The ongoing fallout over Bill O'Reilly's recent racial comments is stoking tensions between Fox News and NPR. Both channels employ Juan Williams, who got O'Reilly talking about race during their now-infamous radio interview, and Mara Liasson, who regularly appears on Fox to debate Republicans. Media Matters blogger Eric Boehlert argues that by aggressively defending O'Reilly, Williams is compromising NPR and his own journalistic integrity:
Williams, a prominent African-American journalist, strenuously defended O'Reilly on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and accused his critics of launching a smear campaign. Then later in the week, Williams made news when he complained that NPR had turned down the White House's offer to have him interview President Bush and discuss race relations. Officials at NPR were uncomfortable having the White House handpick the interviewer, so they passed. Fox News though, quickly accepted the invitation, complete with restrictions, and Williams conducted the interview for the all-news cable channel.
With his often over-excited and misleading defense of O'Reilly, as well as his need to publicly side with Fox News and badmouth NPR's decision regarding the Bush interview, it seems Williams no longer straddles [his] peculiar media divide. Instead, he's deliberately marched over into the Fox News camp and in the process has stripped away some layers of his journalistic integrity. Worse, real damage is being done to NPR by having its name, via Williams, associated with Fox News' most opinionated talker. In fact, Williams' recent appearance on The O'Reilly Factor almost certainly violated NPR's employee standards, which prohibit staffers from appearing on programs that "encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis" and are "harmful to the reputation of NPR."
Boehlert offers a detailed critique of Williams' recent campaign to defend O'Reilly -- which included a Time magazine essay, a spirited radio segment with Fox's John Gibson and the follow-up appearance on The Factor -- and emphasizes that Fox has not even aired the parts of the pilfered Bush interview addressing race. So Williams is getting played by Fox, in Boehlert's narrative, and now NPR should force the commentator to "choose between the two media outlets."
Boehlert's critique is solid, but not his solution. The usual problem with Fox's NPR contributors is that they are too restrained. It would be absurd to fire them for a rare outburst of opinion. Williams can leverage his reputation to defend a coworker if he chooses; he would probably act similarly if an NPR colleague was worried about getting Imused.
Yet Boehlert is right about how this episode reveals a more fundamental problem with the Fox-NPR tension. Every week, Williams and Liasson appear opposite Republicans to present a "liberal" counterpoint on Fox News. Yet as employees of the strictly nonpartisan, government-funded NPR, they cannot endorse positions or take sides. When appearing on other channels, in fact, NPR guidelines limit employees from expressing views which "they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist." So while a Republican operative like Bill Kristol offers partisan screeds, Williams and Liasson are contractually bound to present nonpartisan analysis with their NPR hats on. Yet in a sad stroke of irony, their weekly presence debating Republicans affirms the conservative attack that NPR has a liberal bias.