Ever since Juan Williams was fired from NPR last week for making insensitive, albeit not particularly incendiary comments about Muslims on a Fox News show, something hasn't been sitting quite right with me.
Then, today, I read a ludicrous blog posting on Marie Claire's Web site that basically asserts that fat people are disgusting. Now I'm wondering, as a publisher of my own daily magazine, what does it take to get oneself fired these days?
In the more than 12 years since I started OnMilwaukee.com, I've personally witnessed a handful of situations in which other outlets would can a writer on the spot. At this point, I'm fairly used to the semi-regular cease-and-desist orders (just got one last week!) and threatening calls, but three specific incidents stand out in which I may have had grounds to terminate ... but I didn't.
The first one came early on in our existence, when a young writer replied angrily and personally to a Talkbacker criticizing his work. It was beyond unprofessional; it was childish and completely unbecoming of our new company. At the time, we demanded he write this reader a letter of apology, but in retrospect, we should've let him go for his vitriolic tirade. He didn't last a whole lot longer with OnMilwaukee.com, anyway, but our forgiving attitude on this issue was a mistake I regret.
The next incident happened a few years later, when our beloved Molly Snyder, a colleague I respect greatly on both a personal and professional level, posted a questionable thumbnail photo alongside an interview with the president of PETA.
The group, known for its controversial billboards, had a launched a campaign in which it portrayed fur looking like pubic hair. Molly cropped a crotch shot for the thumbnail for her story, and because we syndicated our content to other partners at that time, said crotch shot found itself all over the Web.
We fielded some furious phone calls from parents, and Molly quickly changed the photo -- and we all learned a valuable lesson about the impact of what we post. Thankfully, no one lost their wits or their job, and we can all laugh about it now.
The most recent, and perhaps the most embarrassing gaff, happened when our then lead programmer (who wasn't a writer) was testing some software on our development servers, and used some rather profane "dummy" copy for placement purposes. Even though that page never went live, it still got pushed through RSS all over the Web, and once it was out there, it couldn't come back. It was a humiliating moment, and while I'm usually somewhat even-tempered, I completely lost it and almost threw this employee through the window.
Fortunately for him, we were short-staffed at that time, but in retrospect, that kind of carelessness was certainly a fireable offense. Our current programming team knows this story and is infinitely more responsible in what it codes on the site.
Which bring me to Juan Williams and the "fatties are gross" blogger. I assert that NPR shouldn't have fired Williams, while Marie Claire should definitely part ways with flippant freelancer Maura Kelly -- and her editor should be seriously disciplined.
In the case of Williams, NPR knew what it was getting itself into by letting him speak regularly on Bill O'Reilly's show. That blowhard incites and baits, and Williams, an analyst, was there to speak his mind. NPR, which is actually the most fair and balanced news operation you'll ever find, contradicted itself by suggesting that its analysts aren't expected to offer personal opinions. Further, I read Williams' entire quote, and it wasn't extrinsically bigoted; it was a reflection on his own admittedly embarrassing prejudices that have become a reality for him and so many others.
By firing him immediately (and letting CEO Vivian Schiller follow-up with a personal slam about Williams' psychologist and publicist), the network played right into the neo-cons' assertion that NPR is just a liberal tool of the government (even though only two percent of its funding comes from taxpayer dollars).
NPR blew it, while Fox News and Williams, who as a somewhat mediocre analyst, is now enjoying a lucrative contract from Rupert Murdoch.
As for Maura Kelly, she's just reckless. I crave page views as much as the next editor, and I've certainly run stories that I know would anger and incite, but a post called, "Should 'Fatties' Get a Room?" is low-brow, insensitive and obnoxious. Her apology, which was clearly mandated by the magazine, is just as long as the rambling missive, itself. Marie Claire (isn't that the magazine that called Milwaukee one of America's sexiest cities?) should drop this loose cannon and hope it didn't alienate too many readers.
Ultimately, it's a publication's discretion to decide who it wants to employ and who it wants to show the door. Frequently, there are factors outside of what angry readers understand -- believe me, I've received tons of "you actually pay this guy?" e-mails.
And remember, columnists are supposed to get reaction. When people stop caring is when they are in trouble.
But there's a difference between off-the-cuff, inane, unprofessional, obnoxious and offensive. As content producers, we have to make those delineations at the peril of gaining or losing readers and advertisers. Usually, it's not easy.
Sometimes, though, it's painfully obvious: Juan Williams got the shaft. Maura Kelly, on the other hand, should feel lucky to ever be published again.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.