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Impartial? Impossible 

Years ago I interviewed Chandra Muzaffar, a Muslim academic who co-founded a multiethnic group called Aliran that pushed for equality and social justice in Malaysia. He said that in his country, people have freedom of speech. But more important is freedom after speech. The government arrested him later that month.

I thought of Muzaffer when I read that National Public Radio fired Juan Williams over comments he made about Muslims on Fox television.

The First Amendment is meaningless unless you can speak without fear of arrest. But if you can't speak without fear of unemployment, does it have meaning only for those who don't need work? The Senate has yet to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would bar an employer from firing employees who converse about salaries.

Williams' dismissal also represents how murky the line that separates public and private speech in our Facebooky world. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment doesn't allow you to scream "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. But if certain words have the same effect, does it allow you to say them on worldwide TV? In a world where people panic over a house of worship on Wall Street, crying "Muslim!" on television might have the same effect. Still, if you cried "Fire!" in theatres all the time, moviegoers would tell you to shut up and watch the movie. If your smoke alarm goes off whenever you cook, you shouldn't get rid of the alarm. Instead, you fan the air in front of it and turn on the vent.

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller said her organization fired Williams because he violated its ethics policy, which mandates impartiality, and insisted multiple times that his dismissal was not a First Amendment issue.

In another application of its ethics policy, NPR and a host of other news organizations barred staff from attending Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday, for fear of looking partisan. So some journalists lack the First Amendment's protection of assembly as well as speech. To be an "impartial" journalist you must relinquish the rights you have as a citizen. Some reporters I know refuse to vote. I think that's dishonest. Their symbolic attempts at impartiality only hide their partiality.

Journalists face even more restrictions. NPR fired Williams when he said on Fox that he finds himself fearing people on planes who wear Muslim clothing. But it was his frequent appearance on Fox that got him in trouble. NPR didn't like its respected name seen on the least respected news channel.

Things used to be simpler. Newspaper or radio reporters could go unrecognized and live separate private and public worlds. Nowadays everyone is on television or YouTube and our pictures are on Facebook and Flickr. What you used to hear and see on ABC World News wasn't much different than what you heard on PBS, so it didn't matter if ABC reporters appeared on PBS or vice versa.

NPR fired Williams for opinionating on Fox, but it has David Brooks from the New York Times and E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post opinionating on All Things Considered each week. Cokie Roberts is a commentator for NPR and ABC News and has a syndicated newspaper column with her husband.

That Williams was black further clouds the issue. Had NPR more black voices on its airwaves, the color of Williams' skin would not be an issue in his dismissal. But it doesn't, so it is. As the author of the companion book to the great civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize and a brilliant biography of Thurgood Marshall, Williams is one of the most respected black journalists in the country.

Impartiality in journalism came about as a way for news organizations to share wire stories and save money. Somewhere along the line that impartiality morphed into journalistic ethics. But now that news publications can all reach the same global audience, the economic rationale for impartiality disappears. Instead of striving for a fake impartiality, maybe journalists need to be more transparent about their paritalities.

I worry that as the line between public and private conversation blurs, the grays that bridge black and white sides to an issue dissolve. People who watch Fox hear stories that contradict those on NPR, but they don't listen to NPR so they don't know that. If the two news organizations discourage their people from appearing on the other's shows, Fox and NPR audiences end up living in incompatible worlds even as we must, as Stewart pointed out during the rally, drive on the same roads.

HSU's Lumberjack newspaper this week profiled a new club on campus called World Pool, which hopes to bring disparate groups together to dialogue on important issues: A lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group together with a Mormon students organization to talk about the state budget, for example.

Marshall McLuhan theorized that television propelled the anti-Vietnam movement in the ’60s when young people across racial, social and economic classes saw the same images. They perceived what they saw differently than the generation of their parents, who did not come of age with television and who lived in separate racial, social and economic worlds. This created a generation gap that united young people but divided fathers from sons and mothers from daughters. Cable television now reestablishes some of those social, class and political divisions.

I think NPR made a mistake in firing Williams and that he made a mistake saying what he did in front of a worldwide audience, which could misinterpret his words and meaning. We all need to keep our private fears in the private arena. In public we need to think before we speak.

We can be less cautious in front of private audiences -- but nowadays, what's private? I find myself trying to be more careful about what I say in the classroom because student cell phones or iPods can record my words and zip them to Twitter.

We need more civil dialog, not crazy diatribe. How did we get into a world where "restore sanity" is partisan? Let's stop crying "Fire!" all the time in digital movie theaters. If you hear someone cry "Fire," first check to see if anything is actually on fire. Maybe you just need to turn on the vent. Maybe that's what NPR did. But I think they unplugged the smoke alarm. And that's not good.


Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She is partial to the Giants and never hides her contempt for Rangers fans.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at [email protected].

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