On the heels of the controversy over Juan Williams' comments on Fox News Channel about Muslims that cost him his job with National Public Radio, Mara Liasson, NPR's award-winning political correspondent, is taking heat over her appearances on Fox.
The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America argues on its blog that NPR needs to address the "thorny issue" of Liasson's work for Fox in light of the Williams controversy. Senior fellow Eric Boehlert stressed that Williams, a frequent guest on The O'Reilly Factor, had a far more problematic history with Fox than Liasson. Many NPR listeners have complained about Williams' statements on Fox for years, and he was asked not to identify himself as an NPR journalist while appearing on Fox. Liasson, however, appears on Special Report with Brit Hume and Fox News Sunday, shows that are a far cry from Bill O'Reilly's controversial talk show.
NPR declined to comment for this story.
"I'm not suggesting Liasson has said anything as offensive as Williams, or that she has that kind of track record while appearing on Fox," Boehlert writes. "I'm just saying that if you look at NPR's code of ethics, there's simply no way Liasson should be making appearances on Fox."
Do You Know a Pundit When You See One?
Those guidelines, which Boehlert excerpted, say that NPR management can refuse to allow journalists to appear on other media if they believe it will harm the network's reputation. Also, NPR journalists are not allowed to participate in shows that "encourage punditry and speculation rather than rather than fact-based analysis." That's a tough one, though. Just as one man's trash is another person's treasure, the same holds true for "punditry" and "fact-based analysis." It can be hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.
Liasson has appeared on Fox talk shows since 1997. NPR managers have reportedly expressed concerns about her appearances on the cable channel. Outsiders were concerned too: Slate's Jacob Weisberg wrote, "Respectable journalists -- I'm talking to you, Mara Liasson -- should stop appearing on its programs." She has not taken the hint.
Perhaps it's because she is more circumspect than Williams. Liasson also can argue that the Fox shows where she appears don't make NPR look bad and are respectful exchanges of ideas rather than shout-fests. Before the Williams issue, NPR was probably afraid to address the subject with Liasson out of fear that she might exit in a huff and invite an avalanche of negative publicity over NPR's supposed liberal bias.
Problems With the Juan Williams Precedent
Admittedly, the case against Williams was odd. Given NPR's stance against shows that "encourage punditry," how was Williams able to appear on The O'Reilly Factor for years? Given the emphasis on strong opinions on the show, it's no surprise that he felt comfortable enough to admit that seeing people dressed in Muslim garb on airplanes scares him. He vehemently denied -- on FoxNews.com -- that he is a bigot and insisted that his ouster by NPR boss Ellen Weiss during a phone conversation came as a shock.
"To say the least, this is a chilling assault on free speech. The critical importance of honest journalism and a free-flowing, respectful national conversation needs to be had in our country," Williams writes. "But it is being buried as collateral damage in a war whose battles include political correctness and ideological orthodoxy. I say an ideological battle because my comments on `The O'Reilly Factor' are being distorted by the self-righteous ideological, left-wing leadership at NPR. They are taking bits and pieces of what I said to go after me for daring to have a conversation with leading conservative thinkers. They loathe the fact that I appear on Fox News. They don't notice that I am challenging Bill O'Reilly and trading ideas with Sean Hannity."
Williams will no longer have anything to keep him from such endeavors. He is now a full-time contributor to Fox with a new multi-year contract with the News Corp. (NWS) network. Tonight, he will appear as a guest on The O'Reilly Factor and will be the show's guest host tomorrow.
"Juan has been a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints since his tenure began at FOX News in 1997," said Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News, in a statement. "He's an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by FOX News on a daily basis."