Two national journalists, both minorities, were fired this month. On Oct. 1, CNN sacked Rick Sanchez, a Cuban American, for calling The Daily Show's Jon Stewart a bigot, and making disparaging insinuations about Jews, in a radio interview. On Wednesday, NPR dumped Juan Williams, an African American, for saying on the Fox News Channel that he was afraid of Muslims on airplanes. Fox promptly made him a $2 million man, signing him to a contract that relieves him of the dilemma faced by many contemporary journalists - trying to seem objective one minute and opinionated the next.
Both dismissals seem at least slightly expedient. NPR has been unhappy for years about Williams' relationship with Fox News, saying that network journalists should avoid expressing personal opinions. The evening edition of Sanchez's show, Rick's List, was scheduled to be replaced by the new Parker Spitzer four days after he was fired Oct. 1.
Because of their platforms, however, and the groups that their remarks seemed to disparage, the reaction to their dismissals was completely different.
Liberal commentators on MSNBC chastised Sanchez halfheartedly, and Stewart, who had frequently lampooned Sanchez's breathless style, fired a final volley on his show at the reporter/anchor before going on CNN's Larry King Live and calling Sanchez's firing "absolute insanity."
But Williams' firing ignited a firestorm from the intensely loyal Fox News fan base, urged on by such Fox stalwarts as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the Fox and Friends morning cast. O'Reilly Monday sent a producer to collar NPR head Vivian Schiller for an interview as she walked down the street, a tactic he frequently uses for people who refuse to appear on his show.
Assorted conservative politicians, including Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), have joined in demanding an end to federal funding of the public radio network.
Long before the firing controversy, NPR, along with NBC-Universal, which operates liberal-leaning MSNBC, had been a favorite target of Fox News commentators.
It's pledge time at most NPR stations across the country, which reported getting complaints at the same time many of them told the Associated Press that they were meeting or surpassing fund-raising goals.
NPR spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm said several station executives indicated the callers seemed to be reading from scripts, or revealed they were not listeners by saying they would no longer watch NPR.
"We definitely have gotten calls just like every other station," Christine Dempsey, chief content officer at Philadelphia's WHYY, said yesterday. "It did not seem like a organized campaign, but in some cases, staff members would get calls saying people would no longer give, and they'd look them up in database and find they never were members to begin with."
Dempsey said she was surprised by the volume of calls supporting Williams, former host of Talk of the Nation, but not exactly a premium NPR personality. "I don't know if that has to do with his relationship with Fox [but] I think we got fewer calls and complaints when Bob Edwards was taken off Morning Edition, and you're talking about a morning staple."
NPR's Schiller has been nothing but ham-handed in firing Williams over the phone and then saying at the Atlanta Press Club Thursday that he should keep his views on Muslims "between him and his psychiatrist or his publicist."
She apologized Sunday for her handling of the affair, but by bringing this kind of unfavorable attention to NPR, she may have put herself in line for firing, too. Especially if Congress, after trying before, finally succeeds in cutting the federal appropriation for all of public broadcasting, which last year was a little more than $400 million.
In another recent incident, The View's Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walked off their own show Oct. 14 - great TV, but not the most effective host strategy, as View executive producer and veteran journalist Barbara Walters pointed out - when guest O'Reilly said, "Muslims killed us on 9/11."
Fox News and O'Reilly have been the leading TV gathering point for anti-Muslim sentiment following the attack on New York's World Trade Center, most recently providing viewers with a rallying point against the so-called ground zero mosque.
This sort of journalism is even older than what some people characterize as political correctness and others call public respect for minorities. In 1890, William Randolph Hearst helped boost profits for his New York Journal newspaper, stirring public sentiment to start the Spanish American War, by exploiting antipathy for the Roman Catholic Spanish Empire.
Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or email@example.com