NPR’s Racial Blindness

Before Juan Williams was fired, NPR forced out Farai Chideya

The real problem with NPR firing analyst Juan Williams has nothing to do with the irreconcilable differences between the network and the commentator’s  differing political views.   The real problem is by firing Williams, NPR rid itself not only of his increasingly obvious preference for the Fox News style of punditry, but it also lost one of their most high-profile African-American staffers.

And it isn’t the first time.

Farai Chideya, author of several books including Don’t Believe the Hype:  Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African-Americans and former host of the NPR program, News & Notes posted on Facebook wondering whether she should write say about her former employer’s firing of  Williams.  In 2007,   NPR cancelled N&N.  Chideya had replaced Ed Gordon who had attempted to relaunch N&N after Tavis Smiley ended his radio program with the network.

“I am debating whether to write a piece on the Juan Williams controversy. So many dots, so few being connected,” Chideya wrote.

It isn’t only the job of a writer to write, but to encourage others to as well.    I interviewed Chideya last year for her first non-fiction book, Kiss the Sky, and asked her about NPR’s decision to cancel News & Notes.  She didn’t want to dwell on that messy break-up  but did say she had chosen to leave the show before it ended in part due NPR’s  refusal to let the program to cover the inauguration of President Obama.

Chideya is somebody who knows about the racial skeletons are rattling around in NPR’s closet.  I understand her reluctance to go public with that information, but as James Baldwin said, “The price one pays for pursing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side”  and journalism in all its forms indeed has a very ugly side.   For all the cries from conservatives on how “liberal” the news media is, little is ever said about how overwhelmingly White, male and entrenched journalism is.

I answered Chideya’s open question with a suggestion.

Even before Juan got greased (deservedly or not), there was the horrendous way NPR fumbled the “too black/too strong” News and Notes program. I loved N&N and NOTHING has taken its place.

You have a unique insight that would add some much-needed context to the story.  Right now it’s being spun as liberal NPR messing up and conservative Fox pouncing on them.   The real situation is much more involved than the usual battle lines.

I like NPR, but I do not love it and one reason I do not is the lack of racial diversity in its nearly lily White, upper middle class programming.

19 hours later, Chideya’s article appeared in The Huffington Post:

If NPR had such clear concerns over how Juan Williams fit into their organization, in the amorphous role of “news analyst,” then they had an opportunity to let him go a long time ago. They could have decided he didn’t fit their needs, and moved on in a less polarized time. But by firing him now, in this instance, after years of sitting uncomfortably with his dual roles on NPR and Fox, they made a few crucial errors. They chose to fire him for doing what he has done for years… be a hype man for Bill O’Reilly. Why now? And they also showed tone-deaf communication with member stations by firing Williams during a pledge drive season.

Juan Williams pointedly said in his comments after the firing that he was the only black man on-air at NPR…. and not a reporter at that. Guest hosting on Fox, he also called himself a “loyal employee” of NPR, and implied the network was run by a “far-left mob.” (If so, I didn’t meet any in my four years at NPR. It’s run by a Beltway cohort, perhaps, but not “far-left.”) Do I think NPR fired him because he is black? No. Do I think NPR kept Williams on for years, as the relationship degraded, because he is a black man? Absolutely. Williams’ presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network. NPR needs to hire more black men in house on staff as part of adding diverse staff across many ethnicities and races. It also needs, broadly, a diversity upgrade that doesn’t just focus on numbers, but on protocols for internal communication. Among the revelations in this incident is that the Vice President of News fired Williams by phone without giving him the opportunity to come into the office and discuss it.

After I was let go from hosting an African-American issues show at NPR, I walked away relatively quietly, though with a series of questions about how power was allocated and shared at the network, and whether diversity truly mattered to management. Although the focus right now is on whether NPR should be defunded (God no!), I would like to see a little more light shine on how NPR deals with diversity. It has a new diversity czar, Keith Woods, and I hope he is empowered to look at the issue broadly and respected by management.

This country needs NPR, now more than ever. But it needs an NPR and media, broadly, that are adventurous rather than expedient when it comes to reporting on a divided America, and cultivating the most diverse staff, and audience.

"Tell Me More" isn't heard on either of the two stations carrying NPR programming in Columbus.

