Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Juan Williams Saga: An Interview with Jonathan Silverman

WE'VE BEEN FOLLOWING THE Juan Williams firing closely here at TWR, and we've remained profoundly interested in how various groups are responding to and spinning his termination from National Public Radio and his subsequent hiring by Fox News.  We were curious how journalists and students around the country were reacting to this weird turn of events, so, we decided to contact our friend Jonathan Silverman, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and author of the recently released Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture.  Silverman also curates the Media/News section of The World Is A Text.   

Jonathan Silverman

Juan Williams
TWR: Have you talked with your journalism classes about the Juan Williams saga?

Silverman: Not yet. We're in a wonky writing phase in the classroom.

TWR: Oh, maybe we should just stop right here and watch The World Series.  No wait, another question. What would you say to them?

Silverman: I probably would ask them what they thought of the issue, but I don't think it's a big deal one way or the other.

TWR: There are a number of issues wrapped up into one big controversy.  The first involves Williams working as a reporter for National Public Radio and as a commentator for Fox News.  In your mind, is this a violation of basic journalistic notions of objectivity? The NPR Ombudsman sure thinks so.
Silverman: I'm not sure I would call Juan Williams a reporter any more--a commentator perhaps, though he certainly has written very well. I really loved his Thurgood Marshall biography in particular. But he has mostly been a type of down-the-middle commentator for NPR for a while. And while I respect NPR immensely, I found him and Cokie Roberts to be increasingly insular in their opinions. As someone who reads a lot of thought-provoking political material, I find conventional wisdom tiresome.

And I don't believe in objectivity anyway. I think the objective voice can be useful at times in describing things like fires and car accidents and recounting lots of details about a particular subject. But in politics, without a strong sense of truth seeking, trying to be objective, to see "both sides" when there are many, seems like a fool’s errand. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil's The Elements of Journalism and Jay Rosen's work--in which he calls the objective voice and Washington savvy as practiced by commentators like Juan Williams "The View from Nowhere"--absolutely shapes my ideas here.


TWR: The other issue is whether Williams should have been fired from NPR for being honest about boarding a plane when he sees passengers in "Muslim garb."  Do you think that was an offense that deserved termination?
Silverman: I don't think it violated any standards of objectivity. But jobs at places like NPR require  a pretty conservative way of speaking about issues as a way of maintaining moderate respectability, and I think Williams violated that, as did Helen Thomas for her remarks on Israel not long ago. If people think you are a journalist, it's important to couch almost all your speech in a type of neutral distance that does not betray personal thoughts or ideas. I don't think it's right necessarily, but journalism is a type of game--as is any profession--that requires its practioners to play by rules that have been established over time.


TWR: A few days later, the NPR CEO admitted that Williams' termination was handled poorly.  That someone should have just told William that his work for Fox was not going down smoothly for the NPR Folks and that he should choose: Fox or NPR.  That suggests the real cause of his termination was not his comments but rather his work for Fox.   However, NPR seemed to need something obviously transgressive to fire him for, and after a couple of days of deliberation, NPR decided this was it.  What do you make of that?

Silverman: That account wouldn't surprise me.


TWR: I guess me either but it annoys me. The most troubling aspect of this as far as TWR is concerned is that Fox, somehow, comes off looking like the real defenders of Free Speech. Does this anger you?
Silverman: Fox News has consistently used the rules practiced by journalists as a way of thumbing its nose at them. For a while now, Fox has used "fair and balanced" as a deliberate comment on journalistic concepts such as objectivity, fairness, and balance to make political reporters resort to the "View from Nowhere," reporting without actually determining what is true and not true (or as close to as it gets). So it becomes Democrats say this, and Republicans say this, and the casual observer might not know what to think. Fox always wins these battles because it understands the game while not playing it the same way the other networks and media outlets do.

Though I’m not sure how I feel about Juan Williams being fired, I do think that free speech as a concept is not outside the journalistic marketplace; in other words, you can say what you want as long as you don't care about being employed (or who employs you).


TWR: If Steve Inskeep and Bill O'Reilly got into a fistfight, who would win?

Silverman: You? :)


  1. The discussions I heard on NPR here in Southern California suggested that listeners had been complaining about Juan Williams for a long time. His remark on Fox was just the excuse to fire him now. Without stating whether his firing was justified or not, I would say that NPR handled it very badly and handed Fox a giant stick to beat them with. In fact, NPR even put a few rusty nails in the stick for good measure. NPR should have known that blowback would follow an immediate firing. They should have quietly transitioned Williams out the door.

  2. Nice little chat here.

    It would be really refreshing if both Fox and NPR publically stated their mutual loathing for each other and how all this firing/hiring business boils down to that. Instead, each is hiding behind a sanctimonious imitation of some civic virtue: pro free speech, anti-hate speech, objectivity-schmobjectivity. I'm not buying it from either side.