Juan Williams’ Weak Call to Defund NPR

Ex-employee's latest attack proves toothless

In a disingenuous column published in The Hill today, onetime NPR news analyst Juan Williams argues that his former employer should be defunded. “Even after they fired me, called me a bigot and publicly advised me to only share my thoughts with a psychiatrist,” he writes today, “I did not call for defunding NPR. I am a journalist, and NPR is an important platform for journalism.”

But a change of heart is as good a holiday. Williams goes on to say that “last week my line of defense for NPR ran into harsh political realities,” and he excerpts from a fundraising letter sent out Wednesday by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Steve Israel (D- N.Y.). (Interestingly, his line of defense had been fully breached by Monday, when Williams called for defunding NPR in a Fox News opinion piece published two days before the DNCC letter was sent to e-mail inboxes.) In the letter, Israel homes in opportunistically on the NPR controversy.

“They [Republicans] know NPR plays a vital role in providing quality news programming—from rural radio stations to in-depth coverage of foreign affairs. If the Republicans had their way, we’d only be left with the likes of Glenn Beck, Limbaugh and Sarah Palin to dominate the airwaves.”

Willaims writes in response:

With that statement, Congressman Israel made the case better than any Republican critic that NPR is radio by and for liberal Democrats. He is openly asking liberal Democrats to give money to liberal Democrats in Congress so they can funnel federal dollars into news radio programs designed to counter and defeat conservative Republican voices.

Rep. Israel has unintentionally endorsed every conservative complaint about NPR as a liberal mouthpiece. And to me, as a journalist, it is also a statement of why NPR’s troubled management team has turned its fundraising efforts into a weapon to be used against its essential product—top quality, balanced reporting. No journalist should have to work with one finger in the political winds, anxiously waiting to see if Democrats continue to be pleased with what they hear on NPR as a counter to what they don’t like hearing from Rush Limbaugh.

Israel may be tacitly calling for a quashing of Republican voices—and a quashing of Republican electoral chances to follow—but his letter does not actually say that. The emphasis, in the letter at least, is on sustaining quality reporting in the face of dismissible Republican pundits like Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck. (Williams himself essentially dismissed Beck while a guest on Ohio NPR affiliate station WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher, saying that Beck is “basically, in his own words, ‘the rodeo clown,’” and that “he’s very popular, but again, in terms of serious political dialogue, I just don’t see it.”)

Even if Israel is being brazenly opportunistic here, it’s worth remembering that NPR is not culpable for the way that others invoke it and the organization is not associated with Israel’s fundraising push—a spokesperson tells me that, “of course, NPR had absolutely nothing to do with the letter from DCCC.” We don’t condemn Islam because of the extremist actions of a few, no matter how nervous they make Williams on a plane. That’s the point Williams was making when he made the comments on Fox that got him fired from NPR.

The next prong of Williams’s argument for defunding NPR is more familiar. Going back to O’Keefe’s leaked tapes, he writes:

Betsy Liley, the director of institutional giving at NPR, is also heard on the tape saying that liberal billionaire George Soros has made it his business to subsidize NPR with as little fanfare as possible—that is to say to do it secretly.

Liley’s revealing comment and Schiller’s arrogance are instructive because they provide a window in to the culture of elitism that has corroded NPR’s leadership. They’re willing to do anything in service of any liberal with money. This includes firing me and skewing the editorial content of their programming. If anyone challenges them on this point, they will claim with self-righteous indignation to have cleaner hands than the rest of the news media who accepts advertising revenue or expresses a point of view.

Two things.

First, note that Williams throws in the phrase “skewing the editorial content of their programming” rather breezily. He then preemptively takes issue with NPR’s indignation whenever someone accuses them of doing them just that. Well, NPR needn’t raise itself to the level of indignation here, because Williams doesn’t say anything to support his charge of skewed coverage. He just says that it’s there and moves on. In fact, nowhere in his 900-word piece does Williams pinpoint an instance of skewed editorial content. Instead, like O’Keefe, he keeps his attacks leveled at the organization’s executives and fundraisers while presenting zero evidence that the personal views they might hold affect the material that makes it to air. The piece is a string of featherweight assertions.

Second, Williams never mentions that the controversial and incriminating video that resulted in Vivian Schiller’s resignation was misleadingly edited—something to which you would think he would at least give a nod. Particularly given that the first website to point out the suspicious editing, The Blaze, was founded by one of the folks Williams seems to be defending against Israel’s attack: rodeo clown Glenn Beck.

Of course, there is always room for some Euro-bashing in a column like this, and Williams dutifully raises the specter of the dreaded tax-funded BBC as he draws to a close.

Before NPR top executive Vivian Schiller resigned, her goal for NPR was to increase federal support to create an American version of the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC]. The BBC, which also began as a radio news service, is funded by a mandatory licensing fee paid by all British subjects. It is essentially a tax set by Parliament every year to support a national news operation.

Again, the problem is with omissions. Vivian Schiller never wanted to recreate the BBC’s business model in the U.S. She did believe in the idea of increased public funding, but knew that the BBC method was not a possibility. Pre-ousting, Schiller wrote in Design Mind (our emphasis): “…I’ve come around to believing pubic funding is an essential and long-standing tradition in this country, even without BBC-style taxes on TV sets—and should be increased.”

Another key omission in this little argumentative detour to the socialist U.K.: those balmy Brits apparently believe their beloved BBC is worth the taxes that they pay for it. A Guardian/IMC poll conducted in 2009 found that 63 percent of Brits think the BBC provides good value for money; and a whopping 77 percent think the BBC is an institution that people should be proud of.

Sounds like something we should all be very afraid of.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,