Ethnic discourse in the media

I’ve not commented on this blog about the recent firings of media figures for inane and offensive remarks they made during interviews.  However, on Facebook, I posted an article by Steven Walt entitled Why Nasr, Thomas, Sanchez and Williams Should Not Have Been Fired without additional comment.  I got the following response from a friend:

F that. If you are speaking on behalf of your employer, I’m sorry, you do not have freedom of speech. There are many things I could be fired for just talking about, it’s a common practice of business. Similarly, if you are on private property, while you may have ‘free speech,’ you may also be asked to leave if you are aggressive or disrespectful. You only have true freedom of speech in the public sphere acting as an individual.

While I responded on Facebook, I do feel that this merits a longer blog post on the topic rather than a string of somewhat long Facebook replies.

I’ll start by saying that the Facebook comment above does not address Walt’s article or my own thoughts on the issue.  The issue here is not related to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the employers in question had every right to fire their employees after the statements they made.  The issue is whether or not they were right to do so.  In my opinion, they were not…at least not in the manner that they did.

I believe, and I suspect that Walt does as well, that the issue is over whether it was good that the individuals in question were fired by their respective media outlets.  Obviously, there are many ways to approach that question.  Was it a good business decision?  Did the decision have a positive or negative impact on media climate?  Were the specifics of the handling of each case optimized for x goal?  And the list goes on.

My focus was on the question of media climate.  I think that firing journalists who make comments with controversial ethic valence rapidly has a very negative impact on media culture and climate.  In all four cases, we have a journalist of an ethnic minority group expressing a view offensive to the sensibilities of other groups.

Octavia Nasr was fired for the following tweet:

Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot…

I personally believe that of all the examples here, this firing was the most egregious.  Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah was a Lebanese Shi’a cleric with ties to Hezbollah who acted as a moderating force (particularly around the issue of treatment of women).  Certainly his views would be extreme in the U.S., but showing respect for one of the great moderating clerics associated with Hezbollah is hardly a firing offense in my opinion.

It should be pointed out that Nasr herself is a Lebanese Christian.  So, it would be strange to believe that her statement was actually one in favor of Hezbollah, but I wouldn’t be surprised if upon probing her views of Israel and the Middle East, they were a bit outside American (pro-Israel) orthodoxy.

This of course, brings us to the other journalist of Lebanese Christian heritage:  Helen Thomas.  What Thomas said was clearly more offensive than Nasr’s tweet:

Now, Thomas’ views doubtless arise from those of her Lebanese parents and in the Arab world, I suspect they wouldn’t be particularly controversial.  However, they do suggest, as hinted int he interviewer’s questions, a poor grasp of the history and politics of both the region and Europe.  Furthermore, since she was at a Jewish Heritage Celebration, the remarks come off as particularly insensitive.

Given that Thomas’ position as the front and center seat in the White House Press Corps was probably a matter of tradition fed by her “nice old lady” image (I’m somewhat ignorant of and really ultimately uninterested in White House Press Corps politics), I didn’t think that her pressured resignation was a travesty.  But it did reveal some of the same dynamic as the other cases where heterodox opinions drew across-the-board condemnation of the journalist.

Rick Sanchez is a more recent case.  He was on a radio talk show discussing his job.  Where he got into the weeds was discussing his position as a Cuban American–and thus Hispanic–journalist.  The most publicized segment was this one on the Jewish people (which came shortly after describing Jon Stewart as a bigot), courtesy of the above-linked Wikipedia article:

Yeah, very powerless people. [laughs] He’s such a minority. I mean, you know, please. What—are you kidding? I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart. And to imply that somehow they, the people in this country who are Jewish, are an oppressed minority?

