What is fact-based analysis?

The Juan Williams story continues to fester across Planet Public Radio. This morning, Midmorning provided an excellent look at some of the issues surrounding the firing.

NPR, meanwhile, has sent out talking points to its member stations, who are taking the heat for the firing of Williams. They’re not much different than what the NPR ombudsman provided in her article this morning (I provided the link in this morning’s 5×8). And this is the central issue:


In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.

This is where it gets difficult. What exactly is fact-based analysis? In many cases, a journalist might connect two facts — this is common in political “analysis” — and describe what may be a politician’s strategy. They don’t really know for sure that it’s the strategy being employed, because the people employing it won’t say. Is that opinion, fact-based analysis, or just a guess?

These are questions that reveal the true nature of journalism and those who practice it. It’s not a black-and-white task.

A blogger I read daily provided an interesting observation yesterday:

As the child of a television executive, I can tell you that growing up we were not even allowed to have political yard signs. Such a visible display of political leanings could be easily construed as representing the news departments of the stations my father worked at. Of course, this was a time (not that long ago, really) will journalistic ethics were grounded in the work of people like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Walter Cronkite expressed an opinion — or was it fact-based analysis? — in 1968. He was right, as it turned out, because it ended a war. But journalists debate to this day whether he dictated the outcome with his analysis — because it led to a reversal of public (wait for it)… opinion — or whether it was destined to work out that way anyway.

Edward R. Murrow — the very definition of an ethical journalist — achieved his greatest fame with an opinion. Where did the facts end and the opinion begin?

Ed Bradley, in a reminiscence about his approach to Vietnam stories, makes it clear that he never considered journalism a regurgitation of facts. “I knew we couldn’t win that war,” he said. Does that come from opinion? From fact? Or a little of both?

In its excellent show this morning, Midmorning asked whether Juan Williams “crossed the line.” What NPR did this week is try to define where that line is. Can it be defined? Or do you just know it when you see it?

  • Gary T

    Wrong. What NPR did this week is discrace itself.

  • Gary T

    Note: while perhaps too subtle, the omission of the word “grace” in the spelling of “disgrace” above was intentional.

    As a supporter of NPR for 40+ years, I – for one – will never donate again…. Not $1. And that goes for MPR as well if they do not denounce NPR’s conduct.

  • Matt Hauck

    Gary T- While I agree what NPR did was illconsidered and rushed, calling for affiliated stations to denounce it reeks of the exact kind of discource that should be avoided. I am naturally skeptical any time I see a cal for somesuch to denounce suchan such about decisions that were not made with the consult of the one being asked to denounce it.

  • Gary T

    Matt –

    Your point is well-taken and I generally share your skepticism of calls for “so and so” to denounce the actions of others. However, in this case, what NPR did is Fundamentally wrong (with a capital “F”) and it reveals a taint to the organization as a whole that should not go unexamined or unchallenged. I don’t believe that conduct so patently shameful can – or should be – rebranded as a hasty error in judgment.

    In the intended sense of the word, to “denounce” means to publically declare something to be wrong. And – based upon their direct affiliation with NPR – MPR should denounce NPR’s conduct in this matter…regardless of whether MPR was consulted in the decision-making process or not.

  • Matt

    Comparing what Murrow and Cronkite said to what Williams said is laughable. The admission of fear of all Muslims dressed in “traditional Muslim garb” anywhere near an airplane (because of 9/11) is not the same thing as denouncing a war. This is closer to Don Imus or Helen Thomas’ career-ending gaffes.

    NPR claims there were many issues that they had in the past in addition to this one — I’ve seen this quote bandied about: “[M]anagement felt he had become more of a liability than an asset.”

    He wasn’t fired for just having an opinion and sharing it. This specific opinion happened to be bigotry, and it (as well as his past work) had the potential to put the newsroom operations in jeopardy. People are forgetting that NPR was paying the man for his work as an analyst. If they stopped believing that his work as an analyst was going to carry the taint of an bigoted statement like this, they have a right to let him go.

    Bob has pointed out all of the ameliorating comments he said after that and started thinking aloud on what Juan probably would have said about him working on his fear of Muslims had O’Reilly not cut him off. But Williams hasn’t as much in follow-up interviews, and it’s troubling that he keeps just re-saying the quote that got him into this mess. It’s not a question of whether he’s “biased” or “opinionated” — I’m sure someone like Steve Doocy has said something similar on Fox. It’s that it’s ignorant and he seems to be okay repeating it multiple times since.

    Now the backlash their getting is probably the bigger detriment because it showed the knee-jerkiness and also was a nice rallying cry for all the conservatives and tea partiers (who weren’t huge fans of Williams to begin with) to defund NPR and make them look like fools. “Censorship”, please… this is political opportunism to take down a news organization they can’t stand.

  • http://www.insidetheclassics.org Sam

    I honestly couldn’t care less about the Juan Williams kerfuffle, and I think it’s just one more example of Washington’s closed circle of celebrity assigning itself way more importance than anyone outside the beltway would do.

