News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Becoming Iraq. Or maybe Mexico.

Bureaucracies, whether they are private corporations or government agencies, ultimately can be depended upon to  act on what is the worst that is thought and said in human culture. And so it was when NPR fired Juan Williams.

Eugene Robinson makes the point that Williams' comment about obvious Muslims making him nervous on airplanes was in no way a statement that all Muslims are terrorists.  Williams quite specifically and carefully stated that such a conclusion should not be drawn.  He was making an observation on the climate created by 9/11, and that there is good reason to be wary these days when getting on airplanes.  In fact, the Homeland Security advice is to be aware of people acting in suspicious ways.

What is clear from Williams' firing is that someone inside NPR was looking for a pretext to fire him.   The situation has all the markings of a pattern that is played out numerous times in journalism and academe.  NPR admits that there has been pressure because of some of Williams' remarks in the past, but this situation has all the aroma of personal rivalries and rancor that have been simmering, waiting for the right moment to come along.

Williams' relationship with Fox News has been troubling.  Although NPR and Public Television are often accused of having a liberal bias,  they are the most prominent news organizations that promote impartiality in their reporting and news analysis. NPR's policy states that its reporters should avoid speculation and punditry and refrain from indulging in inflammatory controversy.  The charges of liberal bias are largely because the organizations do not immerse themselves in the name-calling, false accusations, distortions, and outright lies and defamation that the right wing regards as acceptable news.  NPR and PBS are as far from Fox News and the Limbaugh purveyors as it is possible to get, not necessarily  politically, but certainly intellectually and morally.

The handling of the firing of Juan Williams was grotesquely incompetent.  It was as mindless and precipitous as the Shirley Sherrod firing by the USDA.  NPR had good reason to be concerned about Juan Williams' appearances on Fox News, especially with the likes of Bill O'Reilly.  As a representative of NPR, his participation in a news organization so overtly a part of the Murdoch propaganda empire to serve the American  plutarchy does bring into question of how he compromises the integrity that NPR tries to maintain.  Fox has no pretense toward integrity to lose, and for an NPR correspondent to participate in the Orwellian charade of Fox News is a serious compromise of the journalistic integrity that NPR makes its objective.  Nothing is of greater danger to the plutarchy than accurate reporting and rigorous news analysis, as opposed to the tabloid fabrications that are the mainstay of  what the right wing endorses as proper media.  The First Amendment gives Williams the right of free speech, but it does not give him the right to a job when he compromises the reason-for-being of his employer.

With the news media struggling for survival in the Internet age, nearly all media, even the most reputable, are feeling the pressure to appease the plutarchist interests.   The Washington Post is a ghost of the newspaper it once was.  Many newspapers have allowed their editorial quality to be contaminated with comments that do anything but enlighten or expand the news coverage.  The Supreme Court's United Citizens decision has established the plutarchy as the rulers of the land, and their wealth is dominating the political advertising, advertising in general, and, therefore, news coverage.  It is to the plutarchy's advantage to divert public attention by stirring up controversy with Fox News-like agitation and promotion of tabloid silliness as news.  NPR and PBS stand in the way of total news domination.

This is why the Juan Williams firing is such a disaster.   It gives the agents of the plutarchy a new reason to pull public funding from NPR and PBS and eliminate any efforts at neutrality from the mass media.

The news media are not the only ones to be compromised by the political interests of the plutarchy.  During the Daschle campaign, SDSU was compromised when one of its history professors, Jon Lauck, made it the base of operations for the defamation campaign  in John Thune's behalf.  He posed for pictures in his SDSU office for news stories.  Although Lauck left his professorship to work full time for Thune after the election,  the situation left lingering questions about why the university allowed its integrity as an institution of higher learning to be associated with blatantly partisan activity.  It was not a matter of Lauck having the right to free speech;  it was a  matter of whether using that right compromised the purpose and reputation of the university.

This matter is addressed by a contract and policy article under which South Dakota (and most) professors work:

The concept of freedom is accompanied by an equally demanding concept of responsibility.  The faculty unit members are members of a learned profession. When they speak or write as citizens, they must be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As learned people and as educators, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should indicate that they are speaking only for themselves.

During the time I was an active professor, I did not blog or consider any such activity.  Political activity was largely confined to reporting on events and policy analysis.  The above policy was regarded as prohibiting overt political activity in any way that would involve the university.  That prohibition seems to have been relaxed.  One blogging professor in South Dakota confines himself to reporting and commenting on political matters, but the bloggers at Northern State have gone far into the ad hominem defamation and scurrility that characterized the Lauck efforts.  Now the bloggers have a political television show on a local cable channel, so the institution seems to fully endorse their political activities.  The bloggers often advertise their professorships in conjunction with the opinions they express, a few token disclaimers notwithstanding.  Many people, including professors at NSU, think that the university has abandoned all pretenses to neutrality. 

There are no established standards for what is considered "appropriate restraint" in professors' political speech, but it is clearly evident when an institution verges from promoting vigorous discussion into full partisanship.  It makes it difficult to support an institution when doing so supports a highly partisan propaganda agenda.

Members of the GOP see the firing of Juan Williams as a liberal purging of a reporter who does not conform to a party line. Serious journalists see it as a failure of Williams to maintain the standards on which his employing organization tries to operate.  NPR has confidence ratings that its commercial media competitors do not.  And many journalists have commented that they wondered why NPR waited so long to terminate its relationship with Williams.

Sen. DeMint has promised to introduce a bill that will end NPR's funding.  We assume he and his cohorts mean to go after all public broadcasting, as impartial reporting is an anathema to those of that plutarchist political stripe.  It could happen, and pubic broadcasting would either have to make the subscriptions which provide most of its operating funds as its only source of support, or simply go out of business, which has been the right wing dream for some time.  However, if federal funding of  NPR is ended, that brings up all the other tax supported programs that people find odious and downright pernicious.  That includes farm subsidies which the urban population does not understand or want.  It includes the support of wars which, as the Wikileaks documents show, kill tens of thousands of civilians and is a major, but seldom mentioned, part of our national debt.  In fact, there are few federally funded programs that cannot be regarded as partisan offenses. 

If government is to be dismantled, the question is why not be fair and thorough?  The answer is, of course, that the plutarchy with its billions will dismantle only those programs which it finds annoying and which will give the plutocrats more power over more people.
The Juan Williams case was stupidly handled.  That is a habit of bureaucracies.  But the implications of the loss of neutrality go far beyond the partisan cant that the situation raises.  A plutarchy is not a democracy.  It is a return to governance by  the feudal model. What were once our neutral institutions, news organizations and universities, have been thrust fully into the service of the plutarchy.  We are beginning to look more and more like Iraq.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States