I don’t know Juan Williams personally, though I’ve interviewed him on the radio show I used to co-host, and I’ve talked to him a bit. And I don’t watch Fox News, so I’m not aware of everything he thinks or says. But the idea that Mr. Williams is some anti-Muslim bigot, or that he made “anti-Muslim remarks” that merited his being fired by NPR, as the completely misleading Washington Post headline this morning reads, is, in two words, horse puckey. To hear the Wapo and others tell it, Williams was let go because he said this:
I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country,” he said. “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’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts.
To which NPR said this:
“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.”
And that would be all well and good if that’s all Williams said. But it isn’t. In fact, Williams made the comments during a heated debate with Bill O’Reilly, in which he was actually saying Americans needed to fight the prejudices that may lie in wait deep in the pit of their stomachs when they get on a plane with people who have the outward appearance of being Muslim. Like Shirley Sherrod, whose comments were sliced and diced by Andrew Breitbart and served up to a cowardly Tom Vilsack, whose agency panicked at the thought of Fox News picking those comments up and immediately fired Sherrod without viewing the entire videotape of her speech to the NAACP, even making her pull over on the roadside and text her resignation. William Saletan of Slate explains what happened after that infamous clip, and provides some badly needed context:
On the program, Williams was responding to host Bill O’Reilly, who had gotten into trouble for comments about Islam and terrorism. In his initial answer, Williams said exactly what the video excerpt shows: that he worries when he sees passengers in Muslim garb, and that the Times Square bomber declared a U.S. war with Muslims.
Williams is right about the bomber. When Faisal Shahzad pled guilty in the Times Square plot, he told the court: “Brace yourselves, because the war with Muslims has just begun. Consider me only a first droplet of the flood that will follow me.” That isn’t a legitimate basis for judging all Muslims. But it is, as Williams said, a fact. And Williams’ confession that he fears religious Muslims isn’t necessarily an endorsement of bigotry. Remember what Jesse Jackson said 17 years ago: “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Sometimes a confession of prejudice is part of a larger reflection on the perils of prejudice. That was true of Sherrod. And it’s true of Williams.
The damning video clip of Williams, like the damning clip of Sherrod, cuts off the speaker just as he’s about to reverse course. According to the full transcript, immediately after saying, “I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts,” Williams continues: “But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam.” That continuation has been conveniently snipped from the excerpt.
A few seconds later, Williams challenges O’Reilly’s suggestion that “the Muslims attacked us on 9/11.” Williams points out how wrong it would be to generalize similarly about Christians:
Hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals—very obnoxious—you don’t say first and foremost, “We got a problem with Christians.” That’s crazy.
Williams reminds O’Reilly that “there are good Muslims.” A short while later, O’Reilly asks: “Juan, who is posing a problem in Germany? Is it the Muslims who have come there, or the Germans?” Williams refuses to play the group blame game. “See, you did it again,” he tells O’Reilly. “It’s extremists.”
Williams warns O’Reilly that televised statements about Muslims as a group can foment bigotry and violence. “The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby’s neck,” Williams reminds him. “Or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero … We don’t want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street because they heard rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly.”
This was a debate, not a mutual hating society. And it was O’Reilly — not Williams — who was defending himself against the appearance of anti-Muslim bigotry in comments so nasty, they made two hosts of The View walk off the set.
Williams is a conservative — at least I think he is. He actually kind of defies description, based on his books, the interviews I’ve done with him, and the fact that he serves as one of the few mitigating factors to the otherwise uncorked, right wing tidal wave on Fox. I think he’s dead wrong on Park 51, which I am on record in multiple venues as saying should be built, and in fact must be built, in downtown Manhattan, to shut the bigots AND the terrorists up.
