22 October 2010

All Things Considered...Legally

The termination of Juan William’s employment at NPR over his personal opinions on FNC's The O’Reilly Factor has become the Talk of the Nation (sic).   Right leaning media rushed to William’s defense as a honest liberal and to defend efforts to quash free speech.   The left wing chattering class on MSNBC's Joe Scarborough Show and ABC TV's The View railed against the unfair unilateral action against Williams.

This poor personnel decision by NPR certainly generated bad publicity in the press and serves as a battering ram against politically correctness in the elitist Lamestream Media.  But this move was a business decision governed by contract, which involves legal considerations.  The macro effects of this ham handed move may have public policy implications next year.

While the public is not privy to the contract between Williams and NPR, it is known that NPR has been nervous about having its news staff appear on Fox News Channel.  Williams reveals that NPR tried to prevent him from appearing on FNC’s O’Reilly Factor.  When Williams refused, NPR requested that he did not identify himself as an NPR journalist.  Moreover, NPR demanded to either control all of Williams Fox appearances and writing or that he was demoted to a news analyst who was not a full NPR staff member.  When Williams contractually agreed to be labeled a news analyst, NPR cut his salary and his on-air time.

Well, NPR has proffered several rationales for this firing.  First, it was about William’s allegedly out of bounds opinions. When William’s statements was not outrageous enough in the court of public opinion, NPR tried a different strategy.

NPR press flacks floated a trial balloon that it was NPR’s general policy that prohibited NPR staff from acting as pundits that cloud their journalistic judgment.  This rationale did not pass the laugh test, as Mara Liaison and Nina Totenberg have been saying interesting and provocative things on the talking heads shows.

NPR refined this thought tract to having a news analyst not giving personal opinions.  This excuse makes no sense whatsoever as a news analyst must share personal perspectives on issues, but it has the virtue of being limited to NPR’s limited pool of news analysts.

NPR culminated with an ad hominem attack on Williams through comments made by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller who suggested that Williams should keep his fears of Muslims between himself, his psychiatrist and his publicist.  Schiller walked that over the top comment back after bad publicity saying that she spoke in haste.  Damn right!  Schiller’s gratuitous slam just poured gasoline on the fires of justice.

If it was simply a boneheaded personnel move, Williams would be wise to forgo litigation.  Roger Ailes signed him to a three year exclusive broadcast contract for $2 million.  But the NPR CEO’s vindictive invective was defamation.  I do not know Williams personal affairs, but if he was seeking psychological help, Schiller’s slam was a prima facie violation of HIPAA, a serious offense.

Megyn Kelly of FNC showed her legal acumen by pointing out two vulnerabilities in NPR’s stated reasons for firing Williams.  By pointing out the numerous incidents of NPR personalities acting as pundits throughout the media, their general policy excuse does not hold water.  NPR claims that it warned Williams many times not to appear on the Factor.  Kelly notes that William’s continued appearances on the show may show that NPR constructively waived their rights by not disciplining him early on.  Additionally, William’s revised NPR contract that made him a news analyst specifically did not contain a clause which allowed NPR to direct his outside activities.

If this was a contract case, it would be litigated in the District of Columbia.  I would love to serve on such a jury. A well respected liberal Black male who has written four books about civil rights versus an elitist non-profit organization with duplicitous standards. I’m sure that such a case would be settled out of court.  NPR is building a new palace on North Capitol Street.  Under such circumstances, Mr. Williams might end up holding the lease on that edifice with his settlement.

As for the larger issues, NPR has lifted the veil and shown itself to be a virulently partisan leftist politically correct organization that tolerates no dissent.  That would be fine if it were a private corporation surviving on its own merits.  But NPR receives federal funding.  Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), who is poised to be the next Speaker of the House if the GOP wins the majority, wonders why American taxpayers are funding a left wing network, especially when our government is broke.  Defunding NPR should be a popular move in the next Congress, especially amongst Tea Party candidates.

 NPR can claim that it only receives 2% of its funding from the government, mainly through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  So it won’t matter much if it’s funding is cut.  But half of its funding comes from membership dues charged to syndicating stations. As the KCET-TV disaffiliation shows, NPR can only lean on big stations so hard. Congress might reconsider overall funding for public broadcasting, which could really put a financial squeeze on NPR. That could really bring some Fresh Air (sic) on the public airwaves.

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