    However, NPR does seem to be in a hypocritical position in claiming that it has a policy forbidding its “journalists” from offering opinions in public. Wasn’t it NPR that forcibly converted Williams’s role at the network from that of a journalist (when he hosted ToTN) to a “news analyst” who was regularly asked his opinions on the news of the day?

    (Hiding behind the notion of “fact-based analysis” doesn’t work either, unless someone really wants to make the case that Daniel Schorr’s years of thinly veiled opinion pieces were all fact-based.)

  • http://www.fridaynightbeer.wordpress.com Stuart Raymond

    Not only did NPR fire someone for expressing his opinions on another network they just threw a huge steak to the right wingers out there that would love nothing better than to see NPR lose it’s federal funding and possibly go out of existence leaving the US with what NPR and it’s listeners fear most, shoddy journalism fueled by ratings.

    Personally I am ashamed of NPR and it is plainly obvious that a lot of people are with me.

  • JackU

    First on the Williams issue: Bob will correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t believe I ever heard Juan Williams referred as a “Fox News Political Analyst” when he was on NPR. O’Reilly specifically refers to Williams’ association with NPR in this “discussion”. Fox was trading on Williams association with NPR and if I were NPR management I wouldn’t be too happy about that. The question now is how long will Fox refer to him as “former NPR news analyst” Juan Williams?

    With respect to Cronkite, Murrow and Bradley: I think “place” has a lot to do with it. Cronkite and Murrow made their comments “one on one” with their audience. Cronkite, if I remember correctly, prefaced his remarks by saying he was stepping out of his role as a reporter. Murrow’s program was a news magazine/documentary program and this commentary was the end of a show on McCarthy. Since Murrow’s opinion of McCarthy and his tactics had been stated in previous broadcasts, this conclusion fits the context.

    Had Williams made these comments in a similar venue then I don’t think it would have caused such a stir.

  • Alan

    Matt –

    More than evidence of a knee jerk reaction, I think this is evidence of our culture’s lack of ability to publicly decide or even talk about what counts as a good or bad opinion. What skills we would need to have that conversation and why we don’t is another matter altogether. But I think this whole episode is evidence of the fact that we, for the most, let our ideologies do our thinking for us. This seems to be Gary T’s position: assert a judgment rather than make an argument.

  • Gary T

    As this discussion moves into the contractual, historical, and philosophical and as there is a rush to finally determine how many angels can dance on the head of this pin, there is a very basic point that should be made: use of the word “bigot” in the context of Juan Williams’ comments cheapens the word, robs it of its well-earned historical profundity, and…sadly…only further highlights the very same “taint” that led to NPR’s shameful/purely ideologically-motivated conduct.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Fine work, Bob.

    What a perfect storm that this would unfortunately occur during fundraising week.

    Sadly, given the current realities in the world of mass media news reporting, perhaps it is time for NPR/MPR to have a close look at the demographics of their contributors and take an honest editorial stand on issues, rather than continue to play the semantic game of “journalistic objectivity”.

    Then again, there’s always that sticky question of government funding…. :-)

  • Gary T

    And, Alan, you are spot-on.

  • Alan

    Oops. Forgot the rest of the thought.

    Which is to say, this is not a question of drawing a line between fact based analysis and opinion, but figuring out how to decide the difference between good fact based analysis and bad fact based analysis and the difference between good opinion and bad opinion.

  • Bob Collins

    //Comparing what Murrow and Cronkite said to what Williams said is laughable.

    Put down that straw man! I did no such thing.

    I compared Murrow, Bradley, and Cronkite to the assertion that a journalist should report only facts, and not inject opinion.

    In other words: I was looking at the broader, deeper meanings behind ethical guidelines.

  • jerry

    So much for “Fair and Balanced, No Hype, No Slant.”

    I hope you’ve pulled those ADs. You can’t really be serious that you give both sides of the story.

  • TJ

    The Juan Williams firing aside, I’m a little tired of this puerile sneering about NPR’s “government funding”. You know what else gets government funding? Roads, schools, firefighters, and the Army.

    Is “government funding” some sort of secret code phrase? Does “government funding” mean that anything tainted by it is secretly run by evil Trilateralist elves who want to give me heath care?

    Seriously, if you have a point, just make it. Tell me why it’s so horrible that NPR gets 2% of its funding through indirect grants from the government. I await the unveiling of the secret horror.

  • Jim Shapiro

    //The Juan Williams firing aside, I’m a little tired of this puerile sneering about NPR’s “government funding”

    Had a hard day, TJ? Or are you simply one of those poor Minnesotans born with the genetic inability to understand irony?

    My comment is the only one that mentions “government funding”, and my position is quite clear: do a cost benefit analysis, grow some, and take a stand.

    The option is to continue to play a losing game under the delusional pretenses of “objective journalism”.

    That said, I agree with your statements on “government funding”

    PS Cancel my membership forthwith! (Please convert the funds to pounds sterling and contribute it to the BBC, where talking heads have no opinions and pronounce every word impeccably)

  • Lance

    TJ: Roads, schools, firefighters, and the Army do not seek/try to influence the masses through “objective journalism” (or the pretense/illusion thereof). In essence, in the terms you have proposed, it is the rather signficant difference between a fire truck and Pravda.

