It’s highly fashionable right now to appear in the opinion pages of newspapers and on cable TV with outraged cries for an end to government funding of NPR in light of what critics call the unfair firing of Juan Williams. Mr. Williams (now) famously expressed what some are gleefully calling a politically incorrect opinion regarding his rising fear factor when Muslims board airplanes with him.
There are actually two issues in play here, one small: public sources of NPR funding, and one large: whether it is improper for a news analyst to express personal opinions on an opinion-driven network.
First, NPR’s funding, which the right loves to say comes from the government. (I got a particular kick out of my former Congressman, Newt Gingrich, who veritably spat out in disgust the demand that NPR be de-funded because, after all, the real public radio is Rush Limbaugh! When I speak of this, I like to point out that, presuming Newt’s yardstick is audience size, NPR has more listeners than Rush.)
But I digress. For the sake of two things I like to think Wall Street Journal readers demand, intellectual honesty and clarity, NPR is funded thusly:
Other 6.5% (this is the federal government line and represents <2% of total funding)
Major Gifts 3.3%
The member stations that contribute 42% of NPR’s funding are themselves funded 10.1% by the Congressionally sanctioned Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and 5.8% by other federal, state and local governments. So, about 16% of the money NPR collects in station fees originates with the government. That’s sixteen percent of 42%. Not a make-or-break proposition.
Still, I am not here to defend NPR. I just like facts to be separate from opinions, and that brings me to the large issue: we now live in a world with two types of journalism. This is a relatively new fact and, judging by the hubbub surrounding the Juan Williams firing, takes some getting used to. With the exception of the very young, everyone reading this grew up on fact-based—not opinion-based—mass media. (Yes, I know there are those on the right who think this a fantasy, but that’s what makes horse racing.)
In the old days, you might have thought you knew the political mind of many journalists, but it was not necessarily so. They were quite careful not to imbue their reporting with their personal biases. If they didn’t they tended to get fired in much the way Mr. Williams was by NPR.
Call it wishful thinking or a bias of unfounded conceit, but it is human nature to ascribe our personal perspective to those we watch, hear or read. At least it is until they give us incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. I thought a few former ABC, CBS and NBC correspondents were liberals like me until they took up with Fox News and denounced their former employers. (I’m not sure if it was wishful thinking or conceit in my case, but I’m leaning toward the latter.)
Spurred by the emergence of talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh in the 80’s, opinion became profitable. Then Roger Ailes’s particular genius saw that one could parade opinion as fact, and Fox News, a sister product to The Wall Street Journal in the News Corporation panoply, was born, signaling in turn the birth of a new, at least on a mass market scale, brand of journalism that wears its heart on its sleeve. Sure, specialty publications like The Nation and The New Republic have been around for years, but their subscriber base has always been rather modest when compared to the millions of viewers for Fox News Channel and more recently—and less grandly—MSNBC.
Viewed through this lens, the moment where a reporter or analyst for a news agency that has strict and specific rules about its employees’ conduct in the public square was bound to come. NPR says they had already warned Mr. Williams that his opinion-driven appearances on FNC constituted a breach of those rules, and had requested that his NPR affiliation not be noted in on-screen descriptions. He knew very well that he could not stand with one foot in the fact-based world of journalism and the other in the opinion-based world. This day was bound to come. There is a new line and the ethical implications are just dawning.
Jon Sinton, a serial media entrepreneur, was the founding president of Air America Radio