Juan Williams fills two roles

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Shows: The `Talk of the Nation' host spars on Sundays with `Fox News' anchor Brit Hume.

April 25, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Juan Williams commands two very different, very prominent public pulpits.

Four days a week, he is the host of National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," a two-hour sanctuary for thoughtful, sometimes provocative discussion of issues in the public eye.

Sundays, he is a pundit on the weekly political talk show "Fox News Sunday," on which he has appeared almost since the first show. (It is celebrating its five-year anniversary this Sunday.)

During the week, Williams acts as the reasonable arbiter, led by common sense to tease out greater truths. Sundays, he's the sparring partner of anchor Brit Hume, perhaps the toniest embodiment of Fox News' often-acerbic style.

"Juan is supposed to be the liberal, although he's an iconoclast," says NPR White House reporter Mara Liassen, a fellow guest on the Fox news program.

In each role, Williams tries to retain the reporter's inquisitiveness and eye for detail that launched his newspaper career and led him to write two well-received books: a biography of the late Thurgood Marshall and an account of the push for civil rights in this country.

Since taking the job at the NPR program last spring, Williams has started to reshape "Talk of the Nation" as a more news-focused show. "There really isn't a model for a show where you say to people, `I am like you, sort of curious about what's happening,' " Williams says. "I have an abiding curiosity about understanding how power works - what are the real issues?"

"One of the driving formats in modern media is the `Crossfire' approach; that is more Circus Maximus than informational," he says. "I'm not interested in a shouting match. I am interested in putting facts on the table, not simply airing rhetoric."

NPR is frequently derided by critics as elitist and liberal. Fox is often pigeonholed as a bastion of conservatism. But ideology aside, there's also a difference in tenor between Williams' two employers, one that surfaced a few months ago when he was a guest of Fox talk show host Bill O'Reilly.

O'Reilly, a brash right-of-center populist, has edged out CNN's Larry King as cable's highest-rated talk show host. While offering warm words personally, O'Reilly challenged Williams on the issue of whether the government should subsidize NPR, and whether the public radio system was hopelessly leftist.

Williams felt compelled to argue on two fronts: first, that NPR was not directly financed by the federal government; second, that NPR is not biased toward liberal stances: "I think you distort the subject before we begin by making it seem like it's some kind of government project," he said.

O'Reilly demanded jokingly, "Hey, Juan, did I ever tell the audience that you're a communist? Did I?"

Dryly, Williams responded: "No, I'm glad you mentioned it now. Thank you. Thank you very much."

Among those who have been guests on "Talk of the Nation" have been conservatives including O'Reilly. Recent shows have centered on the downing of the U.S. spy plane in China, drop-out rates and the execution of Timothy McVeigh.

A segment with a roving envoy for the ruling Taliban of Afghanistan showed Williams to be a measured but persistent questioner, following news reports about repression of women and the destruction of Buddhist statues in that country.

Some may miss the unflappable presence of former "Talk of the Nation" host Ray Suarez, who took a broader interest in topics outside politics. But in Williams, many listeners - and not just those on the left - may have found a new roving envoy.

Not so funny

The next time a mayor wants to repaint the benches at bus stops, consider this motto: "Baltimore - A Cheap Date."

CBS's marvel of mousse, the very late night talk show host Craig Kilborn, offered viewers a supposed tour of five U.S. cities earlier this month without budging one inch from Los Angeles.

Among those featured were Denver, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Francisco. Two Wednesdays ago, with a dash of aplomb unmarred by geographical precision, the announcer of "The Late Late Show" hollered that the program came "From the City by the Bay - and we mean the Chesapeake!"

Ensuing footage showed brief shots of the Ravens, of crabs and the Inner Harbor.

Behind Kilborn stood letters on models of Hollywood-style hills spelling out "B-a-l-t-i-m-o-r-e." Kilborn displayed a plate of crab cakes and introduced the city's new mayor, Boog Powell. (Powell was actually actor Martin Mull.)

Ostensible Baltimoriana popped up several times during the show. The "In the News Segment," Kilborn explained, was "brought to you by Cal Ripken Jr., who, due to injury, couldn't make it tonight." Whoo-ee, is that Kilborn kid funny.

A bit later, Lara Dutta of India, this year's Miss Universe, was introduced as having adopted Baltimore as her favorite American town. Buddy Hackett appeared to explain that Gordon's is where everybody goes for crabs, but Obrycki's is where those in the know dine.

At each mention of Baltimore, the primed California crowd whooped and hollered. No one actually from Baltimore ever appeared as a guest on the show. The jokes weren't particularly clever or biting. And Kilborn's post-ironic posturing was only intermittently funny. At his best, he seemed only to be pretending to be pretending to be beamed from here.

Here's where the cheap date part comes in. In Baltimore, Kilborn's crab-centric episode attracted 48 percent more households than on the typical Wednesday, according to Nielsen estimates. The audience was 72 percent higher in Baltimore than it was the same night last year.

WJZ must have loved that - as did sister stations in Philadelphia and San Francisco, which also saw ratings rise on the nights those cities were touted. All three stations are owned by CBS.

Next time, I say we hold out for a bit more.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david. folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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