  • http://www.greatdiv.com Charlie Quimby

    I don’t have a problem with Juan Williams’ comments on O’Reilly. He was being honest, I think, and not inflammatory.

    But as a former employer of writers who had some conflict-of-interest rules, I would not be happy about someone whose paycheck I wrote showing up at a competing agency. It wouldn’t matter if they were talking facts, pushing personal opinions or selling baby oil. If they were helping a competitor, we would have a heart-to-heart conversation very fast.

    That’s not what NPR did. Not fast, not heart-to-heart, or about the root issue.

    That’s where I have a problem.

  • Xopher

    Juan Williams rarely did anything to make his presence on the air worthwhile. If an employee just does a mediocre job, it’s hard to fire him/her unless they do something specific to warrant it. Was this specific statement worthy of firing? Yes, technically, it was a bigoted statement, and embarrassing to the network. I’m sure Mr. Williams will be able to find employment somewhere else as a hack pundit. I’m satisfied that I won’t hear his lazy reasoning encroaching on the generally brilliant news shows of NPR any longer.

  • Jim Shapiro

    “Because I read an inane commentary by someone who wants to be known as “Xopher”, in the future I might automatically expect all commentaries written by a “Xopher” to be inane. I wish I didn’t feel that way, But I do.”

    Am I a bigot, or am I simply being honest about my feelings?

  • MB

    I hope NPR takes takes this opportunity to look at who they use as long term pundits and commentators. Juan Williams was not providing much value anymore, it seems he was on NPR just because of habit or tradition. On Monday mornings Cokie Roberts repeats boilerplate conventional wisdom about beltway politics. People who follow news and politics on a regular – many NPR listeners – do not learn anything new from Roberts.

    There are many thoughtful voices out there. Some healthy turnover would benefit NPR.

    If Juan Williams has such a powerful voice or following, he has several options available to him. He will just have to do it on his own now rather than trade on his affiliation with the NPR brand.

  • Xopher

    Ah, “Jim Shapiro.” You’re so great.

    There are only a few Xophers, but there are millions of Muslims who don’t deserve to be stereotyped.

    So, you’re just being honest about your feelings. My point was that yes, this was a technicality, but an excellent opportunity for NPR to get rid of dead weight.

    Mr. Williams will feel right at home as a FOX News pundit, serving the Republican cause for a fat paycheck just like any other hack would. His contract with FOX News proves my point. And I don’t have to listen to him anymore!

    Happy day.

    And I agree with “MB” about Cokie Roberts. Boilerplate is the active ingredient.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Xopher, I wonder where your extreme feelings against Williams come from. What got me riled was the inappropriate use of the term ” bigot”. It is a strong word that shouldn’t be weakened by throwing it out simply because we disagree with someone. Somewhat similar to referring to anyone who can sign on the line and put on a uniform, or throw a ball really fast as a “hero.”

    By the way, “Xopher”, I found this in the Urban Dictionary:

    xopher

    Pronounced “Christopher” Title given to the Weapon of Karma. A being who is law unto themselves. In Mormon prophecy he is reffered (sp) as the comming(sp) storm. One of the Five who will decide the fate of humanity.

    Is that who you are? Oooh. That’s really impressive.

  • Xopher

    My strong feelings about Juan Williams date back a few years to when he took over as host of Talk of the Nation, when Ray Suarez left to host the News Hour. Ray put everything into that show, and made sure to study for every topic, and had great insight to bring. He also was a master of timing, and his broadcasting chops were impeccable. He knew how let the conversation, rather than the topic, be the show, and his intellectual curiosity allowed for it. You never got the feeling that he felt he needed to go down his list of questions and get them all in before the end of the hour. Juan Williams failed at all of it. Whenever a caller had an interesting thing to say, he steered away from it. If things got deep, he’d abandon it and ask the next question on his list. And he stumbled around the nuts and bolts of hosting. He couldn’t transition smoothly to a station break. He nervously interrupted people in mid-sentence to get in the “You’re listening to Talk of the Nation” tag lines. It was painful to listen to, and even though the show is doing better now, it was after he was dumped from it that the format changed to having multiple topics per hour, which automatically lessens the depth of the thing. He wrecked one of my favorite shows. I rarely tune in to it any more.

    I specifically called the comment “bigoted,” I did not call Mr. Williams a bigot, nor do I think he is a bigot. In fact, I would believe Karl Rove’s characterization of him as being a wonderful man. What he said did not offend me at all. But technically, what he said was enough of a faux pas that it allowed NPR to can him. Bully for me.

    I will add that NPR’s handling of the matter was ATROCIOUS. Holy cow! Get it together, guys.

    But their heart was in the right place.

    Thanks for the Weapon of Karma info. I’d never heard of that stuff! I just think of “Xopher” as a more interesting way of shortening my name than the ubiquitous “Chris.”

  • Bob Collins

    Ray Suarez was awesome. I once heard him do a show on the Supreme Court in which he cited specific cases and then in the next hour was conversing — knowledgeably — about NASCAR.

    It’s one of the most impressive feats I’ve heard in 35+ years in this biz.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Well said, xopher. You won me over. Sorry about any inappropriate comments on my part.