Howard Kurtz Reacts To The Firing Of Juan Williams By NPR
HH: This segment is about politics, and actually, it’s about media and politics. And I’m joined by Howard Kurtz of CNN and now The Daily Beast. Howard, welcome, and congratulations on the move.
HK: Thanks very much, Hugh.
HH: Now what was the thinking? This is the story behind the story. You leave the biggest brand in political journalism, you go to one of the new big brands. What were you thinking?
HK: Well, I figure I can change jobs once every 29 years. That’s how long I was at the Washington Post.
HK: I was living more of my life online, and it just seemed like a good time to go to what is essentially a start up that Tina Brown launched, a site I like very much, The Daily Beast, and it’s more nimble, and I’ve already written four stories this week. They’ve gotten them all up quickly, sometimes with video, so it’s a new chapter in my development as a digital journalist.
HH: Howard, I think it’s very interesting, and sometime, I’d love to have a longer conversation.
HH: The more mature and better a journalist is, the less they like editors, and the more speed they want. And I saw that with the Politico migration, and now I see it with the migration of you to The Daily Beast. And Tucker’s got some longstanding people. It’s just editors don’t make a lot of sense after you’ve been doing it as long as you’ve been doing it.
HK: Well, individual editors are very smart, but when you have a big corporation like the Washington Post, you have a bureaucracy. And so even in trying to launch a media blog, there were meetings, and you know, many people have to look at every idea, and sometimes stories go through many hands. Look, I am not signaling the death knell of newspapers. I love newspapers. I still love the Washington Post, even though it doesn’t have as many journalists as it used to, but this is a chance for me to try something different. And so far, The Daily Beast and I seem to be a good fit.
HH: It’s a great fit. And I will be watching Reliable Sources this weekend for the Juan Williams conversation. I hope Juan Williams tells his story to you. What do you first make of this?
HK: Well, it’s very hard for me to believe that National Public Radio dumped Juan Williams because of violent objections to this comment that he made on the O’Reilly Factor. I think it’s no secret that NPR has not been a fan of Juan and others going on Fox News, and I think this kind of provided the opportunity to get rid of him. And I would go so far as to say that if Juan Williams had said the same thing about Muslims, which made me a little uncomfortable, but I certainly don’t think it’s a firing offense, but if he had said the same thing on Charlie Rose, I think he’d have his radio job today.
HH: I agree with that 100%. Do you believe there are particular donors, Soros-like figures, who are trying to push NPR even more to the left than it already is?
HK: They may be trying. I have no evidence, Hugh, that that’s the case. I mean, I couldn’t help but notice that Soros has just given nearly $2 million dollars to NPR. But I don’t think, you know, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t think George Soros called up Vivian Schiller, the CEO of National Public Radio, and said get rid of this guy. Vivian Schiller gave an interview to an Atlanta blogger today, in which she said oh, you know, Juan has said things before that made us uncomfortable, and this undermines his credibility as a journalist. Well I’m sorry, this is a guy who’s paid for his opinions. You may not agree with those opinions, and there are some things you could say that would be so far beyond the pale that NPR has the right to say well, we don’t want to be associated with him anymore. He prefaced his comments by saying he is not a bigot. The guy has written books about the civil rights movement. He said that when he goes on a plane, if he sees Muslims dressed up in Muslim guard, it makes him a little nervous. He didn’t say they should all be profiled, discriminated against. In fact, he went on to say we should be careful about jumping to those conclusions when some Christian is involved in an extremist act, or a Muslim. So I just don’t see where this comes close to being a firing offense.
HH: I agree with that. Now Schiller is herself a New York Times veteran known for its PC, known for its hard-left views. And she came out and said he needed to see a shrink, maybe. Now she later, I am told, I haven’t seen this statement.
HK: I hadn’t seen that.
HH: …later retracted it. This is kind of deeply offensive, Howard. Is she going to have to pay a price for what is both intemperate and impetuous actions?
HK: Well, I’ll tell you the price she’s going to pay, which is I can already tell from watching Fox News today, that it is sort of declared war on NPR. And you had some of the commentators, including Bill O’Reilly, including Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, calling for federal funding for NPR to be curtailed or eliminated. Now I don’t agree with that, just as I don’t think that Juan should have lost his job for saying something on Fox that some NPR executives disagree with. If he had been just as opinionated and put it the other way, you know, would they have been firing him? No. Therefore, I don’t think all of NPR should be tarred with the brush of saying okay, let’s cut off their funding. But I do think this was a misstep on the part of National Public Radio. And so far, those executives, the PR people, have not returned my phone calls for a fuller explanation of this.
HH: Now Howard, I worked inside of PBS for ten years as a KCET host.
HK: That’s right.
HH: And at national as well with Searching for God In America. And it was an open joke that even though PBS was left of center, NPR was way left of center. And it is just one of those things you kind of indulge. But at least they were not illiberal. Now, I am with the defunding people, and I used to believe in funding the California Arts Endowment, and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts. But if you’re going to be illiberal, if you’re going to be anti-speech, and enforce speech codes, I honestly don’t think a Constitutional government that’s committed to free speech can fund you. If they’re going to exclude viewpoint, I think it’s wrong. And so tell me why I’m wrong.
