Remember the Rodney King riots? It was 1992 and the nation was captivated as night after night, the media chronicled unrest in Los Angeles, triggered after the acquittal of four white police officers in the roadside beating of King, a black motorist.
The trial, verdict and resulting outrage troubled my colleagues at the Akron Beacon Journal for what it revealed about the status of race relations in the United States. During the next year, we used the power of communications to examine race in our country and initiate a very honest conversation about race in Akron, Ohio. The newspaper triggered a series of community meetings that attracted hundreds, a new year’s pledge by thousands to improve the race conversation in our community and a nonprofit effort to improve understanding between races and cultures. The project won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that year and placed Akron among the nation’s leading communities in the conversation on race.
This week’s firing of NPR commentator Juan Williams for making an honest but bigoted statement brought back that powerful experience of 1992. Williams was fired for what he said on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, where Williams was a part-time commentator.
Williams was talking about Muslims in the U.S. when he said that all Muslims wearing traditional dress made him nervous on airplanes.
"I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the 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."
Not only does Williams stereotype, he fails to admit his reactions are both honest and flawed.
Williams follows a lengthening line of journalists who lost their jobs or ended their careers for making stereotypical, bigoted public comments. In an excellent column, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch reviews this unfortunate group: CNN’s Rick Sanchez and Octavia Nasr, Hearst’s Helen Thomas among others.
As the media world debates whether Williams, Sanchez or the others should have lost their jobs over their comments, there is little recognition of the opportunity lost. There is so much opinion in the media today, (Rupert Murdoch recently referred to this media noise as "bloggers and bloviators") that the value of informed opinion is being lost.
Media can be a powerful tool that impacts and improves the national conversation. Expressing raw opinion is not enough. Expressing raw opinion with the goal of improved understanding is a valued – but increasingly rare -- goal.
Just ask several thousand people in Akron.