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Juan Williams: Victim of changing media standards?

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frank Sesno says Juan Williams was caught in a controversy over evolving media standards
  • Republicans are using the controversy to argue that NPR should lose its public funding
  • Williams has called his dismissal an "assault on free speech"
  • Williams will appear on "The O'Reilly Factor" Friday night

(CNN) -- The uproar surrounding National Public Radio's decision to terminate Juan Williams' contract is partly a reflection of changing standards in journalism and an evolving understanding of the line between news analysis and commentary, according to one former media insider.

"This is the problem that we've got now," former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno said Friday on CNN's "American Morning."

"The coin of the realm -- what television and radio and the blogs are all about is opinion. And there's this quaint notion that reporters can be detached and separate, and they have no opinion and they're not going to express it. ... But that's not the way the world works anymore."

Sesno said there is a "gigantic collision between what NPR is trying to hold up and what is actually happening out there, and Juan's a victim of it."

NPR, he said, is trying to make a distinction between analysis and news commentary, and "the line is getting harder and harder to identify."

Williams' contract was ended Wednesday, two days after he said on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" that he gets nervous when he sees people with Muslim garb on planes.

Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News personality, was seeking reaction from Williams on O'Reilly's own controversial remarks made on the "The View" about Muslims.

"Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot," Williams said. "You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a 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 continued, "Now, I remember also that, when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week, he said the war with Muslims -- America's war -- is just beginning. The first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts.

"But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all -- as President Bush did after 9/11 -- it's not a war against Islam."

Williams told O'Reilly, "You've got to be careful" to point out that there are good Muslims. He noted Americans don't blame Christians for the actions of Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing.

"I gotta be careful; I have to qualify everything 50 times," O'Reilly said. "You know what, Juan? I'm not doing that anymore. I'm not doing it anymore. I will say Muslim terrorists, but I'm not going to say -- oooh! -- it's only a few, it's only a tiny bit. It's not, Juan. It's whole nations -- Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, whole nations."

On Thursday, NPR's president and CEO Vivian Schiller defended her network's decision, saying that Williams' remarks were not the first time the veteran journalist had veered from analysis into opinion.

"Juan Williams is a news analyst; he is not a commentator and he is not a columnist," Schiller said at an Atlanta Press Club luncheon. "We have relied on him over the years to give us perspective on the news, not to talk about his opinions."

An article on NPR's website said Williams' job as an analyst on the "largely conservative and often contentious prime time talk shows of Fox News has long been a sore point with NPR News executives."

Williams responded with a comment posted on FoxNews.com that called his dismissal "a chilling assault on free speech" and described the NPR leadership as "self-righteous ideological, left-wing. ... They loathe the fact that I appear on Fox News."

Williams is scheduled to appear as a guest host on "The O'Reilly Factor" Friday night.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called Williams' remarks "irresponsible and inflammatory ... and they should not pass without action by NPR." But he told ABC News that he did not believe Williams should have been fired.

Schiller said Thursday that NPR doesn't "necessarily have an issue" with Williams' appearances on Fox. "However, we expect anybody that appears on our air, either as a journalist or as a news analyst, to conduct themselves according to our journalistic rules of ethics -- wherever they might be, in any form and in any venue.

"There have been several instances over the years where Juan has strayed from that line, and we have had discussions with him and we have asked him not to do it again."

Schiller asserted Williams' "integrity as a news analyst has been undermined by the fact that he has expressed these very divisive views and those two things are not compatible.

"This is not a reflection on his comments, this is not a debate," she said. "Juan feels the way he feels. That is not for me to pass judgment on. ... His feelings that he expressed on Fox News are really between him and his psychiatrist, or his publicist, or take your pick, but it is not compatible with the role of a news analyst on NPR's air."

Schiller later apologized for the reference to Williams' psychiatrist, saying in a posting on NPR's website that the remark was "thoughtless."

Schiller claimed the move does not mean NPR is averse to airing controversial opinions.

"Nonsense," she said. "We have people taking controversial opinions on our air all the time. ... The difference is those words generally come out of the mouths of the people we are interviewing; they don't come out of the mouths of our reporters or our news analysts."

She added, "He's free to do that as a citizen, but he is not free to do that if he is also going to be a news analyst for NPR."

Williams had been working for NPR as an independent contractor.

Meanwhile, Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes announced Thursday that Williams has been signed to an expanded role with the network in a multiple-year deal.

"Juan has been a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints since his tenure began at Fox News in 1997," Ailes said in a written statement. "He's an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by Fox News on a daily basis."

The Los Angeles Times reported that Williams got a three-year contract worth nearly $2 million that will involve more frequent appearances on the network and a column on FoxNews.com.

Williams defended his comments in a posting on FoxNews.com. "This is not a bigoted statement," he said. "It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims."

He said he had made it clear "that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to violation of anyone's constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Quran or drive a New York cab without fear of having your throat slashed."

But, he added, "The fact is it was a group of Muslims who attacked the U.S. I added that radicalism has continued to pose a threat to the United States and much of the world. ... There is no doubt that there's a real war and people are trying to kill us."

Monday's conversation "was in the best American tradition of a fair, full-throated and honest discourse about the issues of the day. There was no bigotry, no crude provocation, no support for anti-Muslim sentiments of any kind."

He said NPR had tried years ago to stop him from appearing on "The Factor" and then insisted that he not identify himself there as an NPR journalist.

NPR then demanded he sign a new contract that removed him from his staff position but allowed him to continue working as a news analyst, he said. "The idea was that they would be insulated against anything I said or wrote outside of NPR because they could say that I was not a staff member."

He said they then began to cut his salary and his on-air role.

"And now they have used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR, let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought."

On Thursday night, again on Fox News, he told O'Reilly about his former employer, "These people don't have any sense of righteousness -- what's right here. They're self-righteous."

"I don't fit in their box," he said. "They were looking for a reason to get rid of me because I appear on Fox News. They don't want me talking to you."

Several top Republicans -- including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- have seized on the uproar to renew a longtime conservative quest to strip NPR of its public funding.

"If NPR is unable to tolerate an honest debate about an issue as important as Islamic terrorism, then it's time for 'National Public Radio' to become 'National Private Radio,' " Palin said in a Facebook posting Thursday. "It's time for Congress to defund this organization."

Palin, Huckabee and Gingrich are all paid Fox contributors.

Schiller noted that federal funding makes up only 1 percent to 2 percent of its budget, with most of its financial support coming from station fees, sponsorships and grants.

Williams worked for 21 years at The Washington Post and hosted a national call-in show with NPR for a year along with being a news analyst for the radio network, according to his biography on NPR's website, which had been removed by Thursday afternoon.

CNN's Tom Watkins, Victor Kong and Alan Silverleib contributed to this report