Friday, October 22, 2010

In which Juan escapes the NPR Sweatshop

First of all, the volume of feigned outrage and deliberately false information being voiced over the Juan Williams firing is appalling and contemptible. The talking heads and politicians are most certainly lying, because they could not possibly be unaware of the policies and issues surrounding the event. And his own whining and playing of the victim card is contemptible. We know the man is not stupid; is he blinded by his own arrogance? Speculation is pointless.

However, I'm seeing a lot of sincere concern from people outside the industry who genuinely don't understand what happened and how Williams' actions made his termination both understandable and remarkable only for his apparent unwillingness to avoid it.

There's no point in debating the liars, but I'm perfectly happy to try to help other people understand what appears, from this distance, to have happened.

Let's start with some basics:

Nobody took away his rights to free speech. He sold them. Journalists routinely agree to certain restrictions on personal expression when they accept the job. It's generally part of the intake process: You sign up for health insurance, you fill out your IRS form, you offer proof of citizenship, you sign off on the conflict-of-interest and ethics policies. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about it.

That doesn't mean it doesn't come up for discussion. Part of standard journalistic ethics is that you put your politics in your back pocket. John Chancellor famously refused to vote because he felt the process of deciding who to vote for would prejudice him, but I'm not the only person who thought that was kind of silly. However, it is understood that you do not wear political buttons, you don't put partisan bumperstickers on your car, you don't put political signs on your lawn. While it's not required, most journalists register as independents rather than as members of a political party. And, in parts of New England, you don't participate in the discussion or the voice votes at Town Meeting, though you can drop a ballot into a box when it comes to that, because no-one will know how you voted.

Town Meeting does get talked about, as, I would assume, would Caucus participation. The hotter topic, however, is attending political rallies for causes. It's generally accepted that you can't go to candidate rallies, and it's clear that you can march to find a cure for cancer,but it becomes cloudy in the middle, when the march is pro-life or pro-choice, for example. It ain't partisan, but it's sure as hell political.

At some places, you are not supposed to attend rallies or go on marches. At others, you may attend but may not take a visible role: you can't speak, you can't be one of the organizers, you can't be one of the people holding up the big banner as you march down the street. But you can be there. I don't know which of these two policies is more prevalent, but, while it may be a relief to find that a potential employer has the more permissive policy, it's not shocking to find that a media outlet follows the stricter rule. It's like whether or not the dress code requires you to wear a tie in the newsroom.

NPR does take the strict approach, and raised some concerns last week when they sent out an all-hands memo on the subject of the upcoming Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert gatherings, apparently to clarify whether these were comedy shows or political rallies. NPR declared them political and reminded staff to abide by the company's policy against attending same. Both right- and left-wing media outlets squawked about freedom, but the majority of journalists shrugged.

Why do such policies exist? Nobody expects journalists not to have opinions. But there is a kind of don't-ask-don't-tell policy on this, and I think it's well-reasoned. Of course you have opinions, but, in order to be a fair reporter of fact, you have to have the ability to set those opinions aside. If you feel so passionately about an issue that you can't bear not wearing the button or displaying the bumpersticker, it suggests that you won't be able to write about someone who stands in opposition to that issue.

And there is another matter here. It is not enough for Caesar's wife to be virtuous. She must be above suspicion. Similarly, it is not enough for a reporter to write fairly. He must appear not to be overtly partisan. We have seen throughout the past few years and certainly in this campaign season, that a great many people judge "truth" and "fairness" by whether it agrees with their existing opinions. They search for reasons to distrust media, and, if they spotted a reporter, even off-duty, at a partisan rally, they'd assume prejudicial reporting no matter how fair-minded that journalist might be.

Is that fair? A story here: When I was freelancing in Colorado in the 1980s, I interviewed Hal Kennedy, who had been the anchor at the local CBS affiliate practically since it first went on the air. Hal enjoyed being known, but he said it imposed a strange burden: Suppose, he said, I'm down in my basement working on my hot water heater, and I realize I need a washer. I can't just wipe the grime off my hands and jump in the car. I have to shower and change, because, if I go to the hardware store in grubby clothes, with dirt and grease on my face, somebody will say, "I saw Hal Kennedy in the middle of the day, and he'd been drinking."

