Juan Williams and a Nuevo World of Ethics

Like all controversy traveling at the speed of digital media, the Juan Williams comment-n-firing brouhaha raised a host of issues for in-depth discussion. Bigotry.  Bigotry as consensus (many folks—both liberal and conservative—concurred with William’s fear).  And, of course, censorship.  But the hottest topic surrounding the Williams’s firing and the reason behind it is the question (or the new question) of ethics.

Following Willams’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, where he admitted his fear of flying with folks dressed in Islamic garb, NRP terminated his contract sighting he’d violated the organization’s code of ethics. The main rule he was guilty of breaking reads: “In appearing on TV or other media, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as journalists on NPR's programs. They should not participate in shows that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.” That a number of NPR reporters—from Michel Martin to Mara Liasson—regularly appear on TV news and talk shows as pundits isn’t the point. The fact that a 20th Century journalism rulebook is being used as a guide for 21st Century journalists is. (A point well made by L.A. Times reporter James Rainey in this interview on Southern California Public Radio.)

In the brutal competition among news organizations—print, TV and digital—for eyeballs and promotion, with punditry reigning on liberal and conservative news shows (not to mention the heat from the blogoshpere), journalists expressing their views is the new currency. Moreover, for not-so-mainstream or massive news companies like NPR and Politico.com and The Nation or any number of newspapers like The New York Times or Washington Post, TV appearances and punditry works as marketing and promotion. A point Rainey makes in his Public Radio interview when he says:

We all have these ethics codes and we try to abide by them…But at the same time, at NPR or the L.A. Times, when we have people go onto other media… the organization gets a little extra buzz. Maybe they get some extra reader or viewership out of these appearances.

So therein lies the dilemma for news outlets: what new rules to set for views expressed, especially when you benefit from them. After all, Juan Williams’s comment, when compared to Rick Sanchez’s anti-Semitic tirade (that got him fired from CNN), were as closed to “fair and balanced” as any bigoted statement—and on Fox!—can come.  Then again, with Juan Williams gaining that $2 million contract with Fox News it will be interesting to see how the world of journalism faces this obvious reality (and power) of an honest opinion.