalities of its stars.

Such an atmosphere seems destined to cause problems for news reporters and analysts, who are supposed to keep personal opinions out of their work. The journalists who try to play both sides of the fence -- sometimes as reporter or analyst and sometimes as commentator or instigator -- might serve the public better by choosing one.

A final trend worth noting is really a non-trend -- the lack of progress on diversity in media organizations despite a consensus that newsrooms serve their communities better when they reflect them more. In mainstream media, economic pressures and staff cuts have diverted attention from this goal.

I've seen no statistics about new media, but a quick glance around the web suggests there is considerable room for improvement. Still, quick progress is possible. At the Beacon, our staff of 20 includes 10 women, three African Americans and a variety of perspectives, all enriching to our work.

Williams has an important point about lack of racial diversity at NPR. Whether he was in hot water for consorting with conservatives and challenging liberal orthodoxy is a more complicated question. Williams' positions over the years don't seem to fit neatly under any political label. Perhaps the more pertinent point is that his positions, whatever they are, have become an issue because Trends One and Two create the potential for problems.

As the Williams controversy boils and NPR feels the heat, the rest of us journalists should think about whether we are vulnerable to similar difficulties and what we can do to prevent them.

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