In America, talk about race is complex and fraught with danger. It is easy for people of good will to stumble when discussing it - and then trip a landmine. One recent explosion seems to have led to the firing, in late June, of respected Politico reporter Joe Williams.
You may have heard the story. Williams, a White House correspondent for Politico and the former Deputy Chief of the Washington Bureau of the Boston Globe, was suspended and then fired after Breitbart.com posted a clip of him talking on MSNBC. In the quick clip, Williams, who is black, said, “But when [Mitt Romney] comes on Fox and Friends, they’re like him, they’re white folks who are very much relaxed in their own company, so it’s a very stark contrast I think and a problem that he’s not been able to solve to date and he’s going to have to work harder if he’s going to try to compete.” Translation: Romney is more comfortable around white people.
In a memo to staffers, Politico editors wrote that “Politico journalists have a clear and inflexible responsibility to cover politics fairly and free of partisan bias,” and that Williams’s appearance on MSNBC, as well as some Twitter posts, violated that standard.
Did Williams indeed overstep clear ethical boundaries of journalism? Or are there racial overtones that affected his bosses’ decision, as some in the blogosphere think?
A fuller clip shows that Williams’s MSNBC remarks were made while a few commentators were discussing the difficulty Romney may be having with Latino voters. It seems that Williams is making an observation here, not calling Romney a racist.
And making observations of this nature is partly what Politico liked about him.
Poynter notes that Williams was transferred to a reporter position, after originally being hired as Politico’s deputy White House editor, so that he could show up as a television commentator more often. As Poynter reported, “Williams’s move to a reporter slot was supposed to be a win-win for all involved: Politico got someone who it thought was telegenic, who happened to be a person of color, to help build its brand on TV news shows while Williams, in turn, was able to hone broadcast skills that he’d rarely used as a print journalist.”
In other words, Politico wanted Williams to comment on the news, not just to be a reporter. Commenting on the news on TV was part of his job.
This blurring of boundaries between reporters and commentators is everywhere nowadays, said Professor Leonard Steinhorn, director of the Public Communication Division, School of Communications, at American University. And, he said, it is hurting journalism.
“Journalists report facts. But that definition doesn’t seem to exist anymore,” he said in a thoughtful phone interview. “This is the age of analysis journalism and advocacy journalism and every analyst and advocate brings their own worldview into their interpretation.”
Steinhorn said that he has been on news programs with Politico editors and that their interpretation of the news didn’t always jive with his understanding of the facts. This is very widespread across respected news outlets, he said, not limited to Politico. “Increasingly, reporters cover themselves with conditional phrasing. If Joe Williams had used ‘appears’ or ‘seems,’ what could they say? You see it on CBS, in The New York Times, all the time.”
He added, “The poor guy seems to be a little bit of a scapegoat, when a larger issue is going on.”
So that’s one piece of this: The industrywide mixing of reporting and commentary leaves journalists open to the charge that they are biased. But Steinhorn says that journalists are professionals, and the great majority of them are able to be excellent reporters for their outlets even though they leak their personal opinions online or on air. If Williams did not do this - if, in fact, his reporting for Politico was biased - then an editor should have caught it, and that should have been the reason given for his dismissal. But if his reporting was “by the book,” Steinhorn said, “This wasn’t a fireable offense.”
The second question is whether Politico fired Williams because he was a black man talking about race.