Is NPR Sexist?

October 29, 2010

The double standard between men and women with respect to accountability has taken up space once again in the corner of America’s living room.  And that large pink elephant in the room has the letters NPR written all over it.

In case you haven’t heard,  Juan Williams, a new analyst for National Public Radio, was fired last week for saying he becomes fearful when he sees people wearing Muslim dress boarding the same plane as he. He made the comments during an interview on The O’Reilly Factor of the Fox News network. Williams was fired shortly after the show by NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller claiming Williams violated NPR’s standards of journalism by crossing the line between offering personal opinion vs. professional analysis as a representative of NPR. An even more striking action by Schiller and NPR management was the termination of Williams over the phone rather than a customary private meeting to explain what transpired.  NPR refused to grant Williams a face-to-face meeting to discuss the firing even after he requested one. If that wasn’t horrendous enough, at a conference the next day in Atlanta, Schiller defiantly exclaimed that Williams should have kept his opinions between himself and his psychiatrist.

In the days since his termination, Fox News has hired Williams as a commentator for the network, and he has received plenty of support from both the liberal and conservatives who felt he was unfairly treated. Also, Schiller released a statement further explaining NPR’s reason for Williams’ firing. Here is an edited version which I feel sums up the ideology behind the termination:

This was a decision of principle, made to protect NPR’s integrity and values as a news organization. Juan’s comments on Fox News last Monday were the latest in a series of deeply troubling incidents over several years. In each of those instances, he was contacted and the incident was discussed with him. He was explicitly and repeatedly asked to respect NPR’s standards and to avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings, as that is inconsistent with his role as an NPR news analyst. After this latest incident, we felt compelled to act.

The news and media world is changing swiftly and radically; traditional standards and practices are under siege. This requires us to redouble our attention to how we interpret and live up to our values and standards.

It was clear from Friday’s all staff meeting that you have deep feelings about NPR’s culture, our commitment to diversity and how we communicate.

In the meantime, I want to express confidence in NPR’s  — in your! — integrity and dedication to the highest values in journalism, and our shared commitment to serving as a national forum for the respectful discussion of diverse ideas.

Don’t believe it for a second, it is really a bunch of crap.

Some have speculated the real reason Williams was fired rests in NPR’s disdain of Fox News and Williams’ relationship with them. NPR has vehemently denied this. But if we take them at their word – as is the reasonable thing to do – then I feel NPR comes across as an extremely sexist organization.

Let me explain.

Longtime NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts has openly and defiantly launched into controversial statements which were more invective than Williams’. Just this year Roberts called Fox News personality Glen Beck a terrorist. As stated in her syndicated column:

… Beck is worse than a clown. He’s more like a terrorist who believes he has discovered the One True Faith, and condemns everyone else as a heretic. And that makes him something else as well — a traitor to the American values he professes so loudly to defend.

And twice last year, Roberts openly wore her strong feminist’s beliefs on her sleeve and its corresponding contempt for men in public. This past June, while appearing on Good Morning America, she stated she agreed with Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s controversial 1994 comment that a “wise woman would come to a better conclusion than a man.” Roberts confidently exclaimed, Of course, I would agree with her that they’re better!  She then explained her position further to host Diane Sawyer:

“You go before these big women’s groups. And, Diane, I’m sure you’ve done it. I’ve certainly done it many times.” And you do say things that kind of rev up the crowd and get women excited. And one of those things that you do say is that women are better than men.

But Robert’s sexist attitude and opinions about men continued to flow unimpeded as a representative of NPR. Two months later in her syndicated column, she wrote how she has no biases – she sees everything down the middle. However, she then explains her decision as to why that is now impossible after reading about politician Marc Sanford cheating on his wife. Roberts piously and confidently writes:

The notion that one side is right and one side is wrong is generally, as one finds in life, not the case. Women tend to be a lot more common-sensical than men are. In fact, when the Mark Sanford thing broke, I went tearing into my husband’s office and said, “Okay, that’s it. Women just are better. Men are just lesser beings.”