HK: Well, you know, until yesterday, they didn’t exclude the Juan Williams viewpoint, and I’m not an expert on all of NPR’s programming. I do think they have had not exclusively left wing commentators, and I think there are good journalists and good hosts there that try to be fair. It’s like when people beat up on Fox News. Oh, you know, it’s all a bunch of right wing whackos. Well, you know, you might disagree with Glenn Beck, you might disagree with Sean Hannity, but there are also, you know, what I consider to be fair and balanced journalists there like Shep Smith and Carl Cameron and Chris Wallace and others. So I’m not going to join you in that call, but I certainly understand why you’re making the case.
HH: Well, here’s the difference, though, is that Fox has a lot of different views, and I agree some are opinion journalists, and some are objective journalists, and you can’t get much better than Carl Cameron, et cetera, and when Major Garrett was there, Major Garrett, and Chris Wallace, a great journalist. And I think Bret Baier does a great job. But no one’s been fired at Fox for an opinion. So this raises this issue. How in the world will anyone dare say anything critical of CAIR at NPR? They have effectively chilled the reporting of everyone on that staff. They have served notice to everyone. Don’t you dare say anything about CAIR or anything that will get CAIR mad at you, or you’re gone. How does it recover from that? It’s the Rick Sanchez problem.
HK: Yeah, although I think Sanchez deserved to get dumped by CNN, and that his comments about Jews, you know, running all the networks, were more offensive than what Juan was trying to say, perhaps a little bit inelegantly. But look, he was being candid. He was saying this is how I feel. You know, it’s a little bit different, because Juan Williams was a part-time employee of National Public Radio, as well as a part-time contributor to Fox News. So therefore, I want to be careful by extrapolating from his example to people who are full-time employees of National Public Radio, some of whom may well be liberal, and some of whom, you know, I think try to be good journalists. But NPR has opened the door to these kinds of questions by abruptly firing Juan Williams. And I heard calling into Fox today and saying essentially, he was fired by a cell phone call by the head of news, who said the decision was a made above her level, and he didn’t even, he said he worked there more than ten years, and he didn’t even have a chance to come in, have an eye to eye conversation with someone and try to defend or explain his remarks. That doesn’t feel right to me.
HH: It doesn’t, but going to, forget Juan for a second, and we’ll keep defending him, and I hope no one gives them a dime, whether it’s KCRW out here or anywhere in the country. But would you trust any reporting now that comes out of NPR about CAIR or the issue of Muslim dress, or the issue of how people feel about threats from Islam extremism? Because they’ve clearly shown themselves not to be capable of accepting a wide range of opinions. Why would anyone trust them?
HK: Well again, I’m going to resist the broad brush, because you know, if some NPR host or reporter does a story about terrorism or Muslims or anything like that, the Mosque controversy in New York, you know, I will judge that on the merits. I’m not necessarily convinced that this is some edict that has come down, an order for everybody to be politically correct all the time. Does it send that message the way in which Juan Williams was treated? Well yeah, probably. So I maybe need to monitor that a little bit more closely.
HH: All right, and last question in terms of political coverage. I’m not going to put you on the spot and ask you to comment on CNN political coverage, because you’re at the network. But I’m very concerned over the shift I’ve seen at CNN in the last couple of weeks. Are you concerned about any other network being overtly pro or con a series of candidates, because I really think, for example, Anderson Cooper last night was just going after Joe Miller in a way that, I think Anderson is a great journalist, but he’s showing his stripes there.
HK: Well, was the issue that Miller’s security guards had to handcuff and detain an Alaskan blogger?
HH: It was that in the context of many other issues as well, yes.
HK: Okay, I did not see it. But what I will say is I don’t think it’s any secret that the people who have opinions at Fox are not only, you know, on the conservative side of the spectrum. But some of them are potential 2012 presidential candidates, like Sarah Palin, like Mike Huckabee. I also have been out there criticizing MSNBC for fielding such a liberal lineup after 6pm, beginning with Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, you know the drill. I think they are more and more identified with the Democratic Party. And I certainly don’t contend that CNN is perfect. I’m not a fan of some CNN shows. But I think CNN tries, along, among the three cable networks, tries the hardest, and that certainly hasn’t been that successful in the ratings lately, to take a, to quote a phrase, fair and balanced approach.
HH: Well, that’s why we have Candy on every week, because I think she’s the best in the business.
HK: I count on you to hold their feet to the fire when you think they’ve gone off the track. And Candy Crowley’s terrific, by the way.
HH: And last question, are you allowed, as a matter of when you do Reliable Sources, can you comment on, like Parker-Spitzer?
HK: I interviewed the then-president of CNN, since fired, about the decision to hire Eliot Spitzer, which I was very critical of. We also led our show one week with the firing of Rick Sanchez. So you bet. We do not exempt CNN.
HH: All right. That’s why we love having Howard Kurtz on from The Daily Beast. Thank you, Howard.
End of interview.