LLOYD GRAY: It’s all about context, which NPR missed

By LLOYD GRAY / NEMS Daily Journal

The most basic tenet of journalism is accuracy – getting it right. Running a close second is context. Facts don’t exist in a vacuum;
they must be placed in context. The same applies to the things people say. Without sufficient context, stand-alone information can be misleading and, while not technically inaccurate, unfaithful to the truth.
That’s what’s so aggravating about political campaigns and the ads that accompany them. Context is nowhere to be found. Isolated factoids and informational fragments are used in ways that distort reality and misrepresent the full truth.
But political ads aren’t journalism, and they don’t purport to adhere to standards of accuracy in the fullest sense – standards that place facts and statements in context for their true meaning. National Public Radio, on the other hand, does claim to be a journalistic enterprise, yet context was nowhere to be found in its assessment last week of news analyst Juan Williams’ statements on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News.
By now you probably know that NPR fired Williams for saying that he gets “worried” and “nervous” when he’s on an airplane and sees people in Muslim attire. Had that been it, NPR might have had legitimate reason to be upset about stereotyping by one of its on-air employees.
But that wasn’t it. Most of the rest of his conversation with O’Reilly – if you can call the constant interruptions on such cable news punditry “conversations” – was about not equating all Muslims with the extremist adherents of their religion.
Williams quoted President Bush that we are not at war with Islam. He cautioned O’Reilly about inflammatory statements that could cause people to do harm to Muslims. He said America must ensure that the rights of Muslims aren’t violated. He noted that violence by terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, don’t cause us to say we have a problem with all Christians.
The honest confession of his worry and nervousness was just that – an honest confession – but it was quickly placed in context with Williams’ clearly expressed sentiment that we can’t allow such anxieties to be used to deny basic rights to Muslims, or to lump them all together with violent extremists.
In short, NPR failed to assess the context in making its hasty decision. It accused Williams of undermining his journalistic credibility, which NPR couldn’t tolerate, when in fact any credible assessment of the situation would have to take into account everything that was said – not just a fragment of it.
NPR’s haste to dump Williams – a combination of runaway political correctness and past complaints by listeners about Williams’ association with Fox – was reminiscent of what happened to Shirley Sherrod, the black U.S. Department of Agriculture employee in Georgia. Sherrod lost her job after a blogger posted a portion of a speech by her that seemed to suggest she was a reverse racist, denying help to a white farmer because of his race. But the rest of the speech – the actual context of her statements – wasn’t included, and they were all about her rejecting this thinking and realizing it was wrong. Without context, the truth was turned on its head.
Conservative politicos who’ve always hated the liberal-leaning NPR had a field day with the Williams flap, and several called for defunding the network that is financed by federal grants and private contributions.
That in itself demonstrates the problems associated with a journalistic enterprise that gets money from the government; it’s always subject to political pressure.
But NPR brought this on itself. Unfortunately, it could wind up hurting local and state affiliates like Mississippi Public Broadcasting, which does a good job in multiple public service and news roles.
There’s probably a Mississippi politician or two out there who will think this offers a good opportunity to make some points at the expense of MPB, but we don’t need that.
What we do need in this age of round the-clock media barrages from all corners is a recommitment to context in our public discussions of all kinds – journalistic, political and otherwise. That includes hearing, reporting and representing statements in the context in which they are made.
NPR undermined its own credibility by falling into the prevailing climate in which “gotcha” is the rule and context is the exception.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.