ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, October 21, 2010

News analyst fired for being a "pundit"?

1908RandallCountyCourthouseCanyonTexas907TJnsn The Web is atwitter over the firing of National Public Radio's Juan Williams over comments he made on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News television program.  We at ContractsProf are interested in the really important question:  What part of his contract did Williams breach?

Given that Williams's contract was terminated early, NPR must be clamiing a breach.  We haven't run across a copy of Williams's contract on the Web yet, but it would be interesting to see what provisions would trigger the network's right to terminate

An NPR memo from CEO Vivian Schiller, reproduced on a Fox web site says that Williams violated the network's "ethics code," which it says is binding (in much the same way as an employee handbook, presumably) on "contracted analysts" like Williams.  Here's the explanation:

NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview—not our reporters and analysts. . . .

[T]hese specific comments (and others [Williams] made in the past), are inconsistent with NPR’s ethics code, which applies to all journalists (including contracted analysts):

"In appearing on TV or other media . . . NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows . . . that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis."

It would be interesting to see the parties litigate the distinction between "punditry" and "fact-based analysis,"  Cokie Roberts, for example, a long-time analyst at NPR, famously used her syndicated newspaper column to lambaste Glen Beck as a "fanatic," a "circus clown," a "traitor," a "terrorist," and a "hate-monger," who is "corrupting the very essence of democracy." with "incendiary language."  (Of course, NPR may view that as "fact based analysis" rather than opinion.)  It probably won't come to litigation, but it would be interesting.


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