When it comes to bureaucracies, corporate or public, it's not just jobs that can be delegated but any sense of responsibility. This isn't just a familiar pattern, it's standard operating procedure by now. When the head of the outfit is confronted by a scandal that can no longer be ignored, and the public has grown more outraged than usual, protocol demands that the top exec submit ... somebody else's resignation.
It could almost be Washington's motto: The buck stops somewhere else. Now it's happened at NPR. Which is one of the many public-private hodgepodges that gets all kinds of funding from all kinds of sources -- and so is hard to pin down when things go embarrassingly wrong. There are more of those around than ever -- Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Government Motors, AIG, American health care in general ... you name it. Their structure tends to resemble that of a medieval chimera, only without the charm.
NPR never looked so much like the politically correct fraud it's long been than when it fired Juan Williams, one of its news commentators, for daring to comment on the news -- on FOX yet.
It took a while for the suits at national headquarters to come up with some transparent excuse. In this case, Mr. Williams was said to have been hired as an analyst, not a commentator, and so had overstepped his bounds. As if NPR standbys like Mara Liasson, Cokie Roberts and the late Daniel Schorr, who may have been the most party-lining of them all, never let an opinion escape their depoliticized lips. Even though they, too, were listed as "analysts" or "correspondents" rather than commentators.
The line between news and opinion isn't just hazy at NPR; it doesn't exist except in the official table of organization. And it's invoked only when a commentator violates not a code of ethics but NPR's unstated but always present political code.
All the usual excuses and evasions were rolled out in the not-so-mysterious case of Juan Williams. But it was clear he had to go because he'd violated NPR's political prejudices by commenting openly about how he felt when he saw someone wearing a hijab or burqa ("Muslim garb," as he put it) in an airport, though he also made it clear he wasn't proud of how nervous it made him. Mr. Williams is a candid and decent sort (a rare combination), which may be another reason he had to go.
A network that hides its political prejudices, calling subjective judgments news, makes me a lot more nervous than Muslim women going about their business, bless 'em. A friend of mine tends to turn on NPR in his car and wait till the first editorial comment is made in the guise of news. Then he changes to the classical music station. He usually doesn't have to wait long. Maybe between 10 and 30 seconds. What a blessing classical music can be at such annoying times, not to mention what it does for the mental health and heart rate. Mozart beats Michael Moore any time.
NPR had to do something after this mess broke. At last count, it had received some 23,000 e-mails protesting Juan Williams' firing. The natives were restless and NPR had little choice but to offer up one of its sacrificial vice presidents, who may be on the payroll for just such occasions. This time it was one Ellen Weiss, who went quietly, almost noncommitally. She knows the code.
The chief executive of the network is one Vivian Schiller, whose own reaction to Juan Williams' comment at the time was to suggest that he might want to consult a psychiatrist. Did she ever apologize for that crack? If not, she should have. And the sincerest form of apology remains resignation.
Besides, shrinks have more important things to do than tend to the well balanced, and if there's anything disturbing about Juan Williams, it's his eerie equanimity on air. (As a newspaper columnist, he'd be entirely too sane. The job requires a certain temperamental eccentricity for the copy to ring with the occasional Menckenesque outburst.)
Ms. Schiller remains NPR's CEO, to no one's surprise. How's that for justice? Which is one primitive concept that progressive NPR long ago outgrew. She was, however, denied her annual bonus. At NPR, the worst punishment high-ranking miscreants can expect is not to be rewarded for their bad decisions -- instead of just being fired. And this is called accountability. Which is how bureaucracies work, or rather don't. In NPR's case, public funding pretty much renders it immune to the discipline of the marketplace.
If the suits at NPR want the network to be just a classier version of MSNBC, they have every right to aim for that (lack of) distinction. But let 'em do it on their own dime, not the public's. Rather than have everybody in the country subsidize their politics, why not just cut off their water?
There'd be no better time to do that than now, when the federal budget needs to be not just trimmed but sheared. Let NPR find out what earning your keep in a free market is like. It might instill some new values, and news values, at National Political Radio -- like letting commentators comment and keeping the news the news, not opinion by another name.