The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and the Public Broadcasting Service offer overwhelmingly fine and thoughtful programming. Thus, the idea of slashing the pittance in public funding they receive over the ouster of Juan Williams from NPR should defy logic.
Williams claims that he was simply voicing his feelings. But Williams is not just another guy on the street exercising his right of free speech. He was a representative of the press making statements on national television—a platform for airing views to which most of us have no access. In this respect, Williams’ comments about his fear of people in “Muslim garb” on airplanes were worse than “politically incorrect” or insensitive.
Yet, the renewed push to eliminate public broadcasting over this incident makes economic and political sense--for Fox Broadcasting and other conservative media outlets, pundits, and politicians cashing in on the furor they themselves created. Williams’ comments, and the convenient uproar orchestrated by Fox News over his firing, play to the sensibilities of an audience that is looking for—and finding—justification for their fears and general feelings of anxiety in a tough national economy and unstable larger world. And Fox News excels in the profitable business of exacerbating fears.
In the short run, Fox News’ disingenuous outrage over the firing of Williams is designed to increase ratings and market share. Fox Broadcasting is foremost a business and its policies and programming are driven by the profit motives of its shareholders and ideological goals of its management. In the long run, the hue and cry over Williams constitutes another salvo in the war to remake all news media in the image of News Corporation outlets that follow a right-wing agenda. Fox and similarly conservative outlets are fond of decrying as ultra-liberal “the (other) media,” who respond to this apparent disparagement of their characters by moving ever farther to the right to save their own ratings and revenue streams.
As Fox and other outlets of its ilk bemoan the fate of Juan Williams, make claims about his free speech rights, and find appalling NPR’s decision to fire him, they simultaneously seek to control the dialog about the incident. Congressional Republicans joining the fray hope to gain points in the polls by demonizing NPR for a decision based on principle rather than profit. Not surprising. Conservative media and politicians routinely castigate speech with which they don’t agree—or that challenges their primacy in struggles over ratings, profits, votes, and control of political dialog. Consequently, the public suffers from a dearth of anything resembling “freedom of the press.” What too frequently passes for news is ideological flotsam purchased with ratings-driven advertising dollars that bloat the prices of goods and services that many of us buy regardless of whether we care to support the perspectives of the media used to advertise them.
The infotainment and relentlessly conservative commentary delivered by Fox News in particular, but far from exclusively, are rooted in the business interests and political views of the management that controls them. Fox Broadcasting and its parent company News Corporation are concerned about Juan Williams’ free speech rights all the way to the bank.
Williams’ profile is on the rise; Fox’s profits will no doubt follow. If Congress cuts the funding for CPB, well, that’s a dividend.
So was it a little too convenient that within hours of Williams’ firing from NPR his role on Fox was expanded? Does it occur to anyone in Congress rushing to eliminate Public Broadcasting that this was a put-up job? Williams, with the help of Bill O’Reilly, pushes the envelope until it rips open. Williams moves exclusively to Fox and a richer payday; NPR gets trashed, and conservatives in Congress can pretend that they are not only outraged, but fiscally prudent in the bargain. And all this happens within a week of the mid-term elections. I hope Fox provides Juan Williams and Bill O’Reilly with juicy bonuses for working out the timing so cleverly.
So neat. So convenient. So intolerable.
Please go to your local NPR or PBS website and make a donation to keep them on the air.
Please write to your Congress members and tell them that Fox doesn’t need their help to turn a profit but we need their help to retain our commercial-free voices of reason, not to mention Sesame Street, Frontline, Science Friday, and All Things Considered.
Oh, and please hold a memorial service for any vague notion of freedom of the press that you might still be harboring.