It Ain't About News Versus Opinion

Scanning his story archive, I see that New York Times reporter Brian Stelter has done a fair amount of writing about the news media. For that reason, it’s particularly surprising that his piece on the firing of Juan Williams is rife with confused analysis that is strangely common among newspaper journalists, but obviously wrong to most of us who’ve spent lots of time thinking these issues through.

Here are his opening paragraphs, where his questionable frame is introduced:

NPR’s decision on Wednesday to fire Juan Williams and Fox News Channel’s decision on Thursday to give him a new contract put into sharp relief the two forms of journalism that compete every day for Americans’ attention.
Mr. Williams’ NPR contract was terminated two days after he said on an opinionated segment on Fox News that he worried when he saw people in “Muslim garb” on an airplane. He later said that he was reflecting his fears after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.
After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics. And it gave Fox news anchors and commentators an opportunity to jab NPR, the public radio organization that had long been a target of conservatives for what they perceived to be a liberal bias.
Those competing views of journalism have been highlighted by the success of Fox and MSNBC and the popularity of opinion media that beckons some traditional journalists. That Mr. Williams was employed by both Fox and NPR had been a source of consternation in the past.

Note all the problems with this analysis. First off, there are a lot more than two forms of journalism competing for the attention of Americans. Second, the difference between NPR and Fox News isn’t that the former offers “the view from nowhere” while the latter prefers polemical points of view — and although I think that it’s impossible to actually find the view from nowhere in American media that isn’t even all I mean here. It would be one thing to say that the Associated Press of old, with its ideal of straight news reporting, represents one style of news coverage, whereas Fox News with its opinionated delivery represents another.

But NPR and Fox News are actually similar in some of the ways that Mr. Stetler says they’re different. Both media organizations broadcast a mix of coverage, some of which is labeled news and other coverage it labels opinion. At both places, the line between these two styles of broadcast are a lot muddier than management likes to acknowledge. The business models of both organizations depend on catering to the sensibilities of people with a certain world view. And I am not just talking about ideology when I say that.

Despite identifying as a right-leaning independent with conservative and libertarian sympathies, NPR is much more my style than is Fox News. Sometimes when I listen to the radio network, I’m attune to the ideologically liberal assumptions that inform its coverage. But more than a political ideology, I’d say NPR’s sensibility is informed by a sort of urban cosmopolitanism and a commitment to airing a diversity of viewpoints — a commitment that is certainly executed imperfectly at times, but that is nevertheless noticeable in the coverage that is presented. I also think there are people doing reporting at NPR who try their best to give facts without bias, and believe that’s what their superiors want them to do. There are times when I think NPR coverage doesn’t do justice to conservative insights, but there are other times when I think they’ve done their best to present strong arguments with which a majority of their audience will disagree.

Fox News is motivated not by a general preference for point of view polemics — it isn’t a network likely to hire Glenn Greenwald, an opinionated polemicist with a large fan base, to deliver analysis. Rather, its general preference is for news and opinion material that appeals to Red America. How is this different from NPR’s general preference for content that appeals to Blue America? Well it isn’t entirely different — like I said, it’s wrong to pretend that these media outlets neatly represent two competing styles of American journalism — but I think if you asked the average NPR listener if they want to hear and understand the strongest arguments contrary to the liberal consensus, they’d say yes (how they’d react if they were given that wish is another matter).

Whereas if you asked the average Fox News audience member if they want to hear and understand the strongest liberal arguments on that network, many would say, “We’re already awash in the opinions of the liberals of the mainstream media, which controls everything but Fox News and Rush. Why should we give liberals an outlet on the one network that is for us?” At its core Fox News is presented as an alternative to the MSM, a project that only makes sense operating in opposition to the cultural landscape that surrounds it. NPR is presented as a mainstream media organization that makes sense independent of the cultural landscape that surrounds it (even if that may actually be impossible).

Once you understand this, it’s easier to grasp why it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear Will Wilkinson on NPR making a forceful, sophisticated argument for the free market… whereas it would be shocking if an intelligent liberal were given a commensurate shot at making a forceful argument on Fox News. The exception is someone like Christopher Hitchens, who might be put on a shout fest show and by sheer determination slip in a good lefty point, before reassuring the audience that he too is threatened by Islamic terrorism. But the typical liberal invited to appear on Fox is Alan Colmes, who for a long time served as the Washington Generals every night for Sean Hannity. If you have a network where Hannity regularly comes off as the more learned, persuasive interlocutor, you’re not trying very hard to give your audience an accurate view of the world.

Let’s return to the NY Times article, having skipped down a bit:

Like many other news organizations, NPR expects its journalists to avoid situations that might call its impartiality into question — an expectation written into the organization’s ethics code.
That expectation can erode under television lights and on Twitter. At outlets like NPR, some journalists have found it difficult to not share their opinions, especially when they are speaking in forums that lend themselves to commentary, like “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, called the Williams case an “object lesson in how different news organizations have different values.” She said the ethics guidelines at many news organizations matched those at NPR.
“If you make some outlandish statement on your Facebook page or at a public event somewhere, you are still representing your newsroom,” she said. “So there are consequences to that.”

What bothers me about NPR and the way it’s handled this is the fiction that Juan Williams was fired merely because his impartiality was compromised — as if the higher ups there would’ve minded if he went on cable television to insist that the mosque and community center near Ground Zero would send a desirable signal of American tolerance to the Muslim world, for example. An NPR contributor can safely express lots of opinions without getting fired. I’d have a lot more respect for NPR if it said, “The NPR audience has certain values and sensitivities, and the particular viewpoints Juan Williams expressed transgressed upon those sensitivities. It therefore made it much more difficult for us to present him as a cohesive part of our brand, so we’re firing him.”

The problem is that NPR wants to preserve the illusion that open-mindedness and a diversity of viewpoints is its brand. Again, I think that NPR does this better than a lot of media organizations, and certainly better than Fox News. I can only laugh at Williams when he says…

This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff…

…and then proceeds to sign a 2 million dollar contract at a place where there is much less diversity of opinion. But if NPR were being honest, it would fess up that diversity of opinion is a competing value, and in its view a less important one than making sure it doesn’t transgress against the multicultural sensitivities of its staff and largely liberal audience.

Here’s the rest of Mr. Williams quote:

This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

Let’s be honest: that kind of rhetoric is a much better fit at Fox than NPR, so in the end everything has worked out.

(I’ve written about other aspects of the Juan Williams controversy here and here.)

UPDATE: See James Fallows here for an eloquent defense of NPR as a whole that I’d like to associate myself with.