Juan Williams misses NPR; Ben Smith competes with Taco Bell Health Channel

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Salmon, Williams, Rose, Rusbridger, Vanden Heuvel and Smith. ()
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Fox News political analyst Juan Williams misses working for NPR “big time.”  

“Because that’s such an informed and influential audience,” he told me last night at the swanky Industria Studios, a big loft and event space in the far West Village.  “And the thing is that audience really liked me and I would often times help raise money for NPR.”  

Williams, you may recall, was rather spectacularly (and controversially) fired from NPR in 2010 after telling Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that he sometimes “gets nervous” when he sees people in “Muslim garb” boarding a plane he is traveling on.  

Williams was participating in one of those countless "future-of-media" panel discussions, this one sponsored by The Guardian and titled “Commercial Pressures versus Journalistic Standards.”

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There were reasons to be hopeful this event would be a rare success among such panels: It was, after all, sponsored by The Guardian, which broke open the biggest stories about phone-hacking and police bribery by journalists at Rupert Murdoch's British tabloids. What better object lesson could there have been in the commercial pressures on journalistic standards? And Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, was on the panel, along with native Brit and Reuters columnist Felix Salmon. Rounding out the list were Katrina Vanden Heuvel of the Nation, Buzzfeed's Ben Smith, and host Charlie Rose.

“Who wants to represent integrity and who wants to represent commerce?” Rose asked by way of introducing the topic, and there were no takers.

But in the end the most impressive thing about the evening was an anthropological fact about New York media events: That The Guardian, with its brand-new American base in Soho, which clocked a highly respectable 24 million unique visitors in the U.S. alone last month, was able to attract such a well-dressed, high profile media crowd on the same night at the National Magazine Awards, arguably the biggest evening in the New York media ecosystem. Uniques and influence don't always determine each other, and though the open bar and plates of hors d'oeuvres left something to be desired as they always do ("Everything is terrible!" Rusbridger himself declared) The Guardian clearly has both an audience and influence.   

Unfortunately, with all that talent on stage, most of the evening was really much like 5,000 other media panels that have taken place over the last five years. Had we all stepped into a time machine? Can we really still be talking about whether Twitter is a useful tool for journalists? (One that Felix Salmon says he would pay $1,000 a year for?) Is it possible we can still be lamenting the demise of print journalism? Or investigative journalism? Or local investigative journalism? Yes, apparently we can.  

The fact we are still having these same tired conversations suggests what should be obvious by now, that there is no conference-ready silver-bullet solution to the problems that have plagued contemporary media over the last five years.

Later, Ben Smith suggested to me that we might have to wait another five years for the generation that has never known life without Facebook (or with a newspaper, for that matter) to push high enough into the ranks of media decision-making to make such talk disreputable.    

There were spots of brilliance. Both Rusbridger and Salmon spoke at some length about the need for the implementation of “serious protections” for journalists against government, which increasingly is being allowed access to electronic correspondence to weed out journalists' sources, often under the guise of national security.

"Especially in the U.S., where there’s a lot of secret overreach," said Salmon, noting the recent (and swift) charges brought against the so-called Fox News Mole by News Corp.

(Speaking of News Corp., there was little in fact said about the current investigations by government and police into the sources of its newspaper reporters' work; nor the danger of vilifying the media to the point where serious breaches of press freedom become politically feasible.

Rusbridger remarked in the segment about the decline of investigative journalism that Guardian reporter Nick Davies, responsible for much of the paper's investigations into News Corp., took four years and a big chunk of the budget to do his work; Vanden Heuvel had an unintentionally gory remark about how the scandal had made Rupert Murdoch "touchable.")  

And later on, Smith remarked that one of the biggest challenges facing Buzzfeed, a site that relies on sharing to generate users, is that companies have become so good at making their wares appear to be content that he sometimes feels as though he is competing with his own advertisers for readers.   

“I’m less concerned about Rupert Murdoch than the Taco Bell Health Channel,” said a member of the audience. 

"In politics it’s a more pressing thing," Smith said. "Political campaigns can tell people exactly what they want to hear, which I think they’re often more likely to read and share, so you do find yourself sometimes at a disadvantage.”

So is it just a matter of time before the world is introduced to the ‘American Express Small Business Channel’?  Yes indeed, according to Felix Salmon, though the good news he says is that “outside of politics I think it’s going to be a long time before anyone sets up a news channel.”