This week, National Public Radio fired one of its longtime pundits, News Analyst Juan Williams, proportedly because he uttered a personal opinion while appearing on another network. Was it justified? Or was it just that polarizing political undercurrents in the media finally bubbled to the surface?
When I was in journalism school, my professors certainly hammered us on the need for journalists to play the role of neutral observers and mere reporters of the facts. Journalists, we were taught, are held to a higher standard.
The public, by and large, shared that idealistic sentiment of the profession. Of course, it was back when David Brinkley still graced ABC, Paul Harvey's distinctive quips were eagerly awaited by millions of radio listeners each day, and Walter Cronkite's legacy as "the most trusted man in America" still loomed large over the field of journalism.
There is no question that the landscape has changed since that time. Dramatically. With the rise of 24-hour cable news programming, news magazine shows, talk radio, and of course, the internet and blogosphere, the definition of "journalist" has become blurry.
Today, even as many journalists strive to uphold the traditional standards of their profession, their reliable reporting is drowned out by the plethora of "news" shows hosted by stand-up-comedians-turned-sardonic-commentators, former politicians/philanderers-turned-pundits, and paparazzi gossip reporters. Add to that the thousands of bloggers whose opinionated diatribes are being cross-polinated with straight journalism, and the media world is increasingly confusing.
Which brings me back to the firing of Juan Williams. As a news analyst, Williams -- like other analysts and commentators -- for years has offered his opinions about politics, policy and public discourse. That is in the job description of pundits.
So what was the real motivation? Was it because of what Williams opined -- the very politically-incorrect admission that he sometimes feels nervous on an airplane when he sees a Muslim in full traditional garb? Or was it because of where he opined -- on the Fox News Channel?
Regardless of the motivation, the decision by the taxpayer-supported NPR to suddenly hold one journalist to some "higher standard" may achieve the opposite effect, instead serving to further polarize the public and add to their growing distrust of the media.