Analysis is opinion that doesn't get you into trouble

Neil Macdonald on how America's news wars are changing the old orthodoxies about journalistic objectivity.

Go ahead and pity Juan Williams. I won't.

Until recently, Williams was just a hard-working National Public Radio pundit who had made a name for himself moonlighting at Fox News Channel.

Now he's becoming rich, at least by the standards of our craft, and he's considerably more famous than he was two weeks ago.

Williams's role at Fox was to be the moderate, token liberal at the bonfire of conservative vanities.

Still, he had to compete with the other loudmouths. Fox viewers aren't interested in the consciously highbrow tone that NPR cultivates.

They tune in by the millions to hear rants from former Republican politicians and backroom types, or by conservative evangelists like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and the as-yet-unseated king of them all, Bill O'Reilly, on whose show Juan Williams finally went too far for NPR.

"Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot," Williams began, which is always a really bad way to set up a point on TV.

"But when I get on a plane, I've got to tell you, when I see people in Muslim garb, and I think they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Enough of careful

Never mind that, in the same segment, Williams cautioned O'Reilly to be careful about lumping all Muslims in with extremists (O'Reilly replied he's had it with being careful).

News analyst Juan Williams, who has written extensively on race and civil rights in the U.S., was fired by National Public Radio after comments he made about Muslims on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor in October 2010. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Or that Williams pointed out Americans never characterize their homegrown extremists as Christians, even if they are, which is a pretty good point.

Williams is a smart fellow. He had to have known what would happen.

NPR policy forbids its journalists from expressing public opinions on controversial issues. And liberals and at least one big Muslim group denounced the Muslims-on-planes remark.

Within a couple of days, Williams was an ex-NPR employee.

Now, I work for the CBC, which has essentially the same journalistic rules as NPR. If I made a crack like the one Williams made, no matter how I qualified it, I'm pretty sure I would be looking for a new job.

But that's where the similarity ends.

This being battlefield America, Williams fell into the luxurious embrace of conservatives, who are flush at the moment and looking for a fight.

It was soon reported that he signed a $2-million, three-year contract with Fox. O'Reilly assured him on the air that he could expect a fat book deal. And Sarah Palin paid him her ultimate compliment, comparing him to herself.

In New York, Congressman Pete King proclaimed the whole episode was "another reason to vote Republican."

Other Republicans immediately promised legislation to strip NPR of its public funding (less than two per cent of NPR's budget, despite popular misconceptions).

And within a few days, there was Juan Williams actually guest-hosting Bill O'Reilly's top-rated TV show, trying hard to keep sounding controversial.

It's hard to blame a fella for taking the money and running.

Perception of bias

Here's the thing, though: After some enterprising journalists at Fox dug up opinions stated elsewhere over the years by some of NPR's other stars, the public broadcaster acknowledged firing Williams might not have been handled very well.

If NPR chief Vivian Schiller reflected on it, she might even conclude that NPR's speech code, like the CBC's and those of several other mainstream media organizations, is increasingly anachronistic, and its enforcement, sometimes blatantly hypocritical.

CBC's policy, for example, is anchored on the notion of avoiding a "perception of bias."

It states that CBC reporters "must not take a partisan position on a matter of public controversy," and "must not express or reflect their personal opinion or bias. In other words, they must keep their personal views separate from their reporting."

The most obvious problem with those rules is that, for many people, bias tends to be any statement they disagree with, however factual. People listen and read through their own filters.

I don't recall any conservative outrage, for example, when syndicated U.S. columnist Helen Thomas was fired earlier this year for her tart criticisms of Israel, which were caught on video.

The fact is, every time a CBC reporter or an NPR reporter or, for that matter, a Fox News reporter opens his or her mouth, a perception of bias is immediate on the part of a significant chunk of the viewing public.

And here's another reality: As much as we might pretend otherwise, there are certain subjects that are much more dangerous for a reporter to opine about than others.

Even implied criticism of some political movements or ideologies can bring swift and ferocious trouble. By the same token, most of us know we enjoy licence to say pretty much whatever we like about, say, Egypt. Or Iran. Or Pakistan.

I know. I've learned the difference, painfully at times.

Professional survival

But the biggest problem our journalistic speech codes create is the most daunting: Bias, or opinion, or whatever you want to call it, sells. And that selling is becoming a matter of professional survival.

Juan Williams understands that. So do his colleagues at Fox. Or, frankly, any of the other journalists of varying ability and intellect who have made the connection and cashed in.

Rex Murphy is CBC's best example, despite the fact that nothing in the CBC policy book provides for a single exception to the rules about expressing an opinion, even a brilliant one, as his often are.

People have strong opinions themselves about Rex's opinions and as a result he can command the lion's share of viewer mail.

Put simply, Rex is box office, and in an era when mainstream media outlets are hemorrhaging audiences, what news executive is going to ruin that with an unfortunate application of rules?

CBC's compromise was to label Rex a commentator and give him his head. With a talent like that, it was the only sensible thing to do.

Here in the U.S., however, Fox News simply threw out the old rule book, and now dominates the ratings. MSNBC, now that it's reinvented itself as Fox's left-wing doppelganger, is also rising. Staid old CNN, meanwhile, is plummeting.

The old orthodoxies

Ultimately, if viewers and readers want opinion or insight from the people who gather their news, who is to gainsay them?

Tony Burman, my old boss and now a senior executive with Al-Jazeera's English-language network, was strictly orthodox during his time at CBC.

He once called me an idiot for failing to understand the difference between analysis, which is officially permitted, and opinion, which is not.

I still haven't quite figured out that distinction (well, actually, I have: editors generally tolerate opinion that fits with broad social consensus or accepted stereotypes. In other words, analysis is opinion that doesn't get you into trouble).

Burman, though, has had something of a conversion on his road home from Damascus.

"I think the old fashioned view is simply not tenable anymore," he told me the other day during an interview for a TV report.

"We all have perspectives and I think audiences are smart enough and demanding enough to know what this perspective is and how our editorial positions are made."

That doesn't mean evangelizing, he went on, but it does mean loosening up a bit.

In other words, our old orthodoxies will die because the public doesn't believe them anymore. Or, in this pitiless new media reality of ours, we might.