Wednesday, August 10, 2011


In October of last year, it was announced that Juan Williams was fired from NPR. Mr. Williams had been an analyst for NPR for years. Hosts would bring him in to provide analysis of the day’s news stories. However, he was also working as a commentator for Fox News Channel in recent years. He appeared on FNC programs to share his opinion on the day’s news stories. Mr. Williams was fired by NPR because its management objected to things Mr. Williams had said on FNC in his commentator role; they believed it compromised his analyst’s role on NPR.

There was a lot of fall-out and debate after Mr. Williams’ firing. Many conservatives cited it as illustrative of the liberal political correctness and intolerance of differing perspectives on NPR. For a variety of reasons, many on the left wrung their hands in angst over the departure of Mr. Williams and his full-time defection to the dark side of FNC.

I heard one news report during that time that was interesting in putting the whole affair in perspective. It explained the different roles Mr. Williams had played at the two media outlets. For NPR, he had been an analyst, which meant that after someone else provided the supposedly objective facts of the news, Mr. Williams explained the significance and repercussions of those facts. Per the report I heard, a news analyst is supposed to still retain journalistic objectivity and not inject his own views on the news. But for FNC, Mr. Williams had been a commentator, which meant that he was paid to give his own opinions and debate the opinions of others.

After listening to that report, I thought a lot about these two roles: news analyst and news commentator. Initially, I was skeptical about the need for either in news programming. But after more consideration, I now understand that just straight reporting of the news may not be enough. For viewers/listeners/readers to understand the reported news facts, context may be necessary. For example, to understand the significance of a particular presidential veto, we may need to understand the legal and budgetary repercussions of the failure of the legislation to be enacted, the history of the bill in Congress, the political rivalries that may have played out and prompted the veto, the frequency with which a particular president uses his veto and a host of other facts. I can appreciate that news analysis may be necessary, but I also recognize that it may be difficult to maintain one’s journalistic objectivity when providing such analysis. It can be a fine line between analysis and commentary. I can imagine the line might even be illusory at times.

But I remain unclear why supposed news programs need commentators. Why in America do we pay the same relatively small group of people big bucks to sit around constantly debating their opinions? The Sunday morning talk shows, the cable news shows, the talk radio programs and others simply expose us to the same folks spouting their opinions over and over again on a number of topics. Why do we always have to hear from the same people?

If we have to have these opinion-based shows, why don’t we at least bring in more folks to share their opinions so we will have more perspectives to hear? That might challenge us more and it could be enlightening. But that is not what such programming is all about. Again, such programming masquerades as news but is simply entertainment.

We end up with these little cults of personality. People love to quote Rush or Glenn or Jon or Keith. But these gentlemen do little to inform us of what is going on in the world and they rarely give us a challenging new perspective. Right wing audiences listen to Rush or Glenn spout what they want to hear. Similarly, left wing audiences listen to Jon or Keith for similar reasons. It is just a depressing state of affairs.

When the whole Juan Williams brouhaha was going on, my in-laws were visiting our family in Arizona. I like to hear the perspectives of different people, so I asked my father-in-law what he thought of the whole thing. His reaction was surprising and quite interesting.

My husband’s family is from a small town several hours from the nearest urban center. There were only a couple of radio stations available when my husband was growing up, and until the advent of cable, they couldn’t really watch much TV. My father-in-law told me that before the firing, he had never heard of Juan Williams and had never listened to NPR. My in-laws are well-educated and intelligent people. I was surprised they had never listened to NPR even once, but my father-in-law indicated they didn’t get NPR in their town. As a result, it was hard for him to put in context the whole event.

I suspect that that was not an uncommon reaction. When our family has gone on road trips, my husband and I sometimes have trouble finding an NPR affiliate in remote areas. Though the media pundits were obsessed with the firing of Mr. Williams for a while, I’m sure that a lot of Americans were like my father-in-law and didn’t know who the heck Juan Williams was. We in urban centers often have no clue what life is like in more rural areas of our country. The popular media seem to share and reflect that same ignorance.

Proverbs 11:29

He who troubles his own house shall inherit the wind, and the foolish shall be servant to the wise of heart.

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