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On Not Apologizing For Firing Juan Williams

October 27, 2010

To recap, on Oct. 18, long-time NPR news analyst, Juan Williams, appeared on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor”. During the course of the show, Williams described his reaction to airport travelers that wear Muslim dress. On Oct. 20 NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, had Williams fired. It seems all angles of this story, from O’Reilly’s earlier comments about Muslims, to NPR funding sources, are being debated with vim and vigor. Or is that sound and fury?

Regardless, with the media clamoring and blogosphere in flames, Vivian Schiller found herself responding off-the-cuff (which went badly), and to Fox (which was unremarkable). Sometimes it pays to write things down. And Oct. 24 Schiller did that, sending out a memo regarding William’s firing. On Oct. 25 an NPR blog posted it to the public.  Many called for an apology; what Schiller wrote is an apologia.

Apologia is a genre of justification. Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” or even, “I apologize,” you defend yourself. These are typically smashing pieces of rhetoric, tinged (if you’re lucky, dripping) with indignation, scorn, or fury—righteous or otherwise—and Schiller’s memo does not disappoint.

Apologia has been around forever, but in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, communication scholars Joy Koesten and Robert C. Rowland spelled out its four general moves: deny, deflect, justify or atone. In her memo, Schiller uses them all.

1. Deny, or “There’s Nothing Wrong with the Decision”
Twice Schiller states that she and the general NPR powers-that-be “stand” by the decision to fire Williams. She grants

reasonable people can disagree about the timing: whether NPR should have ended our relationship with Juan earlier, on the occasion of other incidents…

In doing so, she frames the decision as foregone, even overdue. There were “other incidents,” in fact there were “a series of deeply troubling incidents over several years.” So, nothing wrong with making the call, then.

Later she writes there might be merit in considering “whether this final episode warranted immediate termination” but even that suggests a continuum of negative repercussions—the harshest being immediate termination. As in—ok, maybe we should have thought about not renewing his contract. Or giving a suspension. But—that would have been the drawn out version of her bold move, right? The one there was nothing wrong with in the first place.

2. Deflect, or “We’re the Ones with Standards Here”
In case denial doesn’t hold, there’s always deflection. Schiller makes full use of it. It’s not about NPR’s integrity, she argues, but rather how every other news organization lacks it. Journalism is changing, she says, “swiftly and radically,” read:  for the worse. “[T]raditional standards and practices are under siege” she says. It’s a battle, but she won’t surrender, not their principles, not “the highest values in journalism.” She refuses to apologize, in other words, for having standards, and she deflects by implicitly questioning others–where did theirs go?

If you grant the premise that NPR’s standards are worthy, and if you grant Williams broke with them, well then, doesn’t Schiller deserve a round of applause? She’s holding firm in a world of slippery ethics and sinking high ground. That’s the apologia for you—turning the Walk of Shame into a Standing O.

3. Justify, or “A Long Time Coming”
Schiller does intertwine justification and deflection. The argument runs because we have standards, firing Williams was necessary. But there’s another justification: Williams knew better. He had been warned, Schiller writes, “explicitly and repeatedly” about his not-up-to-standards comments.

4. Atone, or “We’ll Get Better”
Schiller concludes stating she will “strive to improve in the future.” But this improvement is specifically for the employees of NPR. They get her atonement. She regrets, not the firing, but that “we did not take the time to better prepare our messaging”. She notes her colleagues’ “deep feelings about NPR’s culture” and says she going to get right on that; there will be “reviews”. Moreover, she’ll “include many of you” in that review process. It’s all about them. But then again, they deserve it—they’re the only ones left with standards.

It’s a short piece, this memo. But in it Schiller not only justifies her choices, she also defends her organization, rallies her troops, and fires some shots across the media world’s bow. A surface read suggests wholesale apology; “I want to apologize” goes her opening line. But what Schiller actually conveys is she’s sorry to find that NPR is the only place with standards left, but she’ll be damned if she apologizes for holding the line.

If you want to know more:

  • The NPR blog posting, which provides context and the memo copy from which I worked, can be found here.  The text differs slightly from the memo posted on Politico.com, found here.   The video clips links, embedded above, can be found on multiple internet sources. I tried to link to sources without advertising, but you can always go to the originating source to double-check the completeness of video clips.
  • Here you can read extended comments from Schiller to the “The New York Times”, for whom she used to work. Notice how she hasn’t picked up the political denial techniques discussed in Doug Cloud’s recent TST post. (In her defense, we did publish that post after she gave the interview).
  • Joy Koesten and Robert C. Rowland’s “The Rhetoric of Atonement” mentioned above, is one place to start further research into contemporary political apologia.
  • And if you’ve got apologia fever (catch it!), here’s Rep. Charles Rangel’s Aug. 10, 2010, apologia in response to accusations of unethical conduct. The transcript is available through the online “Congressional Record” search. President Clinton’s Lewinsky-prompted apologia (discussed by Koesten and Rowland) can be seen here. But, as Clinton says, “Even presidents have private lives.” So maybe you shouldn’t be prying.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. john giertz permalink
    October 29, 2010 10:09 pm

    An important starting point for a discussion between apology and apologia as the common person will understand. Is the notion of current public apology genre emerging as one of quick acceptance some responsibility and followed by a deep justification? This was certainly witnessed by Exxon and their full page ads in all major newspapers after the Valdez disster. Or are you are referring mainly to the notion of “apologia” as the area of apologetics and therefore defense. Certainly nothing has changed in, what, forever since the advent of apologia. Seems that the common person will easily confuse these two terms and therefore assume NPR is or should actually apologize instead of justify.

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