Professionalism/The Case of Juan Williams, Vivian Schiller, and Ellen Weiss

In October 2010, Juan Williams, NPR News Analyst, was fired from NPR for comments he made about Muslims on Fox News. His dual role as both objective news reporter for NPR and the more opinionated pundit on Fox had troubled people for some time, and had led to controversy in the past. How should he have managed the multiple roles he played? The ethical questions this incident raised can be generalized to other professions.

The Firing of Juan WilliamsEdit

Juan Williams has been a Fox News Contributor since 1997, and has appeared on a variety of shows including The O'Reilly Factor and the Sunday News show. In 2000, he joined NPR as well, and worked for them in several roles, ranging from talk show host to senior national correspondent. His with NPR contract was terminated in October 2010, due to remarks he had delivered on The O'Reilly Factor:

"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. But when I get on the 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." [1]

Two days later, Williams received a call from his boss, Ellen Weiss. She asked him what he had meant to say on the O'Reilly Factor, and Williams replied that he meant what he had said. [2] Weiss informed him that his contract with NPR would be terminated, and that "his remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a News Analyst with NPR." This was backed up with public statements by the CEO, Vivian Schiller, stating that “News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility.” She went on to note this was not his first instance of going too far, and that the decision to fire him was solely about the integrity of NPR's reporting, not Fox News or Williams' feelings.[3]

Williams' DefenseEdit

The day after his firing, Williams defended his remarks in an op ed on Fox News.[2] He stated "NPR fired me for telling the truth" because he truthfully worries when seeing people dressed in Muslim garb on airplanes. He argued it was not bigoted, but a statement of his feelings. He also defended the comment as a setup for a case he later made against making rash judgement about people of faith.

Williams stated that in keeping with his values, he will tell people the truth about feelings and opinions. He also lambasted NPR, stating their actions were an "outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff."

The Aftermath of the FiringEdit

Resignation of NPR ExecutivesEdit

Ellen WeissEdit

Ellen Weiss was the senior vice president for news at NPR, and was the executive who fire Williams over the phone. Following the firing, she was persuaded to resign by the NPR board for her mishandling of the situation. In an ombudsman report released analyzing the Williams case, it was noted that:

"Any damage that Williams may have caused NPR with his occasional intemperate remarks on Fox — which was definitely a problem for NPR —was infinitesimal to the damage NPR management did to the company with its ungracious firing."[4]
Ronald SchillerEdit

Ronald Schiller was the senior vice president of fundraising for NPR. While not directly involved with the Williams firing, his termination from NPR was resultant from that case. A conservative activist, James O'Keefe, targeted Schiller and NPR's fundraising efforts because of Juan Williams' termination.[5] In a sting operation, a fake donor meeting, Schiller was coerced to slam "Tea Party People" and claim NPR lacked need for federal funding. Following the release of the sting operation video, NPR President Vivian Schiller (no relation) denounced his statements, saying:

"Ron Schiller's remarks are contrary to what NPR stands for and deeply distressing to reporters, editors and others who bring fairness, civility and respect for a wide variety of viewpoints to their work everyday."[6]

His statements would ultimately lead to his resignation.[6]

Vivian SchillerEdit

Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ronald Schiller), the president of NPR, was under much scrutiny following the firing of Juan Williams, with many demanding her resignation. The NPR board did not remove her as president immediately, instead expressing confidence in her leadership, but her 2010 bonus was taken away as punishment for her role in the Williams firing.[4] Vivian Schiller was forced to resign months later following the Ron Schiller controversy.[7]

NPR Internal ReviewEdit

NPR Ombudsman AssessmentEdit

NPR's ombudsman released several ombudsman reports analyzing the case and whether NPR could fire Williams. They agreed with the public, stating that: "The Williams firing was a very costly management mistake on many levels."[4] However, the ombudsman did agree with NPR's opinion that Williams had become more of a liability than an asset for the network, as "no other NPR employee has generated as much controversy as Williams," and that this was not an isolated incident. While NPR received criticism for racism and violating free speech, the ombudsman claimed that Williams dual roles created a collision of values:

"NPR's values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum."[8]

Another issue touched on in the report was whether NPR employees should say things in other public settings that it would not allow on NPR's air. At the time of the incident, NPR's ethics code clearly stated that this was not allowed.[8]

NPR Ethics ReviewEdit

Following the internal analysis of the termination of Juan Williams, the NPR Board of directors announced recommendations for updates to NPR internal procedures relating to the ethics code:

  • Establish a committee comprised of NPR personnel, respected journalists, and others from outside NPR to review and update NPR's current Ethics Code (the "Code").
  • Develop policies and procedures to ensure consistent application of and training on the Code to all employees and contractors.
  • Review and update policies/training with respect to the role of NPR journalists appearing on other media outlets to ensure that they understand the applicability of the Ethics Code to their work and to facilitate equitable and consistent application of the Code.[9]

Following the review and update of the NPR ethics code, it still states that:

