Is it plausible that the right-wing uproar over NPR’s firing of Juan Williams is motivated by concern for “free speech” – and not by longstanding conservative animus against public broadcasting? To anyone who has been paying attention to the behavior of politicians, pundits, and media agitators on the right for the past few decades, the latest upwelling of volcanic rhetoric is drearily familiar.
These same voices have reliably exploited every chance to damage public broadcasting, not because of any supposed liberal bias, but because they disdain the straightforward, probing journalism that the public network provides every day. What the NPR haters want to see and hear on America’s airwaves is the “fair and balanced mentality” of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage and nothing else. After all, they hate CNN, CBS, NBC, and ABC with almost equal passion, no matter how much those networks or NPR bend over to accomodate conservative viewpoints.
Now reasonable people can certainly dispute NPR’s decision to dismiss Williams over his remarks on Fox News about fearing Muslims. Reasonable people can question the way in which NPR management handled that decision. And reasonable people can wonder whether NPR news standards place too much emphasis on objectivity. Perhaps that obsession would fade if Republicans finally succeeded in withdrawing federal funds from the network.
But like any other news organization, NPR must be free to determine its own standards and practices, which Williams had clearly violated on more than one occasion. If the network’s management believes that his expressions of befuddled opinion have compromised his stature as a “news analyst,” that should be their prerogative – without partisan interference from Congress.
Of course it is also the prerogative of public radio critics to question that decision and demand that federal funding be reduced or withdrawn. But be assured that such demands have nothing to do with protecting Williams’ right to speak freely, which he will continue to exercise for top dollar on Fox News, in the same role he has long played as a tame “liberal” (the only kind that Roger Ailes will usually tolerate on his network). What the right dislikes about NPR, aside from its dogged effort to achieve ideological balance, is its devotion to actual reporting about real issues, from campaign finance and Congressional lobbying to the Supreme Court, the war in Afghanistan, and mine safety.
For me, the imperative is to protect one of the nation’s last, best sources of news against the partisan political abuse of a single controversial decision. Every day, NPR provides journalistic value worth far more than anything that Juan Williams will say or do if he lives for another hundred years – no, make that a thousand years. Both the network and its local affiliates provide news and information available on no other broadcast outlets. They provide that service as fairly and honestly as any news organization in America, giving copious airtime to politicians and commentators of many stripes, including those like Newt Gingrich who have sought repeatedly to destroy them. (Their coverage of the Wiliams firing is scrupulously fair and even self-critical -- something that will never be seen on Fox.) Moreover, their local stations foster a sense of community that offends the selfish, paranoid sensibility of the far right.
Without NPR, we would soon be left with very little on the radio that doesn’t conform to the debased worldview of Rupert Murdoch, or that fails to make money for the likes of him.
The Williams affair happens to have occurred at a moment when many NPR stations are in the midst of seasonal fundraising. With that coincidence comes an unusual opportunity. I’ve been a regularly contributing member of my local NPR station for many years; but this week, I’m going to give a few dollars more. Everybody who prefers real reporting to propaganda parading as journalism can ante up, too.