Juan Williams and the Slippery Slope of New-Media Values

When old-school journalistic values went by the wayside, so did the safeguards that would have prevented the situation that led to Williams' firing by NPR, says one veteran journalist.

Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom
Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom

Behind and beyond the headlines about the process in the Juan Williams case — the firing, the reaction to the firing, the reaction to the reaction to the firing, pseudo-First Amendment arguments — the imbroglio shines a spotlight on troublesome developments in media.

Truth, facts, fairness and objectivity have been the hallmarks of good journalism for the past century, even though there has been constant quibbling over exactly how to interpret and fulfill those principles. Old media continue to abide by them, fighting gallantly and valiantly for their perpetuation under increasingly heavy pressure to bend, break and reshape the rules. 

Economic stress and cultural changes that seemed to come from nowhere rocked old media with whiplash force beginning in the early 1980s. Then, along came new media in the ’90s, gushing with shoot-from-the-hip, no-holds-barred, anything-goes opinions that questioned the definition of who and what is a journalist — even what is news. Everybody’s a newsperson; everything is news. Now, opine about that.

Embattled old media finally caved in by adopting, clumsily, some of new media’s techniques, practices and, more important, business models that have not yet found a way to make money. As old media struggle desperately to turn around their economic situation, they are doing things that border on the sinful, things that they would previously have shunned as unethical or too close to lines that should not be crossed.

Now the lines are blurred. The Washington Post is allowing links within news stories to goods sold on Amazon.com, and The New York Times is allowing a reporter to advertise online the sale of the work he did on the education beat. Worse, however, some in old media decided to allow their guys to get into the new game as reporters and commentators. I feared it was a bad move from the get-go.

Now we have split-personality journalism trying to accommodate commentators like Williams — who performed a kind of high-wire act that straddled both Fox News and National Public Radio, with their clashing presentations and differing slants on the news. Pulling it off is an impossibility that seems as clear to me as a beautiful blue sky.

Williams spent much of his earlier career at The Washington Post — and just about all of that time adhering to its principle of strictly and religiously worshipping objectivity. He seemed to split his time between NPR and Fox fairly easily, but in this season of Halloween, that trick was not really much of a treat; in truth, it was a ticking time bomb, and is a lesson for everybody.

All journalists have opinions — sometimes strong ones — about their editors, their colleagues, their beats, their sources, the people they cover. The smart ones are able to contain and restrain themselves, to honor the vow of celibacy we take to suppress those views in the name of good journalism as we labor to sort our truths from fiction. We don’t sneak our views into our work; we don’t advocate for one side or the other; we don’t run for public office. Many of us refuse to register with any political party, thereby negating our power at the ballot box in places where one party rules. (I tried that in Richard Daley’s Chicago.)

Principles are difficult at times, but the great journalists do it effortlessly. That’s why they’re great. Once, when I was a reporter for The New York Times, before an important civil rights leader would answer my questions during an interview, he wanted to quiz me about my views, “to see where I was coming from.” I reminded him that my views were not really important and had nothing to do with what I would write, that he was familiar with The New York Times and its journalism, and that that should be the basis of the interview, not my personal opinions. He refused to proceed with the interview. I was fine with that.  

Eventually The New York Times began to allow reporters to cross-dress as contributors to new media, as have many other major outlets. In a similar loosening of strictures, NPR (for which I was a board director) allowed Williams, a dear old friend of mine, to practice his trade between its almost boring, nasal, monotonic-but-reliably-professional news personalities and the loud, boisterous, xenophobic and very wealthy keepers of the right-wing flame at Fox.