 Sticking to her pattern of behavior, two months after that statement Roberts boldly spoke on camera during the “Green Room” segment for This Week with George Stephanopoulos saying this about filmmaker and fugitive Roman Polanski:

 He raped and drugged and raped and sodomized a child. And then was a fugitive from justice. As far as I’m concerned, just take him out and shoot him.

So how did CEO Schiller and NPR management respond to Cokie Roberts’ harsh, disturbing, sexist, invective opinions/comments? They were ignored.

If you go to NPR’s website, Roberts is still happily employed by NPR as a news analysts, and in her profile, NPR piously touts the success, integrity, and confidence in their controversial female employee.

So let me see if I have this right; Juan Williams expressed his fear about boarding a plane with Muslim passengers in light of 9/11, but in the same interview expressed how he recognized these feelings are wrong, and explained how he needs to put those fears and assumptions aside because they breed discrimination.  He then proceeds to defend Muslims against what he perceives as discriminatory statements/opinions during the discussion with Bill O’Reilly and the other guests during the interview. (Seems most news stories did not mention that part) And this type of behavior by Williams was the final straw for NPR?  (For the record, NPR has refused to divulge the “other” alleged incidents Williams was reprimanded for, but if this was “over the top”, I already question the validity of his other indiscretions)

As for Cokie Roberts, in a span of six months last year, and as recently as this year, she expressed sexist, discriminatory, hateful, and violent opinions about men. She never apologized, retracted, or corrected some of her comments to say “these men” or “some men”, but rather painted half the world’s population with broad strokes of hate and contempt. She has consistently expressed her opinion of men – as an NPR news analyst and NPR representative – as worthless, lesser human beings, who are a menace to society. (And Schiller thinks Williams needs a psychiatrist?)

But unlike Williams, her volatile and cavewoman-like opinions go unchallenged and ignored by Schiller. Let me remind you why she said Williams was terminated:

He was explicitly and repeatedly asked to respect NPR’s standards and to avoid expressing strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings, as that is inconsistent with his role as an NPR news analyst.

 So why is Cokie Roberts still considered a valuable employee of NPR? She has repeatedly engaged in conduct Schiller and NPR are claiming they abhor.

Note: I also am aware of NPR’s host Nina Totenberg, who has made some very controversial and disturbing comments over the years (i.e. Hoping Jesse Helm’s grandchildren contract AIDS). With one quick check at NPR’s website one can see she too remains happily employed.

As a casual observer on the outside, it looks to me as if NPR has developed a “matriarchal” culture fostered by CEO Schiller which allows women the freedom to express sexist, hateful, and disturbing opinions without challenge, while male employees are confined to a rigid, puritan-like interpretation of company policy and conduct. Is this “progressive” equality?

The way I see it, no matter which way you slice it, sexist behavior is the norm at NPR, which means not only the men suffer, but the women too. Why?  I can conclude from the unequal treatment between Roberts and Williams that NPR management promotes a culture that believes in one or more of the following:

–  Men should be, or are expected to be, held to a higher responsibility/accountability than women concerning personal and professional integrity and standards.

– NPR management agrees that men are lesser beings, and a menace to society; therefore, no disciplinary action is needed against Roberts.

– A woman’s opinion and actions do not carry the same influence as a man’s; therefore, female aspersions and conduct are not taken seriously.

– Company policy does not respect treating men and women equally. Implementing fair and equal treatment is too arduous.

I hope Schiller has some extra time on her hands this weekend. She’ll need it because looking for a ladder which is big enough to escape the hole she has dug for herself and NPR will take some time.


Joe Soltys writes about finding the balance between justified and unjustified negative perceptions and stereotypes concerning men, fathers, and masculinity. He is also a founder of the Chicago Chapter of the National Coalition For Men (NCFM).

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