Is it a crime to know your audience?

Mr. Williams was a “lightning rod” for the public radio organization in part because he “tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox.

I don’t suppose many people will be focusing on this tidbit in the Juan Williams story, but I found it extremely interesting.

I think we all understand what is being implied here, right?

The FOX editorial voice is more conservative and the NPR one is more liberal. I don’t think we’re going to have any disagreement on this point.

So what the speaker of this quote (Alicia C. Shepard, NPR’s ombudswoman) was objecting to is that Williams dared to discern that difference in voice and perhaps audience composition and adjust his commentary accordingly.

Is there something inherently wrong with this? Do we not do this all the time in our daily lives? When describing an event to, say, your spouse and then describing the event to your boss, would you use the exact same narrative? I don’t think so. You might give your spouse more colorful, personal details. On the other hand, if the event is somehow related to your business, you might give the boss more technical information that you might know your spouse isn’t interested in.

Politicians do this all the time and I don’t see anyone “firing” them for telling one interest group one thing and turning around and telling another something that’s almost the polar opposite.

What the real question might be is: which Juan Williams is saying what he truly feels? Will the real Juan Williams please stand up?

Now I’m about to possibly blow your mind…. wait for it…. what if they are BOTH the real Juan Williams? Is it not possible for a person to hold what could be viewed as opposing viewpoints on different issues? Is it not possible for someone to be personally conflicted on some matters?

Haven’t you experienced this yourself? Think of an issue and how you generally feel about it. Now, can you somewhat understand the opposing viewpoint even if you don’t fully agree with it? That’s called being a normal human I think.

So why should Juan Williams have to pay for being human?


  1. Anonymous October 21, 2010

    I agree that we do tailor what we say day to day, speaking person to person (or even small group). I also don’t think that adjusting what you say depending on which ears are listening is wrong.

    In your examples though there is immediate feedback and it is a much more personal and private form of communication.

    For the sake of argument, take it to the other extreme. Say international superstar, jet-setter, news anchor Roy Maximil has a news cast on CNN tonight and will hop on the Virgin Galactic right after it is over and shoot around the world and have another broadcast in North Korea.

    Earlier that day North Korea tested missiles. What was reported here was that they were largely a failure and even South Korea was in laughable danger at best, though it was better than their previous attempts. Around on the other side of the planet though North Korea has taken huge strides in ground to air missile technology and today was a massive success (assuming there is no influence from the government here and good ol’ Roy’s life was not on the line just for speaking).

    Are both reports not essentially opinions? And aren’t both tailored to your audience? Yet both are drastically different and create entirely different images, though the same news was reported. The language and spin on a topic can completely reverse what you hear as news, and with no ability to instantly question and have a one-on-one with the one reporting, what is said is the truth.

    Now, Juan Williams is somewhere in between and I don’t think he really did anything wrong. In fact it is nice to see someone who can have opinions leaning both ways, be open about it, and be public. Again, this was all just for the sake of argument.

  2. Anna Tarkov October 21, 2010

    I take your point, but the North Korea example is not analogous to NPR/FOX. In the former, we’re dealing with facts. The missile launch happened and it was not successful. That is a fact. It doesn’t matter what anyone says about it, the fact is that it didn’t succeed. If your imaginary journalist goes to North Korea and says it was a great success, he’s betraying his journalistic principles. No one would ever take him seriously in the U.S. again. He’d lose his job here thanks to participating in the dissemination of a foreign government’s propaganda.

    In the case of Williams, he was expressing an opinion, a feeling, etc. There’s no right or wrong answer there.

  3. Anonymous October 21, 2010

    I guess I didn’t say it, but I was talking about a hypothetical future test. One that goes better than the last. Hence how they have taken strides, but still are no match for more developed countries.

    In both cases the news that was reported is 100% accurate and true. Neither side may have told the complete portion of the news, but that has not been done for quite some time in any news outlet.

    The same ideas can be applied to opinion reporting. Why should you be able to say only one opinion? Shouldn’t, as a journalist and reporter, you give all sides and opinions equal attention and time? Without doing that you are giving up integrity as a journalist also.

    Knowing your audience and putting emphasis on what interests them most is what every single news outlet is doing. I have never read a story on the plight and hardships of being a member of Al Qaeda, though there certainly are many. Or about how horrible America is from the outside world, in countries where their land is now polluted from depleted uranium bullets from wars that started on their soil because of us.

    Instead we get reports that four troops died today because of an old explosive left along the side of a road, but never the 47 women and children gunned down because a superior officer skipped the warning signals and deemed them a threat from 300 yards out.

    All is news, one side is reported at a time. It doesn’t make it right or wrong, it just makes it news.

  4. Anna Tarkov October 22, 2010

    A story about the hardship of being in Al Qaeda, now that would be interesting :-) By the way, while I too haven’t seen a story like that I DO remember a story about the mothers of suicide bombers that was on the cover of either Chicago Tribune or NYT Magazine, I can’t remember which. It was all about how they loved that their sons were martyrs, etc., etc. I remember thinking at the time “WHY are they writing about this? This is almost an insult to every other culture in the world that doesn’t view life so cheaply.”

    Now I understand it more of course, but the question still remains: would we really want to see a story about what it’s like to be in Al Qaeda? That kind of attitude is the same kind of attitude that sees a cable network grant equal time to a right-wing whackjob that they do a Democratic Senator or something. Just because we CAN do a story about something, doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

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