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.
Some in the blogosphere wondered about that. A guest post by @ReignofApril at Angry Black Lady Chronicles compiled quotations from other Politico writers who made similar observations about race and politics, but were themselves white. One quotation, from Politico founding editor Jim VandeHei, writing with Mike Allen, said, “The truth about politics is that Republicans - regardless of the nominee - are a mostly white party and have been for decades.”
At theGrio.com, owned by NBC, Nida Khan asked, “The real question for Politico (and other news outlets for that matter) is: would they have been so quick to suspend Williams if he were White?”
Poynter noted that Politico has previously been taken to task for a lack of diversity, and this firing won’t help.
Williams himself, in an opinion piece at theGrio, said that the situation wouldn’t have occurred if it hadn’t been for the “right-wing noise machine” epitomized by publications like Breitbart.com and the Daily Caller. He wrote, “Reporters and news organizations have always prided itself on being fearless, independent and intrepid, willing to push back on government and stand up for free speech. Now, in a hyper-kinetic, hyper-partisan age, it seems we’re not even willing to push back on our own critics, which doesn’t bode all that well for my colleagues.”
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Williams posted several ill-advised Twitter posts over many months, some retweeting vulgar jokes or crude comments made about the Romneys, another complaining that working at Politico had an “overlay of blatant racism.”
When CJR reached him, Williams said he doesn’t believe he had seen a Twitter policy at Politico, but one might exist. In his opinion piece, he noted that Breitbart.com and the Daily Caller had chosen only a few opinion tweets out of over 3,000.
Politico editors declined to comment on the matter to CJR, but they wrote in a memo to staffers published in The New York Times that the existence of the tweets aided their decision. They have refrained from commenting directly on the situation to other outlets as well. Williams referred most questions to his lawyer, who was not able to be reached before press time.
Wiliams’s firing has some lessons for journalists. First, race is still “the third rail of American politics,” as Steinhorn said during the interview with CJR. It is important to be able to back up what you say with facts.
And second, said Steinhorn, if you’re not a columnist or an opinion writer, “Stop the analysis and stop the advocacy and stick to gumshoe reporting.”
In our brave new world of talking-head reporters, that may be impossible.