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.

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Under Abe Rosenthal and my other editors at the Times, we understood the obvious conflicts of interest in trying to please both Caesar and Jesus. Of course, we didn’t have today’s serious economic problems staring us in the face, although there were signs of approaching catastrophe.

Rosenthal harbored a natural hatred of television news, or anything else that detracted attention from his beloved Times. Because of him, some of us were almost afraid to watch TV at home. He came to it slowly and late, and I’m not certain how he would feel in today’s newsroom, with TV monitors a part of the d├ęcor. There is even a TV studio in the Times building, from where reporters — gasp — tell network viewers about the stories they’re working on, sometimes before their articles appear in the paper. Rosenthal would have died first.  

This was his policy regarding our appearing on television: You could do it, but no signed contracts, and no regularly scheduled appearances. As in everything, he permitted a few exceptions — his favorites could sneak and get away with it. I restricted my TV time to occasionally going on Washington Week in Review and Black Perspective on the News, as well as Tony Brown’s Journal in its infancy. I was also on Meet the Press once or twice.

For most of his two decades as executive editor, Rosenthal also refused to allow his staffers to accept fellowships or any other journalistic or academic offers. His simple, almost fanatical position was that the Times should satisfy all needs, that no staffer needed a Nieman or grants. He also looked askance at leaves of absence to write books — again, except for favorites. Most staffers who wrote books in his era did it on their own time, such as vacation, accrued overtime and holidays.

I did not recount all that to bash Rosenthal, but to contrast then and now. I cannot say how he would have responded to the looming devastation of daily journalism as we knew it. He would surely be pained, as many of us are over the terrible state of the profession. He might have been forced by circumstances to make pacts with the devil.

But I do believe he would have had serious problems with the ethics of his reporters sharing their information and beats with the enemy, unless new media’s standards first became more like those of old media. I doubt that he would have countenanced Juan Williams mixing analyses on NPR and Fox — and certainly not at the Times and Fox. There is a conflict there.  

Paul Delaney is a veteran reporter and a former editor at The New York Times. He is one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists.

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