Juan Williams Fired - Do Words Now Speak Louder Than Actions?

Last Updated Oct 26, 2010 6:42 PM EDT

Juan Williams FiredThe big controversy of the day is that award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and journalist Juan Williams had his contract terminated by NPR (National Public Radio) yesterday, two days after he made a statement about Muslims on The O'Reilly Factor:
"Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality. I mean, look Bill [O'Reilly], I'm not a bigot, you know the kind of books I've written on the civil rights movement in this country, but when I get on a 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."
A statement by NPRsaid the remarks were "inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."

The controversy over Williams' first amendment rights versus our increasingly politically correct society is, to me, academic. Sure, Williams has the right to say pretty much whatever he wants. That said, NPR has the right to terminate his contract, assuming the terms of the contract allow for that sort of thing. End of story, right? Not exactly.

There's a bigger issue here. If anyone takes the time to look at this highly accomplished guy's body of work, I mean, it's sort of overwhelming ... this man is so not a bigot:

  • He writes for the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, Ebony, Time, and GQ.
  • He's received honorary doctorates from a whole bunch of universities.
  • He had an extraordinary 23-year career with the Washington Post, including numerous awards for investigative journalism and opinion columns.
  • He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
  • He received an Emmy Award for writing a television documentary.
  • He's written a number of acclaimed books, including several on the American Civil Rights movement.
  • He's been the host of several successful TV and radio programs and a regular on many others.
By his actions, including an extraordinary body of work, this man is a civil rights advocate. But one statement, an honest statement, and one that may simply have given voice to the way many Americans truly feel, seems to be more important than decades of actions.

That brings me to what I think is the big issue here. In our media-overload, gadget-crazy, sound-bite-centric culture, do words now speak louder than actions?
Assuming the answer is yes, then what effect does that have on our society's ability to hold our political and business leaders accountable for their actions? If a lifetime of virtuous actions don't count as much as a sound-bite, that would seem to indicate that it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you say all the right things. What message does that send to our leaders? And what effect will it have on our children, our leaders of tomorrow?

Ironically, the first part of Williams' controversial statement frames the situation pretty well: "Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality."

What do you think? Was Williams right? And do words now speak louder than actions?

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