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Juan Williams' Firing: Censorship or Partisan Games Between NPR and Fox News?

4 years ago
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Always vigilant at resisting any and all attempts to squelch liberal voices, the political Left has been exhibiting an untoward inclination to suppress the speech of those with whom they do not agree. This disquieting impulse reveals itself in myriad ways, from shouting down Karl Rove in a Beverly Hills bookstore and boycotting businesses that contribute to Republicans, to advocating an Orwellian-named "fairness doctrine" designed to muzzle right-wing talk radio or demanding the firing of commentators who run afoul of their sensibilities.
The caveat should be added that this instinct is not true of all liberals (certainly not among "good liberals," as Bill O'Reilly might say), but this week the censorship impulse managed to win the day in the very bastion of levelheaded liberalism -- the corporate headquarters of National Public Radio.
Late Wednesday night, while Americans with proper priorities were watching the Giants-Phillies game, NPR issued a terse statement announcing its firing of commentator Juan Williams for comments he made to Bill O'Reilly on Fox News during a Monday night discussion about how Muslims are referenced in the context of terrorism.
Prescient in a way he couldn't have imagined, Williams prefaced his remarks by saying, "Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality." Williams then confessed his own discomfort at seeing passengers in "Muslim garb" boarding airplanes he was traveling on. Williams went on to decry intolerance and to point out how unfair it would be to hold Christians accountable for the Wichita mob that boycotts the funerals of fallen U.S. troops or the would-be Koran burner from Florida. Williams also lauded leaders such as George W. Bush, whom, he said, stressed to their fellow Americans: "It's not a war with Islam."
Too late, Juan. The damage had been done, at least in the minds of Vivian Schiller, the network's CEO, and Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news. They terminated his contract that night.
"Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years and we did not make this decision lightly or without regret," said the statement, which was issued jointly by Schiller and Weiss. "However, his remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."

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One assumes that the remarks they had in mind were the ones in which Williams said he gets privately "worried" or "nervous" about seeing people on his airplane in traditional Muslim dress -- and not his corollary point of decrying hate crimes against Muslims. NPR executives certainly couldn't have objected to this statement made by Williams: "We don't want in America people to have their rights violated."
It seemed Williams had more to say in this vein, but O'Reilly kept cutting him off. The verbose Fox News host had his own agenda. He was defending himself against charges of bigotry that arose when he appeared on ABC's "The View" to promote his most recent book. In the midst of a hard-to-comprehend conversation (everyone kept shouting and talking over one another), Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar apparently took exception when O'Reilly noted that the United States was "attacked by Muslims" on 9/11. The two women briefly walked off the set. It was yet another example of liberals wanting to pull the microphone cord instead of trusting the marketplace of ideas.
They aren't the only ones. After Williams was sacked, conservatives, imitating that which they profess to detest, immediately began playing the same game.
Sarah Palin weighed in, naturally, calling for NPR to be defunded. Mike Huckabee, one of Palin's conservative rivals, echoed that statement and added a flourish of his own: "I will no longer accept interview requests from NPR as long as they are going to practice a form of censorship."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich issued a theatrical call for a congressional investigation into NPR. "The U.S. Congress should investigate NPR and consider cutting off their money," Gingrich said on Fox News Thursday morning. "Every listener to NPR should be enraged that there's this kind of bias against an American."
These conservative criticisms, however genuinely felt, managed to achieve the neat trick of being wrong in all respects. For starters, less than 6 percent of NPR's member stations' budgets come from federal, state, and local funds combined. As for Newt Gingrich's belief that Americans would be shocked to find a liberal bent at NPR, all available evidence suggests that much of NPR's liberal audience will be delighted Juan Williams is gone: They never understood how he could be commentating on both Fox News and NPR in the first place.
Finally, Huckabee's gambit -- not going on the air for NPR -- seems to be akin to what NPR did to Juan Williams. No less an authority in the media/culture wars than Bill O'Reilly could enlighten The Huck; O'Reilly explained it to his own viewers. Why does he go into hostile venues such as the set of "The View" when its entire cast, save Elisabeth Hasselbeck, is made up of liberal women? That's precisely the reason, O'Reilly said: He's able to share a perspective ABC's viewers don't usually get.
And what is that viewpoint insofar as Muslims are concerned? Amid a conversation that managed to devolve into loose talk of "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims," O'Reilly laid out the core of his case: "No one I know wants to insult Muslims, but many are tired of the political correctness surrounding the 9/11 attack. The truth is that if moderate Muslims all over the world stand with America against radical Islam, the terrorists could not exist. But, obviously, this is not what happened."
That's a superficial worldview, perhaps, but one that merits conversation rather than censorship, boycotts, firings, and scorn. Perhaps there are other reasons for NPR to divorce itself from Williams. Like most men, he hasn't lived a blameless life. Nor was this the first time that comments uttered by Williams on Fox News, which also employed him, infuriated NPR listeners. They also didn't set well with NPR's hierarchy, which has clearly never been comfortable with having its journalists (Mara Liasson is a Fox regular, too) appear on a rival network known for its conservative sympathies -- but which hasn't been willing to confront the issue head-on.
Alicia Shepard, NPR's always thoughtful ombudsman, first wrote about the dilemma Juan Williams posed for NPR in a Feb. 11, 2009 column in which she noted that in 2008 she received 378 written complaints from listeners about Williams -- by far the highest on the staff. The occasion of that 2009 column was Juan Williams-induced outrage over his comparison of Michelle Obama to black 60s radical Stokely Carmichael. The upshot of that episode was that Williams agreed that on Fox News he would not be identified as an NPR employee. That agreement apparently never fully mollified the NPR brass. In any event, it was made moot on Monday, when O'Reilly said to Williams: "You live in the liberal precincts -- you actually work for NPR."
Shepard suggested Thursday that a better resolution would have been for NPR's bosses to give Williams a choice -- them or Fox News. That's in keeping with Shepard's classy style -- the first time she wrote about Williams, she pulled no punches while showing respect to both Williams and his critics -- and it contrasted with CEO Vivian Schiller's gratuitous swipe at Williams on his way out the door. (Schiller said that Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist and his publicist," a remark Schiller herself characterized as "thoughtless" later in the day while issuing an apology).
For his part, Williams slammed NPR for its "one-party rule" and "one-sided thinking that leads to enforced ideology, speech, and writing." But it needn't have come to any of this. There are, after all, prominent "liberal precincts" where the issue of bias in the media is dealt with more deftly. We're talking about "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report." Those venues also annoy conservatives, who complain with some justification that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are committed partisans skilled in the art of twisting their opponents' words.
But both sides do that; and in any event, satire is a more sophisticated weapon than the pink slip.
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