NPR and Objectivity

Objectivity, Objectively Analyzed 102410

Recently National Public Radio fired Senior News Analyst Juan Williams for making statements some consider racist against Muslims.  
Williams was born in Panama, is self-identified as Black, has been a journalist for almost 35 years, has written seven books on racism and the Black experience, was a pivotal analyst for NPR on race issues, hosted Talk of the Nation on NPR starting in 1999 and has been a senior news analyst for NPR for several years.  He’s won various awards and been recognized by his peers as an outstanding journalist.

Williams has also appeared on Fox News and is a frequent guest and occasional host for The O’Reilly Factor with Bill O’Reilly.  NPR is largely funded by middle and upper middle class people, who have a strong cultural prohibition against what they consider to be “racist” speech.  NPR reflects the moderately liberal views of its supporters and administrators, though of course there are many moderately conservative voices, too.  Fox News suffers no such cultural prohibition and Bill O’Reilly, like many right wing entertainers, is no stranger to racism and sexism, and has come out so strongly anti-Muslim that he’s been blamed for the increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. generally.  Williams’s remarks were not nearly, or even very, racist.

“…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 on The O’Reilly Factor

Whether the remarks are racist or not hasn’t been the discussion; if it were, anyone would have noticed that Williams is expressing a personal fear.  He is admitting to being racist, and worse, a religious bigot.  The most devout of Muslims, even American Black Muslims, often reflect their piety through dress.  At a time when supposedly “free” nations like France are making some kinds of religious dress illegal, Williams’s remarks are particularly unenlightened.  But still not racist in a meaningful sense, in the sense that Williams himself has experienced as a Black man, and an immigrant.  That experience, and Williams’s many other more moderate statements about Muslims, muddy the meaning of his remarks, and NPR’s response.

On Wednesday night we gave Juan Williams notice that we are terminating his contract as a Senior News Analyst for NPR News.
Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years and we did not make this decision lightly or without regret. However, his remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.
We regret these circumstances and thank Juan Williams for his many years of service to NPR and public radio.

The duality of Williams’s journalistic personality has long been a source of complaint to NPR, and when Williams made his “airplane” remark NPR cancelled his ticket.  The Left do get ugly when their sense of propriety is violated.   When someone who is assumed to be safely liberal, as Williams was on race issues, suddenly goes conservative there’s always the assumption that the person has been suddenly “dummed down”, perhaps by a stroke or drug overdose.  There is a good reason for this, by the cultural standards of the over educated middle class, only ignorant people make certain kinds of statements or express certain sentiments.  It’s a feature of our better classes that has been expressed by the statement “he wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if he had a mouthful.”   
Are these people racist?  Certainly, and even more classist, but presentation, decorum, these mean everything.  

Williams’s problem is he brought the kind of diversity NPR really needs, not the diversity it wanted from a Black journalist.  

Williams crossed the line: you can’t really be that smart on NPR if you’re a stupid bigot on Fox.   There’s no need to worry for Williams; Fox News has offered him a new $2 million contract, so he won’t have to have a yard sale to pay rent.  But the implications for what we will accept as news, news and entertainment, or what we at the Prospect enjoy calling “analtainment,” are even more significant.

The cancellation raised the ire of thousands of NPR listeners, and gave NPR detractors an opportunity to blast the decision to curtail Williams’s work as a violation of the First Amendment.  It was surprising, and superficially pleasant, to see so many wealthy and influential conservatives rush to the aid of a poor Black man.  
Many of those who complained (who knows how many were actually NPR members or listeners) said that NPR receives public money, and that Williams made his comment in a different venue, one where he was entitled to his own opinion, and NPR should be stripped of public funds.  Sarah Palin and a host of camp followers seized the opportunity to pull the plug on an organization which is not only left leaning, but elitist, and not in a good “Bohemian Grove”  kind of way.  
These detractors ask a simple-minded and linear thinking, in other words, common sense, question: why the hell should good Americans like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck have to work to make money in the entertainment business when Communists like Bill Moyers and HERE get a free ride?

Being NPR and faced with the moral dilemma of firing a Black man for racism, and an experienced, highly respected journalist for something he said on his own time, NPR did what their class always does, they made reference to a moral power higher than themselves, in this instance, journalistic integrity, specifically, objectivity.  

This prompted several third-tier NPR announcers to pay homage to the idea of journalistic objectivity, the thing which, they imagine, separates them from Fox.

On the one hand, no one could seriously confuse the thoughtful and detailed programming of NPR with the simplified pap of Fox.

However, on this belief of objectivity, they’re simply delusional.  There is no god named “objectivity” that NPR worships but others don’t.  Bill O’Reilly, like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, is primarily an entertainer.  His analysis is often “common sense” and so tends towards simplistic, linear explanations of complex social and political phenomenon.  Even so, NPR, and every news provider, makes hundreds of decisions about the news, all of which effect “objectivity.”  Objectivity, the way they try to conceptualize it, simply doesn’t exist.

What does exist is a “style” called “objective,” just as there is a style called “Right Wing Talk Show.”  The more “objective” a news source appears, the more likely it is to be believed, but when semiotics looks at the way humans make meaning, the “subject” is always implied.  Indeed, a truly objective statement makes hardly any meaning at all.

Let’s take what many consider to be the “most perfect sentence of the English Language”: Jesus wept.
Two words, yet to a devout Christian those words are filled with power, and indeed, tell the entire story of Jesus Christ, His time on Earth, His sacrifice, and perhaps even His resurrection and ascension.  However, “Jesus wept” is also completely objective: a guy named Jesus cried; we don’t know why.  Say “Jesus wept” to someone who’s never heard of Jesus Christ (there are many) and even if they understand English, or even if you translate into Maipuran, it will be objective, and nearly without context.

Knowing this, journalists, even those at NPR, consciously or unconsciously make decisions about what to cover, what placement to give it in the line-up, how much time to give it, the presentation or set-up of the story, the order or appearance and slant of each element, all strongly impact the reader, listener or viewer where people really make decisions: their emotional self.  

To get the maximum impact from a news or analytical piece, the consumer must be engaged, cognitively, but especially emotionally.  Take a handful of miners in a hole in South America.  There are thousands like them, dying from lung ailments and alcoholism and preventable diseases and accidents of all kinds, and we care nothing for those thousands, but across the world people prayed and hoped for those few, down the hole.  People don’t want cognitive truth, they want to be engaged.  The mind is not simply observer even as reader; it weighs and balances elements in the story and makes unconscious conclusions.  It’s how we all know, seemingly instinctually, to hate and fear whomever we’re hating and fearing for the moment, and admiring whomever we momentarily admire (men in a hole).

Where does that leave the issue, should Fox get public funds?  Fox doesn’t need public funds, beyond the tax and other legal benefits it enjoys as a corporation.  National Public Radio, though, does need it, and we should continue to support NPR.  But, as consumers and supporters we should call them to task.

News isn’t about style, which is a cultural preference.  News is about information, which sometimes means the discussion is contexted in emotional terms.  “I get worried. I get nervous.”

National Public Radio is not likely to leave this battle unscathed, and their impact on Fox is only going to be beneficial.  
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