The thoroughly botched firing of Juan Williams as an analyst for NPR has claimed another victim, exposed management weaknesses within the organization and launched a much-needed review of NPR’s muddled non-policy for what its reporters and analysts can and cannot say on other media outlets.

The latest victim is Ellen Weiss, the respected senior vice president for news, who was forced to resign and take the fall. Weiss was the executive who fired Williams last October with a late-night phone call after he played into Bill O’Reilly’s hands by saying on Fox News that he became “nervous” whenever he boarded a plane with passengers dressed in “muslim garb.”  That gratuitous personal observation — feeding  O’Reilly’s ongoing tirade about Muslims — violated even NPR’s vague guidelines against its people expressing their opinions on controversial topics on other media outlets.  It was also the kind of racial and religious profiling that Williams rightly has long campaigned against when applied to African-Americans.  An independent review of the firing by an outside law firm concluded the obvious: i.e., that NPR was within its legal rights to dismiss Williams — and that the firing was “mishandled.”

No kidding. The controversy provoked an avalanche of protests from listeners and led to the latest Congressional move to cut funding for public broadcasting.  It also provided an opening to Roger Ailes, the Republican political operative who runs Fox News. He seized the moment to reward Williams with a new, $2 million contract as a full-timer at Fox.

The only good news in this whole mess, other than the boost to Williams’ bank balance, is that NPR has launched a serious review and revision of its ethics guidelines. That will presumably result in an overdue clarification of just what its people should and should not say when appearing on other outlets.

The answer is obvious: reporting, analysis and commentary are three distinctly different functions, whether in print or on the air.  The first states the news, the second analyzes its meaning  and the third expresses an opinion.  The first two are fine on NPR or any other outlet. The third is also fine, but must be clearly labeled as commentary by a commentator. NPR broadcasts commentary every day. I have contributed some such myself.  In this as in so many fields, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Juan Williams, incidentally, was an NPR analyst, not a commentator. I am sure he understood the distinction, but he chose to blur the line during his Fox appearances.

It is now up to NPR to redraw the line as part of its ethics review — and enforce it.

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