NPR: National Public Ruckus (October 25, 2010)

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Bill O’Reilly is having a hell of a month. The professional muckraker and Fox News pugilist managed to manipulate his proffered vision of a tyrannically liberal media into a self-fulfilling prophecy on October 14th. That was the Thursday when, embroiled in a heated discussion with the ladies of “The View” over whether or not the “Ground Zero” mosque should ever see the light of day, O’Reilly caused co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk offstage mid-broadcast with five little incendiary words: “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” When head diva Barbara Walters responded by saying “I love my colleagues, but that should not have happened,” I am sure old Bill had trouble containing his glee.

Over the course of O’Reilly’s long career, I have witnessed this pattern over and again, the consistency of a practiced bully: keep yelling and poking until you hit the right nerve, then stand back and act befuddled, telling your adoring audience, “See, you can’t even have a conversation with these guys!” But why fix what isn’t broken? If nothing else, I admire the man’s PR savvy. After “The View” confrontation, that evening’s broadcast of “The O’Reilly Factor” welcomed over four million viewers, easily trouncing the competition at CNN, MSNBC and Headline News.

Joy and Whoopi played right into O’Reilly’s hand and all parties earned a couple of days of front and center media coverage. This is a page from the Fox host’s established playbook. However, I don’t believe the talking head was egomaniacal enough to predict that lightning would strike twice for him in the cultural zeitgeist this month. O’Reilly was nothing more than a fortunate bystander in last week’s blow up between NPR and longtime political analyst Juan Williams, and yet one can be certain that the incident created another occasion for the Fox News star to do the happy dance.

By now anyone who hasn’t been hiding in an underground bunker (a tantalizing prospect before next week’s midterm elections to be sure), has heard the famous exchange between Williams and O’Reilly that led to the former’s axe from liberal media stalwart National Public Radio:

“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot,” Williams said. “But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” To the suggestion that an expression of these views might be a bit, un-PC shall we say, Williams went on to state: “Look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.”

NPR did not wait long to act. In a tersely worded statement, the media giant called Williams a “valuable contributor” but said that his comments “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” And there you have it, right?

Wrong. In a turn of events that it is now certain NPR never predicted, the conglomerate began to take hits from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. The axis of most of these potshots rotates around a single question: in this age of corporate media domination, a time of 24-hour viral spin, is there room left for free speech? For one moment, professionals of all stripes have been able to put aside the partisan spin to take an overdue look at the journalistic profession, a sector that has begun to have the kind of approval ratings that make members of Congress appear positively loveable by comparison.

The behemoth “liberal media” banner has taken so many punches lately from so many silos, I sincerely hope the vocation has given consideration to investing in one of the “Cadillac” health care plans that President Obama discussed last summer. Predictably, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who has since offered the sacked Williams a job at the conservative outlet, labeled the analyst “an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by Fox News on a daily basis.” One can hardly blame the network for its carpe diem approach to casting itself as the last bastion of the First Amendment, irritating as it may be.

However, more surprising was the response from left leaning publications like The Washington Post, which labeled the NPR imbroglio, “Williams’ Shirley Sherrod moment.” This reference to the former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the USDA, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Department after a manipulative video produced by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart framed her as a racist, is pregnant with meaning.

While Juan Williams’ statements on “The O’Reilly Factor” may have been cringe worthy to a subset of the American audience, they were clearly offered as opinion, a reflection of the commentator’s own experience and internal struggles, rather than a journalistic conclusion. The point of the dialogue, which lovers of Western democracy claim they desire, was to facilitate a discussion about the visceral reactions associated with wearers of traditional Muslim garb onboard aircraft. While Williams’ comments may have been clumsily framed, they should not have been cause for dismissal. Was O’Reilly sacked for his blanketed, incendiary rhetoric on “The View?” Once we start firing people for sharing their fears openly, no matter how misinformed we might find them, we have entered a new era of McCarthyism.

And the association between NPR and intolerance may lead to expensive repercussions beyond the costs of image repair. As the Associated Press reports:

“In response to the firing, South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint planned to introduce legislation to end federal funding for NPR, his spokesman Wesley Denton said Thursday night. Denton said the senator would expand upon his proposal in a statement on Friday.”

In rejoinder to this bit of legislative opportunism, sometimes Republican lawmakers and full-time media whores Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee joined the braying chorus for NPR’s figurative head. Yes, the non-profit membership media organization acted hastily, and perhaps unfairly, in its handling of Juan Williams, but blatant cynicism on top of cynicism is clearly no solution at all.

There are, however, questions to answer. Many card carrying liberals are uncomfortable with the proximity of NPR’s recent intolerance of dissenting opinion to the “fair and balanced” right wing slant from which the media warhorse once sought to set itself apart.

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