"We refrain from appearing on television discussion shows where the format is designed to produce heated, highly political debates. We go on TV to talk about our reporting and the news of the day, not to offer opinions..."[10]

Dual Professional RolesEdit

According to the NPR Ombudsman report, Williams occupied a dual role in his profession that troubled many people.[8] At NPR, his role was a "balanced news analyst" who valued "fact-based, objective journalism." At Fox News, his role was a "more opinionated pundit" with a "tendency to promote one side of the ideological spectrum." Either of these roles are fine alone; however, the values of each create a conflict of interest for Williams. As stated in NPR's code of ethics, correspondents may not share opinions in public appearances; they should only report the facts.[10]

Dr. OzEdit

The interplay of Williams' two roles can be better understood by examining dual roles in another profession. Dr. Mehmet Oz is director of the Integrative Medicine Center at Columbia University and is famous for hosting The Dr. Oz Show. On the show, he leans on his medical experience to give advice to viewers. The effect of Dr. Oz's material interest as TV host on his ethical obligation as a medical doctor has caused significant controversy.

As a TV host, Dr. Oz values ratings and viewership numbers to advance his material interest. This means creating interesting and memorable television. On his show, Dr. Oz often recommends products or supplements, using flowery, passionate language, such as calling a product a "miracle." Some of the products recommended have no firm scientific backing.

In 2014, Dr. Oz was reprimanded at a Senate hearing. [11] Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said "I don't get why you need to say this stuff because you know it's not true," highlighting that Dr. Oz ignores his professional knowledge to plug products. She continues, stating "I am concerned that you are melding medical advice, news, and entertainment in a way that harms consumers. In 2015, a group of 10 doctors wrote a letter to Columbia asking to fire Dr. Oz.[12] They stated he showed a "lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments" for financial gain, a serious conflict of interest.

Mara LiassonEdit

Mara Liasson is another reporter who works for both NPR and Fox, and has for many years. Similar to Williams, she has also been the subject of many calls and emails to NPR, asking for her removal, but unlike Williams, she is still employed. How is this possible? The answer lies in an Ombudsman report about her conduct. After watching all her coverage for 10 weeks, the Ombudsman said

"I find that her NPR stories were straightforward and based on solid reporting. Her Fox contributions were the same. She was smartly analytical, but did not take a position on issues or veer into opinion. Just as important, she did not tilt or load her characterizations of political figures such as President Barack Obama or Republican leaders."[13]

The Ombudsman went on to contrast her performance with that of Juan Williams: "Williams did much outright opinion commentary; Liasson is strictly a reporter." [13] All in all the Ombudsman offers 6 different quotes from her reporting over that time to show that Liasson's reporting was fair and unbiased, and thus upheld NPR's editorial standards.

Key Ethical QuestionsEdit

  • Can companies control speech of employees in other venues?
  • Does setting determine the standard of professional speech and conduct? Are there exceptions?
  • Should professionals take on two roles that can conflict in what is asked of them?

ConclusionEdit

Professionals must be very aware of the fine line they walk when engaging in dual professional roles. Some, like Mara Liasson, are able to do so with aplomb, fulfilling all the professional obligations they have assumed to both their roles. Others, such as Juan Williams and Dr. Oz, end up violating responsibilities to one profession in pursuit of another. To successfully manage multiple roles, professionals must be aware of what each requires of them before accepting such a position, and ensure that any new jobs to not impede their ability to carry out their old ones. If they would, the responsible professional must choose between them, not put themselves in a position down the line where one job may require them to violate the ethical standards of the other.

ReferencesEdit

  1. Williams, J. O'Reilly, B. Ham, M.K. (2010, October 21). Juan Williams On The O'Reilly Factor. Fox News
  2. a b Williams, J. (2010, October 21). Juan Williams: I was fired for telling the truth. Fox News
  3. Memmott, M. (2010, October 21). [1]. NPR The Two Way
  4. a b c Shepard, A. C. (2011, January 7). NPR's Costly Mistake. NPR Ombudsman
  5. Liptak, K. (2011, March 8). Activist says he targeted NPR because of Juan Williams firing. CNN
  6. a b Memmott, M. (2011, March 8). In Video: NPR Exec Slams Tea Party, Questions Need For Federal Funds. NPR
  7. Memmott, M. (2011, March 9). NPR CEO Vivian Schiller Resigns After Board Decides She Should Go. NPR
  8. a b c Shepard, A. C. (2010, October 21). NPR's firing of Juan Williams was poorly handled. NPR Ombudsman
  9. Rehm, D. D. (2011, January 6). NPR Announces Completion of Review of the Termination of Juan Williams' Contract. NPR
  10. a b NPR. (n.d.). NPR Ethics Handbook. NPR
  11. Fox, M. (2014, June 17). The 'Dr. Oz Effect': Senators scold Mehmet Oz for diet scams [News article]. NBC News.
  12. Belluz, J. (2015, April 16). A group of doctors just asked Columbia to freconsider Dr. Oz's faculty appointment. Vox
  13. a b NPR. (2013, November 7). NPR Ombudsman Report on Mara Liasson. NPR