I’m not a fan of Juan Williams, so I can’t say I’m sad that NPR got rid of him for comments he made about Muslims on Bill O’Reilly’s show. This was not the first time he made impolitic comments on Fox News. As I argued in my post about CNN’s firing of Rick Sanchez, journalists (Williams claims to be one in addition to being a pundit) must be held to a higher standard because they not only speak for themselves but for the organizations they work for, because they have access to an influential public platform and because they are supposed to be unbiased, or to at least try not to let their personal biases shape their journalism.
Perhaps saying he is nervous about flying on airplanes with Muslims is not the same as Sanchez saying that the media is controlled by Jews. And Williams was a bit more cautious about qualifying his comments and did stress that he was not talking about all Muslims. But the comment that got him in trouble undermined every related qualifier he uttered.
"But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
So when he sees someone dressed in "Muslim garb" he can accurately surmise that they are identifying themselves "first and foremost" as Muslim? What about people from the Middle East, including atheists, whose clothing reflect a cultural and not a religious sensibility? And what if they are dressing for religious reasons that have nothing to do with radicalism and violence and everything to do with devotion to their God and belief in a life of peace? If Indian passengers dressed in traditional clothing boarded a plane would Williams feel nervous and immediately think they were Hindu militants? And how likely is it that a terrorrist intent on hurting Westerners would be dressed in a way that would draw attention to himself/herself on a U.S. airplane? I’m not aware that the would-be bomber from Nigeria who tried to detonate a bomb on an American airliner last year was dressed in "Muslim garb"-unless we consider a bomb in one’s underwear Muslim garb-but I wonder if Williams will now feel similarly nervous whenever a young black man who looks like he may be Nigerian boards an airplane.
How far should news outlets go in tolerating this sort of rationalizing of racial/ethnic/religious bias in the name of respecting the free speech rights of their employees-employees who also happen to be the public face of the news outlets?
Williams often speaks off the cuff without considering the tone and content of his comments and the possibility that they might offend and have repercussions. His comments about Michelle Obama last year caused a similar ruckus and prompted NPR to ask him to stop identifying himself as an NPR analyst when he appeared on O’Reilly’s show.
I’ve often wondered if Williams even believes some of the stupid things he says or if he says them just to be provocative. He’s not very persuasive as a pundit. If anything, I think there’s a streak of intellectual dishonesty that runs through his commentary. Witness this long missive published today in which he defends his comments, provides the subtext for his firing, and reveals a litany of alleged unfair treatment by NPR, some of it the result of the controversy over his comments about the first lady:
"To say the least this is a chilling assault on free speech. The critical importance of honest journalism and a free flowing, respectful national conversation needs to be had in our country. But it is being buried as collateral damage in a war whose battles include political correctness and ideological orthodoxy."
"This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought."
Williams contends that he was fired for complaning about being "forced" (really? At gun point?) to sign a contract that gave NPR distance from his commentary outside of NPR. He mentioned Nixon’s famous "enemies list" and noted that despite giving NPR 10 years of service he was treated with "less regard, less respect for the value of independence of thought and embrace of real debate across political lines, than Nixon ever displayed."
OK, so he worked for an organization whose leadership he supposedly found "self-righteous, ideological, left-wing" and that treated him worse than "Tricky Dick" treated his enemies. Yet he stayed with them for 10 years. I wonder when exactly he began to notice he was the only black male on air at NPR and why he did not publicly complain about this lack of diversity before?
Now that Williams is feeling victimized, maybe he can imagine how Muslims must feel about his comments.
Photograph of Juan Williams by Pete Wright courtesy Wikimedia Commons .