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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 02:38 PM ET, 06/27/2012

The case of Joe Williams and Politico: Five points

The story of Joe Williams’s suspension from Politico drags on. Today, Williams did an interview on Current TV in which he stated that he was still trying to work things out with his employer and repeated his position that others were out to get him. He has also lawyered up.

In other words, this spat has some endurance. Along the way, it has kicked up at least five issues.

Issue No. 1: Williams’s initial remarks were not that incendiary.

A memo from Politico editors on the suspension states that “an unacceptable number of Joe Williams’s public statements on cable and Twitter” cast doubt on his commitment to report “fairly and free of partisan bias.” The cable appearance that prompted the memo occurred last Thursday, when Williams appeared on Martin Bashir’s MSNBC show and said this about Mitt Romney. Williams’s comments are interrupted for analysis:

It’s very interesting that he does so many appearances on “ Fox & Friends .” And it’s unscripted. It’s only time they let Mitt off the leash, so to speak.

Analysis: “Off the leash” is not the most neutral way of putting things, but so far so good: Williams is correct to make this point, given how carefully the campaign regulates Romney’s availability.

But it also points out a larger problem he’s got to solve if he wants to be successful come this fall. Romney is very, very comfortable, it seems, with people who are like him. That’s one of the reasons why he seems so stiff and awkward in some town hall settings, why he can’t relate to people other than that.

Analysis: The problem with this particular moment isn’t offensiveness; it’s banality. Most people are most comfortable with others who share their defining characteristics.

But when he comes on “ Fox & Friends,” they are like him, they’re white folks who are very much relaxed in their own company, so it really is a very stark contrast, I think, and a problem that he has not been able to solve to date, and he’s going to have to network harder if he’s going to try to compete.

Analysis: The “white folks” thing, as Williams has stated, lit a “tinder keg.” At first blush, the comment looked ill-informed to this onlooker. The reason why Romney and other white politicians feel welcome on “Fox & Friends,” it seems to me, is not racial bonding but rather ideological bonding. But I am a white guy. That Williams, a black man, sees the matter differently shouldn’t result in his condemnation. Such perspectives, after all, are precisely why we need diversity on the airwaves and in the newsrooms.

Issue No. 2: But Williams’s tweets are problematic.

The unremarkable remarks on MSNBC triggered a look back at Williams’s work on Twitter, where there was genuine evidence of a lack of fairness toward Romney. Williams retweeted and resnarked a penis joke about Romney and his wife, Ann Romney.

That tweet poses a far greater a concern to a news organization than the ”Fox & Friends”/”white folks” remarks on MSNBC. And it dates back months (April 2). As previously reported in this space, Politico higher-ups in May addressed his over-the-line tweets in a meeting with Williams. The reporter agreed to chill.

Whatever the managerial response, the weirdness here is that uncontroversial remarks led to the unearthing of controversial remarks.

Politico’s editors — no dummies, they — showed awareness of this dynamic when they wrote their Williams-is-suspended memo: “This [MSNBC] appearance came in the context of other remarks on Twitter that, cumulatively, require us to make clear that our standards are serious.”

That Politico slapped a suspension on Williams not after his more controversial remarks but rather after his less controversial remarks may well speak to the publication’s freakishness about bad press. Had Breitbart.com not latched on to the MSNBC appearance, would Politico have even summoned Williams for a chat?

Issue No. 3: Williams’s I-didn’t-tweet-that claim.

A smart response to Williams’s predicament might have started with a full-throated apology. At least for the tweets. Especially for the penis-joke one.

But Williams approached the matter differently. To this blog, he questioned authorship of the penis-joke offense: “That tweet abt Ann Romney — it’s really offensive and I don’t think I retweeted it. I may have been careless but I’m not stupid,” he wrote via e-mail.

That claim caused a frenzy in the world of the Erik Wemple Blog, which benefited from the help of three others in securing access to Williams’s by-then-protected Twitter feed. There was the tweet in question, on April 2.

Williams has evolved toward more contrition, telling Mediaite he was careless in his tweeting.

Issue No. 4: I don’t remember

The Daily Caller dug up a March 30 Williams tweet citing an “overlay of blatant racism” at Politico. Confronted about that tweet by Mediaite, Williams recalls the episode well enough to claim that he was having a bad day yet not well enough to remember what caused the bad day.

Issue No. 5: Williams’s oeuvre

In 2012, everything you do — your tweets, your TV appearances, etc. — counts as your work. Yet what about all the stories Williams has written? Any bias in there? Here's the archive; I’m diving in.

By  |  02:38 PM ET, 06/27/2012

 
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