Whatever you want to say about Juan Williams, and much of it was said yesterday on this blog, it’s pretty obvious that NPR management just can’t handle opinionated political journalism. They’re so piss-pants scared of being called “liberal” that they have to instruct their staff to stay away from the Stewart/Colbert rally while off-duty, and they bobbled that so badly that their ombudsman needs to go into full explanation and defense mode. For editors like that, having Juan Williams on the payroll is as gut-wrenching as driving around with a trunk full of plutonium.
Only management paralysis caused by fear can explain why the NPR politics roster has been the same for years. When Williams started, he, like E.J. Dionne, David Brooks and Mara Liasson, was one of the most innocuous voices around. As Juan began his journey to FOX, editors clearly didn’t know what to do, so they did nothing, the default choice of all chickenshit managers. It’s only when he crossed some line far beyond the stated NPR ethics guidelines that their hand was finally forced, and they came up looking like chumps.
If Williams were an isolated case, this wouldn’t be a big deal. Unfortunately for NPR, high-end DC pundits are under constant pressure to appear on FOX or MSNBC spouting ever more tendentious bullshit. Even if NPR replaces Williams with a sane, conservative Casper Milquetoast, the cash involved in extremist punditry will ultimately drive that replacement to views that are too extreme for the network to tolerate.
There’s just not enough Immodium and Priolsec in the world to deal with the agida that pundits will cause NPR editors in the next few years, so they should get the fuck out of that business now. If they must do political analysis, it should be as non-ideological as possible, something like Ken Rudin’s approach. But the best thing they could do is just to devote more resources to good old-fashioned reporting. They’re still going to be called “liberal” no matter what they do, but they may be able to avoid shitstorms like the current Williams debacle.