Analyst vs. commentator: the difference

Our journalism world made news itself the other day when National Public Radio fired one of its longtime stars, Juan Williams, ostensibly for expressing a personal opinion on Fox News not to the liking of NPR managers.

In saying he gets "worried" and "nervous" when he sees a fellow passenger on a plane dressed "in Muslim garb," Mr. Williams, an NPR statement declared, was "inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."

Never mind that he said later on the same Fox show that it was wrong to finger all Muslims as "extremists." (An African-American, Mr. Williams presumably was no fan of racial profiling generally.)

NPR's own media reporter, David Folkenflik, noted on the NPR website that "Williams' presence on the largely conservative and often contentious prime-time talk shows of Fox News has long been a sore point with NPR News executives."

Before the Atlanta Press Club, NPR's chief executive, Vivian Schiller, volunteered that Mr. Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims to himself and to his "psychiatrist or his publicist." The wisecrack demonstrated that even news executives need to know when to keep their mouths shut.

The whole flap underscored the need for better public understanding of the difference between a plain old shoe-leather reporter and a news analyst, and the more shadowy difference between a news analyst and a news commentator — and for news executives themselves to draw a finer line in the ethnical boundaries.

There was a simpler time in journalism when there were reporters whose job was to gather the news, editors to check on reporters' veracity and accuracy, and columnists who wrote what they thought about the news.

The distinctions were clear in those days, particularly when the principal vehicles for news distribution were newspapers and magazines, and to a lesser extent radio, which usually confined itself to reporting short news flashes.

In print, analysis of the news and the expressing of opinion on it were pretty much off base for the prime news-gatherers. They were left to the columnists and editorial writers, their work consigned to the editorial page or to the op-ed pages.

If a news source stated a fact or made a claim, the reporter's task was to attribute it to that news source, pretty much without challenge. But when in the 1950s Sen. Joe McCarthy came along with his unsubstantiated claims of communists in the State Department, many editors told reporters to provide "analysis," not by calling him a liar but by reporting that he offered no proof.

With the advent of television, deadline-bound reporters were obliged for competitive reasons to go beyond old fact gathering to explaining the ramifications of a story. But they were to leave the editorializing — giving their opinion — to the columnists, usually identified by name, and to the editorial writers, usually anonymously expressing the publication's point of view.

Today, with so many other voices of analysis and opinion flooding the airwaves and the Internet, the distinction has been blurred beyond public recognition. But it should still be there. As a straight reporter myself in the 1950s who eventually segued into writing analysis in the 1960s and then into opinion as a columnist in the 1970s, that distinction was made clear.

NPR, in identifying Mr. Williams as a news analyst, seems never to have drawn the distinctions sufficiently, as he often was also a commentator, especially on Fox News. He often crossed words with conservative news analysts/commentators Brit Hume and Bill Crystal on the lively and provocative "Fox News Sunday" show moderated by Chris Wallace, bringing the unfiltered liberal Williams voice to the fray.

As for Mr. Williams' willingness to lend his name to the credibility of the Fox slogan "fair and balanced," he told The Washington Post: "I don't say one thing to one outlet and another to the next. ... I'm a trusted voice that crosses political lines."

The news of his firing by NPR was quickly followed by Fox News' announcement that it had given Mr. Williams a multi-year contract for nearly $2 million — a rather interesting decision. Does that indicate Fox will be hiring more outspoken liberals of such stature, to make it even more "fair and balanced"? Not likely.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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