To which I must add,  NPR is sorely lacking in both a diverse staff and audience.

Chideya does a excellent job of pointing out how  NPR’s real problem is a general cluelessness or shoulder-shrugging disinterest in promoting color-blind programming.  Of course, Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, Bill O’ Reilly and all the other right-winger blabbermouths don’t give a damn about NPR’s pathetic lack of ethnic diversity.  They’re just grateful for an opportunity to talk up the idea of defunding NPR.

I listen to NPR, but  have not scratched my name on a check to support my local public radio station and I have no intention to.  In part.  because I’m still ticked  over how NPR whacked News & Notes and  plus, WOSU, the local affiliate doesn’t carry Tell Me Morehosted by Michelle Martin.  They do carry “Car Talk” and every Saturday night turn over their air to “The Bluegrass Ramble” but neither one of those shows quite fill my wish for programming with a specific appeal to African-Americans.

Amy Alexander, a former News &Notes commentator and an editor and producer with Tell Me More in 2007,  responded to my plea to Chideya saying,  “The local stations are managed by folks who can be, shall we say, reluctant to alter their mix of local & NPR-produced shows…..most especially if the NPR produced shows have a decidedly brown or young theme. So the local station GM is not required to take any new programming made at HQ in DC, or anywhere else, they are “encouraged” to schedule shows like N&N and TMM but I do not know the extent of any arm twisting that takes place. Thus, N&N died on the vine and TMM does not air in several key markets. You say you “like NPR,” but don’t love it. You represent part of the demo the network needs to grow — and fast– yet they can’t undo the internal cultural and systemic stuff that limits their ability to move the needle consistently and w innovation. TMM is a fantastic program but I do fret a bit about its future….”

I can hear TMM online, but the two local radio  stations, WOSU and WCBE, carrying NPR programming apparently don’t consider  Tell Me More worth picking up.  That  is reason enough for me to keep my checkbook shut when they hit their listeners up for cash.   My problem with NPR goes beyond Williams being fired.  He landed in higher profile and better paying gig so the hell with him.  I’m not feeling at all charitable to NPR when they have their hand out for money but offer little to nothing in the way of programming that is specifically directed toward my tastes and concerns.

For their part, NPR stumbles on this p.r. nightmare created by their own arrogance and ineptness.   Alicia Shepard, NPR’s ombudsman defended the firing of Williams and denied there was any racial angle to the dismissial, “I fear some will look for racial motivations in NPR’s decision to fire Williams, who is African-American and one of the few black male NPR voices.  It’s not about race.   It’s also not about free speech, as some have charged.”

Shepard needs to climb down out of her ivory tower.  When NPR cans its only African-American on-air analyst, whacks News & Notes because they didn’t know how to promote it and wouldn’t support it and allows Michelle Martin’s program to languish in obscurity it is exactly about race and how poorly NPR handles it.

When I’m looking for something that touches me as an African-American, a new season of A Prarie Home Companion don’t get it.

Falling Upward with Juan Williams

"All eyez on me!"

Ever have one of those days when it seemed like  you were having the worst days of your life and it turned out instead to be one of your best?

Juan Williams knows exactly what that feels like.

NPR commentator Juan Williams was fired by the network for remarks he made about Muslims on The O’Reilly Factor.

During the show, O’Reilly asked Williams to comment on the idea that the United States was facing a “Muslim dilemma.” It followed a controversy over O’Reilly’s own appearance on the afternoon show, The View,’ where two hosts walked out after he said that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”

His argument, which moderator Whoopi Goldberg declared to be “bull—-,” inspired both Goldberg and co-host Joy Behar to leave their own set.

On Monday, Williams said he concurred with O’Reilly about the threats faced by the United States.

He added, “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But 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.”

He also said, amid a heated debate with O’Reilly, that people shouldn’t blame Muslims for “extremists,” same as Christians couldn’t be blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing. O’Reilly, for his part, said he refused to qualify everything he said about Muslims.

The full video is available here. It’s important to hear in context what Williams said before determining if he was being bigoted toward Muslims.  NPR apparently concluded he was.

Williams argued with O’Reilly he had painted Muslims with too broad a brush.   Of course, every Muslim is the enemy of America, but you don’t watch O’Reilly’s dog and pony show for reasoned and enlightened debate.   You watch it for the same reason you watch Arnold Schwarzenegger movies: stuff gets blown up real good.

