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What Everyone Is Missing About NPR's WilliamsGate

10/23/2010 01:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"juan, gettin ugly. wonder if it will result in him severing ties, or mutual"

That was my note at the top of an email I sent back in September of 2007 to a colleague at NPR. In full disclosure, I am a former employee of NPR, let go in 2008 as part of the cancellation of three shows, including one I hosted. In the email, I'd forwarded a Washington Post column by Howard Kurtz dissecting a Fox/NPR/Juan Williams triad of recrimination. The headline: "NPR Rebuffs White House On Bush Talk -- Radio Network Wanted To Choose Its Interviewer." In Kurtz's words:

The White House reached out to National Public Radio over the weekend, offering analyst Juan Williams a presidential interview to mark yesterday's 50th anniversary of school desegregation in Little Rock. But NPR turned down the interview, and Williams's talk with Bush wound up in a very different media venue: Fox News. Williams said yesterday he was "stunned" by NPR's decision... Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, said she "felt strongly" that "the White House shouldn't be selecting the person."

This incident is more telling than the oft-dissected statement Williams made on Fox that Michelle Obama had "this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going." Juan Williams and NPR have been a mutual mismatch for years. In this volley, Williams -- with his reported new $2 million over 3 year contract with Fox -- is the clear winner; with Fox a close second; and NPR left holding the bag. It need not have been this way.

If NPR had such clear concerns over how Juan Williams fit into their organization, in the amorphous role of "news analyst," then they had an opportunity to let him go a long time ago. They could have decided he didn't fit their needs, and moved on in a less polarized time. But by firing him now, in this instance, after years of sitting uncomfortably with his dual roles on NPR and Fox, they made a few crucial errors. They chose to fire him for doing what he has done for years... be a hype man for Bill O'Reilly. Why now? And they also showed tone-deaf communication with member stations by firing Williams during a pledge drive season. I know to many that will sound like nit-picking, but the relationship between NPR and member stations has oft been strained, and the Williams matter does so more, as evidenced by station disclaimers like this one from WBUR.

Author and Atlantic Blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of Williams, "It's a dangerous, dangerous thing to make a living running your mouth." He was referring to the Carmichael/Obama statement. I would agree, and disagree. Having been both a news analyst and a reporter, I think it's dangerous and valuable to step up to the mic as an expert. I have been a pundit, but I always simultaneously did reporting. Recently, I've been going to Tea Party meetings and immigration rights meetings. Getting out in the field and actually talking to people is a wondrous thing. You learn we are not monolithic, any of us. But reporting has become devalued in the current media environment, which is struggling with revenue models. Far better, as a simple ratio of time-to-income earned, is simply to find a show that will have you on and do whatever you have to do to ingratiate yourself with the host.

Juan Williams pointedly said in his comments after the firing that he was the only black man on-air at NPR.... and not a reporter at that. Guest hosting on Fox, he also called himself a "loyal employee" of NPR, and implied the network was run by a "far-left mob." (If so, I didn't meet any in my four years at NPR. It's run by a Beltway cohort, perhaps, but not "far-left.") Do I think NPR fired him because he is black? No. Do I think NPR kept Williams on for years, as the relationship degraded, because he is a black man? Absolutely. Williams' presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network. NPR needs to hire more black men in house on staff as part of adding diverse staff across many ethnicities and races. It also needs, broadly, a diversity upgrade that doesn't just focus on numbers, but on protocols for internal communication. Among the revelations in this incident is that the Vice President of News fired Williams by phone without giving him the opportunity to come into the office and discuss it.

After I was let go from hosting an African-American issues show at NPR, I walked away relatively quietly, though with a series of questions about how power was allocated and shared at the network, and whether diversity truly mattered to management. Although the focus right now is on whether NPR should be defunded (God no!), I would like to see a little more light shine on how NPR deals with diversity. It has a new diversity czar, Keith Woods, and I hope he is empowered to look at the issue broadly and respected by management.

I also hope that NPR continues to support its programming that does feature diverse voices, including Michel Martin's Tell Me More (which had a great, honest roundtable about Williams) and acquired/partner programming like the fantastic on-the-road/town-hall show State of the Re:Union by Al Letson.

This country needs NPR, now more than ever. But it needs an NPR and media, broadly, that are adventurous rather than expedient when it comes to reporting on a divided America, and cultivating the most diverse staff, and audience.

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Farai Chideya is currently broadcasting public radio midterm election specials, reported in the field. You can find more information at PopandPolitics.com