SamHenry on the News Media Turmoil – Platforms, Ethics and Subsidies

Posted on October 22, 2010


NOTE: SamHenry is returning briefly from a two-week hiatus to address the furor that has erupted  over the firing of Juan Williams from National Public Radio (NPR)The issues raised are too important to be glossed over.

Beyond ethics, where is it written that an employee should undergo a review of his work and his purported medical history in a public firing?  Certainly it was unnecessary to bring in previous admonishments of Williams for similar “offenses.”

Finally, was there even just cause to fire an accomplished reporter even if he breached journalistic ethics?  He could have been suspended or been subject to many other actions short of firing with an eye to being politically correct.  All Journalists should feel muzzled until the national conversation has sorted this one out!  Consider free press suspended.  Juan, you should have stated your “feelings” by ascribing them to “many people.”  Now don’t make another mistake like that one!

NPR President Vivian Schiller fired Journalist/analyst Juan Williams this past week for expressing his personal views about Muslims on Fox News.  He was sent packing following expression of  his “feelings” that he has when he sees Muslims at the gate about to board a commercial aircraft.  His comments were made on Fox News October  2010:

“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country,” Williams said Monday. “But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” [AP]

In retelling the tale of the firing,  NPR president Vivian Schiller included an ad hominum attack “

Schiller said Thursday that whatever feelings Williams has about Muslims should be between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist — take your pick.” In a post later on NPR’s website — where comments were heavily against Williams’ firing — she apologized for making the “thoughtless” psychiatrist remark.

On ABC, Williams said Schiller made a personal attack against him because she had a weak argument to justify his firing.[AP]

Later Ms  Schiller  Clarified NPR’s position

NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts. [Weasel Zippers]

Shortly after his falling out with NPR, Williams expressed strong views that NPR should be defunded by the government.  He found support in Congressman Jim DeMint (R South Carolina)  who has vowed to introduce legislation to do just that.

On the other side of the aisle, a recently completed study of the  history of government subsidies of the news media concluded:

There are plenty of reasons to challenge government funding of news — as well as a few reasons to consider it — but none of the debate is served by ignorance of the substantial thread of subsidy running through American journalism history.

govt funding
Screengrab/fundingthenews.org

Cowan and Westphal pose two central questions about the future of such funding, the second “potentially trickier,” as they put it, than the first:

  • “Is a new form of government intervention prudent, and necessary to ensure that Americans have access to the kind of information they need in a democracy?”
  • “If there is such a need, is government capable, amid such overwhelming change in the news business, of making choices that will make things better?”

With that second concern in mind, they urge consideration of two ideas:

In addition to the controversy over public funding of media outlets, there is the battle newspapers and broadcasters are facing to address the different platforms that they serve and to  turn back the tide of declining ad revenues.  At Gannet’s USA Today, large scale restructuring is occurring as a result of the development of iPad and iPhone.

In essence, USA Today is disassembling its universal desk and a five-year effort at newsroom integration. That worked well as an interim step, Hunke told me over lunch Wednesday, but needs to be replaced with “editing hubs by platform.”
Hunke said the company won’t be able to take advantage of mobile and tablet opportunities unless offerings are designed and edited to match the unique characteristics and markets in both booming new-media device categories.
In addition, USA Today has eliminated several managing editor jobs and will be organizing around “15 distinct content areas,” Hunke said, like travel, personal finance and personal technology. Each will have its own top editor and a dedicated general manager to develop so-called “vertical” advertising and other revenue opportunities. [Poynter]
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