NPR overreacted to Williams’ remarks. I’m no fan of the guy, but  truth be told, many Americans would be unnerved if they were sitting on a plane while several gentlemen in traditional Muslim garb started chatting in an animated style in Farsi.

However, Williams was correct by pointing out it is the fringe element of radicals who are giving all Muslims a bad name.

NPR firing Williams for what he said made him a sacrifice on the altar of liberal political correctness. The right-wing blogosphere, radio and Fox News are going to be short-stroking on this one. And probably with some justification.

This is probably a case of NPR looking for any excuse to can Williams as his political leanings don’t mesh up well with their own.

NPR had already requested Williams not be identified during his frequent appearances as a talking head on Fox as a “NPR commentator.” Truth be told, I couldn’t tell you the last time I even heard Williams on NPR.

Williams is supposed to be the “liberal” counterpart on The O’Reilly Factor, but he’s more likely to say , “You’re absolutely right, Bill” than he is “You’re absolutely full of shit.” Williams, like Alan Colmes, represents the kind of Left-wing voice Fox prefers: weak, timid liberals paired off against strong, fierce conservatives. It’s a mismatch from the get-go.

NPR president Vivian Schiller issued a statement explaining the firing, “In appearing on TV or other media . . . NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows . . . that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”

More fundamentally, “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.”

Unfortunately, Juan’s comments on Fox violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so.

Can you spot the liberal in this picture? Hah! Fooled ya! There IS no liberal in this picture.

Nice attempt at butt-covering NPR, but you’re  still the one who  looks like intolerant liberal losers  for canning Williams because you didn’t dig  his remarks. Like it or not, there is a lot of suspicion directed at Muslims and while it is often unjustified, it’s difficult to go down the list of recent terrorist attacks and attempts and not find a link to Islamic extremism.

I’m not concerned about Juan’s future job prospects in the slightest.  Fox News Roger Ailes offered Williams a job, a column on the web page and a $2 million pay raise.  All these years of cultivating a nice rapprochement with the right-wing of the news media has finally paid off for Juan. Good for him.  All these years of kissing conservative ass has finally paid off nicely.  Maybe Fox will give him a show and finally put an African-American journalist in a high-profile position.

But I’ve known for a while that Juan Williams was a little soft when it came to his so-called “liberalism.”  Just because you pick up a paycheck from NPR doesn’t mean you’re driving a Prius and voting Democratic.   If Williams is supposed to represent the liberal perspective it’s only what passes for liberalism on Fox.  Williams is an assimilated, accommodating, mainstream colored guy and that’s why he landed at Fox.

If Williams is a liberal I’m a Republican and I’m not.

The word has been out on Williams for a while.  Author Jill Nelson dropped the 411 on how shaky Williams was when they were both working for the Washington Post.

Williams is the perfect Negro, at least in the eyes of white folks, because most of the time he writes–and apparently believes–what Caucasians think black folks should feel and think, which is as they do…Williams is a black Republican type, a neoconservative opportunist à la Clarence Thomas.  He is also of Panamanian parentage, which explains some of where he’s coming from.  He typifies the worst stereotype of people of African descent who come to America inadvertently or willfully ignorant of the history of black folks born here.

Denying the role of race, they mouth the prejudices of white immigrants in blackface.  Forget racism, history, the brutalization of the African-American psyche from the middle passage on down, they holler America is a nation of immigrants, and we are just like the Irish, Polish, Japanese, and Jews who have come here.  They conveniently forget that African-Americans, unlike them, unlike any other immigrants, did not come here voluntarily; we are, all of us, the children of slaves.

In short I assumed he was a brother.

~ Jill Nelson on meeting Juan Williams, Volunteer Slavery,  page 90-91 (1993)

Now Williams can be the token in-house “liberal” for Fox News on a full-time basis.   NPR gets ripped a new one for looking like narrow-minded and biased while  Bill O’ Reilly can chortle how he exposed them as politically correct  far-Left loons.

All n’ all, it’s not a bad day to be a conservative or Juan Williams.  Or am I being redundant?  But at least he found some job security.  Nobody ever gets fired from Fox News for saying something outlandish.