Now, of course, Sanchez’s interview was littered with the grievances of a Hispanic jouranlist and so came criticism of his employers:

It’s not just the right that does this. ‘Cause I’ve known a lot of elite, Northeast establishment liberals that may not use this as a business model, but deep down, when they look at a guy like me, they look at a … they see a guy automatically who belongs in the second tier and not the top tier … White folks usually don’t see it, but we do, those of us who are minorities … Here, I’ll give you my example, it’s this, ‘You know what, I don’t want you anchoring anymore. I really don’t see you as an anchor, I see you more as a reporter. I see you more as a John Quiñones.’ You know, the guy on ABC. That’s what he told me, he told me he saw me as John Quiñones. Now, did he not realize that he was telling me, ‘when I see you I think of Hispanic reporters?’ ‘Cause in his mind, I can’t be an anchor, an anchor’s what you give the high profile white guys.

It’s not surprising that he was fired for this even without the comments about Jews.  However, I will, like for Thomas, give a little bit of a context-based explanation (not an excuse) for his statements.

The U.S. is a country with many minorities.  Some, especially blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are what are called “underrepresented minorities”, in that they typically don’t find themselves represented among elite professions at a rate proportional to the size of their segment of the population.  If Sanchez is part of an underrepresented minority, than Jews would definitely be considered an “overrepresented minority”.  With 2% of the general population, there are 12 Jewish U.S. Senators (out of 100) and 3 Supreme Court Justices (out of 9).  Being concentrated in New York, Jews also make up a good deal of Wall Street and media figures.

True as that might be, Sanchez’s rant wasn’t particularly impressive.  I certainly don’t begrudge Jews their success in this country as a group and from what little I’ve seen of Sanchez, he wasn’t a particularly impressive anchor.  There may still be a sizable amount of prejudice in the media toward Hispanics, but Sanchez, who would easily pass as a non-Hispanic white were it not for his name, may have been more of a beneficiary of that process than one who was hindered.

So, my feeling on his firing, like that of Thomas’ pressured resignation are mixed.  On one hand, he did criticize his employer publically and there isn’t a lot of evidence that he was a particularly valuable anchor.  On the other hand, the comments that were played over the media ad nauseum were not his criticism of his employer but rather his comments regarding the difference in minority representation.

However, the story that triggered Walt’s article was of course, the most recent one, NPR’s firing of Juan Williams, which I would rank as more understandable than the firing of Nasr but less understandable than that of Sanchez and Thomas.  Williams was on the O’Reilly Factor on October 20 when he made the statement excerpted below by Wikipedia:

Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean, look Bill [O’Reilly], I’m not a bigot, you know the kind of books I’ve written on the civil rights movement in this country, but when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts. But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam.

Yesterday (October 21), Williams was fired by NPR for these comments.  In my view, these comments are unimpressive.  They don’t show a good deal of thought and its pretty easy to see why NPR found them to be offensive.  However, these are pretty mild comments and in all likelihood, they enjoy wide support among the American populace.

Of course if the point was to “teach a lesson”, NPR’s actions backfired:  Williams has walked away from this with a sizable contract with Fox.  This morning he was interviewed by George Stephanopolous:

We got an explanation for his remarks fit into a narrative that jibes with that of Fox:  that there is a liberal media elite that is intolerant of contrary viewpoints and wants to enforce an ideological line.  In terms of public relations, it looks like NPR’s actions led to a rout.  Instead of getting a clarification on their terms, NPR faces a backlash.

Ultimately, my problem with this dynamic is that it discourages honesty in the media and reinforces the sense that there is an invisible ideological test facing all journalists today.  But further than that, it actually discourages a frank discussion of the issues contained in the soundbites that got these journalists fired.  I don’t agree with any of the journalists on these points (not even Nasr), but I would like to see them aired and discussed with the seriousness they deserve.

An atmosphere of ridicule and shaming discourages clear and open thought and simply presses heterodox sentiments underground while tarnishing the credibility of media outlets as forums for the fair handling of opinions, which in turn leads to a Balkanization of Americans’ media consumption along ideological lines.  Issues won’t be resolved, they’ll just become alternate realities among segments of the populace, further enforcing the petty tribalism of American politics.


About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
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