Alicia C. Shepard
NPR has more than 400 reporters, editors, producers and analysts on its news team, and none is more of a lightning rod than Juan Williams. But it's usually not for anything he says on NPR.
Williams joined NPR in 2000, first as host of Talk of the Nation, then morphing into a senior correspondent. Last spring, NPR's management put him on contract with the title "news analyst" largely to give him more latitude about what he says. He's now paid to give his opinion, and with three decades in the news business, it is often a valuable take on today's politics.
Williams is controversial among NPR listeners because of his long-standing contract with Fox News, which he had before he joined NPR. Currently, he appears on Fox sometimes with Bill O'Reilly and on Sunday morning with Chris Wallace.
On TV, Fox identifies Williams as "NPR News Political Analyst." (Conversely, NPR rarely identifies him as Fox News contributor.)
Last year, 378 listeners emailed me complaints and frustrations about things Williams said on Fox. The listener themes are similar: Williams "dishonors NPR." He's an "embarrassment to NPR." "NPR should sever their relationship with him."
The latest flap involves Williams' comment on Fox about First Lady Michelle Obama. To date, I've received 56 angry emails. For comparison, this year so far, listeners sent 13 emails about Steve Inskeep, 8 about Mara Liasson and 6 about Cokie Roberts — other NPR personalities who I often get emails about.
Here's what Williams said on Jan. 26, but the transcript doesn't convey the same impact as the video, posted on YouTube. Williams is explaining that Vice President Joe Biden could be a liability for President Obama. But so could his wife.
"Michelle Obama, you know, she's got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going," said Williams. "If she starts talking, as Mary Katharine [Ham, a conservative blogger] is suggesting, her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I'm the victim. If that stuff starts coming out, people will go bananas and she'll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross."
O'Reilly responded: "She's not going to do that."
When I asked Williams about his comments, he initially called it a "faux controversy."
But then he reviewed the tape and realized that "the tone and tenor of my comments may have spurred a strong reaction to what I considered to be pure political analysis of the First Lady's use of her White House pulpit," said Williams via email. "I regret that in the fast-paced, argumentative format my tone and tenor seems to have led people to see me as attacking instead of explaining my informed point of view."
When Williams was speaking of Mrs. Obama as a potential liability, he told me, he was referencing pieces in The Atlantic and Politico. A Politico article listed Mrs. Obama as one "Dem" her husband should watch out for. "She's glamorous, she's on message, she's the nation's favorite mom — and now she has nowhere to go but down," said the article.
But anyone watching the O'Reilly segment wouldn't know Williams was talking about those two articles. He never mentioned them. Those who wrote me felt Williams was attacking the First Lady.
"I am concerned about the objectivity Juan Williams brings to his news analysis," wrote Alison Fowler. "He has made statements on Fox News regarding Michelle Obama that appear to paint her as an angry Black Nationalist without any basis in fact. Despite the fact that these statements were not made on NPR, they undermine his credibility as an impartial news analyst on your network."
Williams also appears regularly as a news analyst on NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, and on Morning Edition and Day to Day.
"We don't monitor what Juan says on Fox — or for that matter, his books or other appearances," said Simon by email. "Juan is one of the foremost chroniclers of the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and African-American life...I think the world of Juan, and he is on our show because the analysis that he offers is insightful, reasoned, fair-minded and interesting."
But after watching the Fox segment, Simon said, "What can I say? That's not the Juan Williams who is on our show."
That may be the cause of the criticism. Williams tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox.
His "Stokely Carmichael" comment got the attention of NPR's top managers. They are in a bind because Williams is no longer a staff employee but an independent contractor. As a contract news analyst, NPR doesn't exercise control over what Williams says outside of NPR.
"Juan Williams is a contributor to NPR programs as a news analyst," said Ron Elving, NPR's Washington editor. "What he says on NPR is the product of a journalistic process that includes editors. What he says when he is not on our air is not within our control. But we recognize that what he says elsewhere reflects on NPR, and we have discussed that fact with him specifically in regard to his remarks on Fox News regarding Michelle Obama."
This recent comment may have undermined his credibility with some NPR listeners. But I question whether listeners, overall, object to what Williams says outside of NPR or the fact that he says it on Fox.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg appears on the Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate, WJLA-TV. Rarely do I get email criticizing her TV appearances. But in 2008, there were a healthy number of emails attacking political correspondent Mara Liasson for her regular appearances on Fox News.
So why does Williams receive so much criticism? And is it fair?
"There's something about me as a voice with more latitude than a daily news reporter that may bother people," Williams told me. "Maybe it's that people have trouble with the fact that I cross political lines regularly. I try to be curious, to ask questions and to get answers. And I tell you what I see as I see it."
It appears people don't understand that he has two different roles. On NPR, he's expected to provide well-thought out commentary, based on his reporting, about today's politics. On Fox, the pace is faster, and spontaneity and expressing strong opinions are valued.
"I would say the same thing on NPR but we don't have a show with a fast-paced, Cross-Fire format," said Williams. "What I said about Michelle Obama is not out of the realm of main-stream political discourse. It's there in The Atlantic and in The Politico. The point is that NPR has a much more deliberative, slow-paced form with more time to explain what you meant."
Williams is an experienced, multi-talented journalist plugged into the political world. He is also author of a critically acclaimed biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall. He spent 21 years at the Washington Post as an editorial writer, op-ed columnist and White House reporter. According to NPR's Communications office, he is one of NPR's most-sought after public speakers.
Williams brings a valuable viewpoint to NPR. Sometimes it is that of an African-American, but it is also that of someone with a long track record of covering politics. Some think he is a conservative because he's on Fox. Others think Fox uses him as a liberal voice because, whether true or not, a perception exists that NPR is liberal.
The assets that make Williams valuable to NPR are his knowledge, his perspective and that he is rarely predictable.
But in the end, NPR must decide — as it apparently already has — whether giving its listeners the benefit of Williams' voice is worth the cost of annoying some listeners for his work on Fox.
As a result of this latest flap, NPR's Vice President of News, Ellen Weiss, has asked Williams to ask that Fox remove his NPR identification whenever he is on O'Reilly.