But even if he is as right wing as Sarah Palin, you can’t fire a guy for statements taken out of context, in which he’s saying we and he need to work out our own prejudices, not indulging in them, and then self-righteously claim to be upholding high minded journalistic standards. Besides, Williams is not a reporter. He’s a “news analyst” — which doesn’t prevent him from exploring his personal opinions. If it did, I’d be out of work. And to the extent that my side — liberals — contributed to his ouster, especially ThinkProgress, which I rely on for information, and which is associated with the incredibly thorough and valuable Center for American Progress, shame on us.
Somehow, I suspect that Williams’ tenure at Fox had something to do with NPR not wanting him around. NPR has never been comfortable with the conflation, and something tells me his NPR bosses were just waiting for him to give them a reason not to renew his contract. That’s just my speculation, but it’s not idle speculation. (Via Twitter: Howard Kurtz concurs.)
I reached out to Mr. Williams, who understandably, isn’t prepared to comment at this time. But suffice it to say he is justifiably upset with what happened. I forgot to ask him whether NPR made him pull over by the side of the road and text his letter of exit.
I think we need to re-examine what’s going on in this country when white commentators like Rush Limbaugh can practically call the president of the United States a “boy” on his radio show, daily, and keep his gig with Clear Channel; when O’Reilly can spout anti-Muslim drivel on “The View,” and still be good to go; and when an entire “news” network can malign any minority group it wants, at will, including its morning show clowns stating that “all terrorists are Muslims” (as Andrew Sullivan points out) but women journalists and journalists of color are on a hair trigger for being fired. You can be totally offended by what Helen Thomas said, or somehow construe wrongdoing in Octavia Nasr’s praise for a controversial Muslim leader, or think Rick Sanchez is a dumb jerk. But you can’t escape the fact that while they are all cooling their heels off the air, Ann Coulter, Breitbart and Eric Erickson are still considered respectable bookings for CNN, Lou Dobbs was allowed to linger at that network for years, and Glenn Beck is still on Fox News — even with no advertisers. We live at a time when you can literally dress up like a Nazi, email caricatures of President Obama as a pimp and his wife as a whore, or literally espouse white supremacy, and be a candidate for political office, but a minority or woman journalist can’t contextualize their personal experiences without getting canned.
So good luck then, NPR. I guess you’ll have to fall back on your other black male air personalities to add diversity to you lineup … oh … right … you don’t have anyone else.
UPDATE: ThinkProgress responds to the news of Williams’ firing:
NPR reported that “Williams’ presence on the largely conservative and often contentious prime-time talk shows of Fox News has long been a sore point with NPR News executives.” Indeed, last year, the organization asked that he no longer be identified as affiliated with NPR when appearing on the O’Reilly Factor.
ThinkProgress never called for Williams’ firing, and we are surprised by NPR’s move. However, NPR has every right to fire an employee whose public statements diminish NPR’s own reputation as a reliable source of news and level-headed analysis. Obviously, a news organization is under no obligation to employ a commentator who airs his own religious bias on national television.
At the same time, NPR’s decision advances the idea that there shouldn’t be a double standard. If media figures such as Rick Sanchez and Helen Thomas are fired for insensitive remarks about non-Muslims, then the standard seems fair to apply when similar comments are said about Muslims. (Also, CNN fired Octavia Nasr for comments about a popular Muslim Lebanese leader which were deemed impolitic.)
And then they toss in this, in which liberal commenters engage in a little high-fiveing, again, ignoring the context in favor of the clip:
“[I]t’s not surprising,” writes Michael Tomasky, “that after all these years of going on [Fox News'] air and drinking their green-room coffee, Williams should choose to ingratiate himself to O’Reilly and his viewers with that Foxy rhetoric. In a sense Williams got what was coming to him. Sleep with dogs, get fleas.” Yet, it appears that other media figures seem to be missing the point. “Watch how many people who cheered when Octavia-Nasr/Helen-Thomas/Rick-Sanchez were fired scream CENSORSHIP!! all day over Juan Williams,” Salon’s Glenn Greenwald tweeted this morning.
Stay classy, guys.