Juan Williams’ Ethical Duties–and NPR’s

A guest post by Frances Cerra Whittelsey, Extra! contributor and journalism scholar:

Whether or not Juan Williams is truly a liberal or just playing the role to give Fox an appearance of balance begs the question of whether his comment about fearing Muslims on airplanes justified his firing by NPR. Williams is waving the free speech flag to defend his “honest statement of feeling,” as he put it in a statement published online by Fox. He insists he has not shown himself to be a bigot by admitting that fear grips him when he sees Muslims in Muslim garb getting on an airplane with him.

As I teach in my media ethics class at Hofstra University, telling the truth is the highest value journalists can hold. But that virtue applies to reporting the truth about what we find out as reporters, having the courage to report the reality we perceive regardless of who might be offended or what it might cost us. But our opinions? Journalists are under no ethical obligation to tell their opinions at all, and news organizations like NPR actually require journalists to keep their opinions to themselves. NPR‘s ethics code states, “In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.” And that means, says the code, separating “our personal opinions–such as an individual’s religious beliefs or political ideology–from the subjects we are covering.”

In fact, a journalist’s value to the public is in acting as the stand-in for people too busy with their other jobs and obligations to cover the news. It is a privilege that comes with an obligation to always be conscious of our special role, but Williams seems to have forgotten this. There was nothing reportorial about his statement about his fear. He apparently felt the need to voice his own fears in order to show Bill O’Reilly that he shared his gut mistrust of Muslims. Fine. But he cannot then defend his statement as journalistic truth-telling.

In addition, deciding if any behavior is ethical doesn’t stop with an expression of one’s values, noble or not. To understand an ethical dilemma, journalists need to sort out their loyalties, to ask how they arose and then to rank them in importance. Journalists also have ethical duties and one duty is to avoid conflicts of interest that cause the public to question our fairness. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics puts it plainly, urging journalists to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

NPR had already tried to distance itself from Williams before this incident by removing him as a staff employee. Williams accepted this arrangement, and now puts the onus on NPR for continuing to employ him at all. Williams himself might have considered his duty to NPR, as well as his loyalty to a long-term employer–before continuing his enthusiastic employment with Fox. He could have made a choice long ago between the two organizations, but did not. Where was his concern about his own integrity and his duty to the public?

Finally, Williams needs to take a hard look at his comment about his fear of Muslims. If you feel fear every time you see someone getting on a plane in Muslim garb, then you have an irrational prejudice. Your worry about Muslim terrorists has extended to all Muslims in the same way that Americans during World War II distrusted all Japanese. Furthermore, it is irrational to believe that a Muslim terrorist would board an airplane looking Muslim at all.

Williams is prejudiced against Muslims, and just can’t see it. It doesn’t matter that he went on to say that he’s against any statements that would incite violence against Muslims. He’s prejudiced and his comment offended Muslims.

And yes, in this country, he does have the right to express that prejudice. But he doesn’t have the right to turn around and accuse NPR of restricting his speech. His boss could have handled the firing better, but NPR had every right to fire him for having a conflict of interest and for ignoring his duties and loyalties to NPR and the public.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.