Opinions Enflamed Over Juan Williams Firing

News analyst Juan Williams appears on the "Fox & Friends" Oct. 21, 2010. Williams was fired by NPR after comments he made about Muslims on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor."
AP Photo
Some opinions in the media about National Public Radio's firing of analyst Juan Williams after he made comments on Fox News that were deemed by NPR to be racially inflammatory seem almost equally inflammatory.

After Williams confessed to Bill O'Reilly that seeing people in Muslim dress at an airport make him feel "nervous" and "worried," NPR fired him.

NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller said opinions should not come from NPR reporters or news analysts.

Fox in turn gave Williams a new three-year, $2 million contract.

Response to NPR's action has been mostly negative, despite other incidents in the past in which Williams' remarks made during Fox News appearances have given NPR headaches.

Juan Williams Talks Back to NPR on "O'Reilly Factor"
Juan Williams: NPR Head's Remarks Were an Attack
Juan Williams: NPR Canned Me for Fox Affiliation
Juan Williams: I Meant What I Said on O'Reilly
Former NPR Host Accused of "Religious Profiling"
NPR Fires Juan Williams over Anti-Muslim Remarks

The Washington Post's editorial board slammed NPR:

"In short, Mr. Williams was attempting to do exactly what a responsible commentator should do: speak honestly without being inflammatory. His reward was to lose his job, just as Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod lost hers over purportedly racist remarks that turned out to be anything but. NPR management appears to have learned nothing from that rush to judgment.

"'Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality,' Mr. Williams told Mr. O'Reilly. NPR, alas, has proved his point."

But in an online posting, the Post's Paul Farhi reminded Williams: "Free speech does have consequences. Getting fired for saying something your employer doesn't like is one of them. Just ask Rick Sanchez."

NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote that Williams' firing was "poorly handled," but made the point that she had previously received e-mails complaining about remarks made by Williams on Fox News, including his 2009 comments on "The O'Reilly Factor" referring to Michelle Obama as "Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress." ["If she starts talking . . . her instinct is to start with this 'blame America,' you know, 'I'm the victim.' If that stuff starts to coming out, people will go bananas and she'll go from being the new Jackie O. to being something of an albatross."]

Shepard writes: "It can't be overlooked that this episode is occurring in a toxic political environment where people are quick to take sides and look for hidden motives. I fear some will look for racial motivations in NPR's decision to fire Williams, who is African-American and one of the few black male NPR voices.

"It's not about race. It's also not about free speech, as some have charged. Nor is it about an alleged attempt by NPR to stifle conservative views. NPR offers a broad range of viewpoints on its radio shows and web site.

"Instead, this latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values: NPR's values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum."

Shepard also questioned William's defense that he was not speaking in racial stereotypes when he was simply describing an emotion, rather than defending a discriminatory action:

"Williams was doing the kind of stereotyping in a public platform that is dangerous to a democracy. It puts people in categories, as types - not as individuals with much in common despite their differences.

"I can only imagine how Williams, who has chronicled and championed the Civil Rights movement, would have reacted if another prominent journalist had said: But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see an African American male in Dashiki with a big Afro, I get worried. I get nervous. "

The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz called NPR's firing of Williams "a blunder of enormous proportions," and said that Williams was canned not for what he said but where he said. It.

"I suspect that if Williams had said the same thing to Charlie Rose, rather than on 'The O'Reilly Factor,' he'd still have his radio job," Kurtz wrote.

Others parsed the words Williams used to both describe and defend his emotions when seeing people in "Muslim garb." Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic wrote that Williams' characterization was "the working definition of bigotry."

"What percentage of traditionally garbed Muslims - I assume wearing a covered veil or some other indicator and being of darker skin - have committed acts of terror?" Sullivan wrote. "And, of course, the 9/11 mass-murderers were in everyday attire, to blend in. So was the Christmas Day undie-bomber. The Fort Hood murderer was in U.S. military uniform, for Pete's sake."

After documenting what he called a "glaring double standard" in the media whereby bigotry against Muslims is tolerated while bigotry against other groups is punished, Salon's Glenn Greenwald wrote, "That double standard suffered a very welcome blow last night" with Williams' firing.

In an article headlined "Maybe NPR Shouldn't Have Fired Juan Williams," John Aloysius Farrell of U.S. News & World Report writes, "[I]n the long list of gaffes and slurs that have cost American politicians or celebrities their livelihoods, I'm not sure that Williams' statements rank very high. They could have been remedied by an apology. The one he really hurt was himself. I feel embarrassed for him, to tell you the truth.

"With unbecoming unctuousness, Williams confessed to the Fox audience that folks in Muslim garb frighten him. He gets points for candor, if not courage. (Man up, Juan!)"

Tom Scocca of Slate concurred, after a fashion, with Kurtz ("Of course Williams was fired for where he said what he said, because NPR's whole beef with Williams was that he had this second job, at Fox, where the things he said didn't fit very well with the things he was supposed to say in his first job, at NPR. It was a, what's the word? Conflict."), though he believes NPR should not have moved so quickly, despite William's history of making controversial comments on Fox. "It's bad form for the boss not to at least act thoughtful in response," Scocca wrote.

But Scocca can't find a loser in the scenario: "NPR gets rid of Williams, which it always wanted to do. Maybe it loses some funding for being so un-American, and Archer Daniels Midland will have to come back and help out. Williams gets $2 million and becomes a prize martyr for Fox News. Fox News has something to yell about. Howard Kurtz has something to offer evenhanded semi-opinions about. I get a blog post at the end of a long day."

So, should the "emotions" of commentators and journalists be off the table when they take to the air?

The Christian Science Monitor opinion page editor Josh Burek writes that while more transparency is attractive ["Pulling the curtain back on reporters' backgrounds and beliefs could act as an important check on one of the most widespread and subtle forms of journalistic bias: selective use of sources."] and could help readers better gauge the intellectual honesty of the reporter, he remains in the "keep your opinions to yourself" camp.

"As opinion editor, I get paid to help other people express their points of view more clearly," Burek writes. "Doing that well takes a tremendous amount of trust. And that trust would be broken if commentary writers knew that my own beliefs diverged from theirs."

Online polls show the public hasn't; cottoned to NPR's justification. A nationwide Poll Position public opinion survey found 46% said NPR was wrong to fire Williams, while 19 percent said NPR was right to fire him. Thirty-five percent had no opinion.

An online Washington Post poll didn't offer survey-takers an option of "no opinion," and this morning he tally was 77% against the firing.

In addition to polls, pols are lashing out against the broadcast. Republican Rep. Eric Castor and Sen. Jim DeMint want to cut off funding for public radio. (Nearly six percent of public radio's funding comes from federal, state and local sources.)

And ex-Gov. Sarah Palin tweeted, "NPR defends 1st Amendment Right, but will fire u if u exercise it. Juan Williams: u got taste of Left's hypocrisy, they screwed up firing you."

To which The New Yorker's senior editor Amy Davidson writes, "Here's a reason to be angry at NPR: for putting one in a position of almost, kind of agreeing, even in a partial, limited way, with anything Palin tweeted."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.