Several years later, when I had been a reporter for a few years in Plattsburgh, I had just begun dating a woman and we needed to go get something at the grocery store. I insisted on changing, and told her the Hal Kennedy story. She laughed it off as my ego, but, a few weeks later, she said, "Boy, you weren't kidding. Everybody knows who you are!"

The notion that Juan Williams was "off the clock" when he appeared on Fox simply won't hold water. To begin with, salaried people are never on or off the clock. Not only is there no such thing as "overtime" when you aren't paid by the hour, but, at that level of responsibility, you can get called into work at any hour of the day.

More to the point, just as Hal Kennedy was always Hal Kennedy, Juan Williams is always Juan Williams. Part of what he has to offer an employer is recognizability. In the modern parlance, it's branding. If he wants to be anonymous, let him stack cartons in a warehouse. But Mel Gibson screaming at a cop at 3 a.m. is still Mel Gibson the movie actor. Ben Rothlisberger taking advantage of a drunken coed at a bar in Mississippi is still the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can't profit from your image and also expect to turn off that identity at will. 

An employer who pays large sums of money for that established identity has every right to protect that investment. Aside from code-of-conduct agreements to avoid scandal, it's reasonable, for instance, for a sports team to insist that an athlete not go skydiving or even play pick-up basketball for fear of injury. After all, they are purchasing the physical prowess and fitness of the athlete.

The employer of a journalist is buying credibility, and they are specifically paying for that person's ability to speak into a microphone and tell people things that those people will rely on and believe. In the case of Juan Williams, he was being paid as an analyst, as distinct from a commentator. His ability to deliver credible analysis of the news was dependent on his being seen as a fair person without strong prejudices. Not a person without opinions -- that would be foolish. But as a person who keeps his opinions in his back pocket. By seeking to trade on those opinions, by selling his commentary in the street, he undermined his value to NPR.

None of this dropped out of the sky. To begin with, Williams was bound by a clearly stated, well-publicized code of ethics. There was no surprise here: You couldn't work at NPR without knowing it. Nor did his firing "just happen." As stated by his superior, it came after numerous discussions with him about the limits of his outside activities and the violations of his contract that he was committing. To say that they should have warned him is quite right -- They should have, and they did. He continued to defy them and they finally had enough.

And now we come to the whine of the kid who has been kicked out of class: "All I did was ..." There is much talk of what he said the other night and whether it merited firing. Machs nix. "All I did was toss a paperwad," but it was the last straw, and the last straw doesn't have to weigh a ton to break the camel's back. You didn't get kicked out of class for the paper wad. You got kicked out for the paper wad and all that came before it.

Finally, I have heard the argument that, because NPR receives federal funding, their employees should have the freedom to express their opinions whenever and however they like.

All I can say to that is that, if this theory becomes law, it is really going to change things down at Parris Island.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for explaining so well.


JC Dill said...

It's nice to read some actual facts on this issue, instead of all the bloviating I've seen elsewhere. Thanks!

ronnie said...

An excellent essay on a topic that has generated a lot of heat and not much light.

"We know the man is not stupid..."

Do we? He has always struck me as a very poor commentator with never an original point to bring to the discussion; he just regurgitates speaking points. His role seemed to be a "left-leaning" commentator who leaned so little to the left - and who was so unlikely to say anything actually challenging - that he was palatable to the right-leaning mainstream media. His behaviour since the firing - running around crying, basically - hasn't done anything to improve my opinion of him.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Bravo! I'm a fairly extreme free-speech advocate, but Williams' statement was not only stupid, but irrelevant to any form of discourse. He seems to think it's a normal, widely-held feeling, and i rather doubt that.

But if he were right - and maybe a lot of Fox viewers do get nervous around people dressed in "Muslim garb" - what Muslim garb is he talking about?? Atta's clean-shaven look and JC Penney shirt and slacks? Queen Rania's evening wear? Pakistani tunics? Does he, an alleged journalist, have any idea how many varieties of "Muslim garb" there are? Sheesh.

ronnie said...

Ruth, someone has started a blog that addresses exactly your point. It's called "Pictures of Muslims wearing things".

"Spot the Muslim" is a lot harder to play than most hysterical people think. And much more pointless.