Thursday, October 21, 2010

Free speech meets the "free press"

Juan Williams was fired this week from his job at National Public Radio.  He's a world class political analyst who has won many awards for journalistic excellence, including an Emmy.  His writings have appeared in a wide range of publications, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Ebony, and Atlantic Monthly.  He holds several degrees, and contributes and appears regularly on many shows and stations.

Why would a man with such credentials be fired by NPR, an institution with a stated goal to "[e]xpand the reach and relevance of NPR and member stations to current and new audiences"?  He was fired for expressing his personal apprehension about seeing Muslims on airplanes.  He didn't do this on NPR; in fact, he said this on Fox News as part of a discussion of whether America has a "Muslim dilemma".  After Mr. Williams, an African American, said that he would be nervous at the sight of a Muslim on the same airplane as he, NPR, citing their own "editorial standards and practices", announced that Mr. Williams' contract was terminated.

Though protected in the same amendment, those who exercise their right to free speech are often punished for doing so by their employers in today's free press.  I shouldn't say "today's" free press, since the forerunners of today's "mainstream media" were just as prone to censuring (and censoring) reporters and news anchors.  The problem is, you rarely hear about these sorts of punishments, as frequent as they are.  People are fired all the time from all sorts of jobs for expressing their personal feelings about a particular issue, whether or not it has anything to do with their job.  Well, that's the right of the employer, I suppose; but it seems especially inappropriate that a news agency, supposedly a guardian of both free speech and free thought, should fire one of their best analysts for exercising his freedom of speech.

Juan Williams is just the latest and most prominent example of this.  In the last six months, two well-loved local anchors (perhaps more) found themselves the victims of media discrimination.  I posted before about Shad Olson, the South Dakota news anchor who lost his job after speaking at a Tea Party rally in his home state.  He never suggested that his appearance at the event was endorsed by his station.  He didn't go there advocating or opposing any political candidate.  He simply fulfilled his duty as a citizen to speak when he had something to say.

A few months later, a Virginia weather reporter named Jon Cash was fired for saying that "the Lord had called [him] to a full-time ministry", though not for another year.  Not content to wait a year, the general manager of the news station promptly fired him for making comments that were "bad for business".  Jon Cash is something of a local hero, as he's been the weather man for about 20 years.  Within days of his firing, a Facebook page was formed under the name "Bring Back Jon Cash".  It now has over 7,000 members.

Neither Mr. Olson nor Mr. Cash gave their employers any reason to doubt their dedication.  Aside from the awards both men had won and their immense popularity with the local audiences, they were both so fair and objective in their reporting that none of the viewers would get even a hint of their political or evangelical leanings.  And yet, within hours of statements made by the two men, neither one of them either on air or speaking in the name of their stations, they were both disciplined by their employers, and were both forced to seek new ones.

People like to talk about how the Republican Party lately has been "purging" itself of all moderates in favor of ideological purity; they also see Fox News as taking a similar tack, gathering more and more conservative commentators to themselves as time progresses.  In reality, though, the mainstream media is the entity most guilty of ideological purging, as conservative commentators have steadily seen themselves fired or forced out of positions at CNN, HLN, MSNBC, and even some of the broadcast stations, which created a steady supply from which Fox News and Fox Business have drawn most of their new recruits.  Though it's easy for some to say those anchors and reporters were fired because they were "kooks" and are now free to join a station of kooks, it's harder to be glib when it happens to someone you've known and watched for years.

The cases of Shad Olson and Jon Cash are microcosms of the larger issue, one that is perhaps more clear in the case of Juan Williams:  you cannot expect to serve in today's mainstream media and hold opinions about politics, religion, or national security that run contrary to what the media declares to be mainstream.  I recall an episode of "Boston Legal" from about five or six years ago in which a singer was barred from singing what was perceived as an antiwar song in a club whose owner was prowar.  Though the judge on the show ruled in favor of the club owner, she also made it clear that she personally agreed with the lawyer's argument that private enterprise owners are exercising free speech discrimination where the government cannot.  Perhaps they are.  On the other hand, so is the free press.

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