Thursday, October 21, 2010

NPR Gets It Wrong

For a long time now, Juan Williams has had a strange, uncomfortable dual personality in the media.

He was a long-time correspondent-cum-news analyst for National Public Radio for years, a familiar voice in particular to listeners of Morning Edition. Williams was also a frequent guest on the Fox partisan political network. On radio, Williams came off as rather sensible. On Fox he would pop up to play the role of Bill O'Reilly's black friend, or share the couch on "Fox and Friends," and here he would say strange things indeed.

It got to the point where, in 2009, after Williams made a famously weird joke about Michelle Obama being Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress, NPR asked that he not be identified as an NPR correspondent when he appeared on Fox.

Earlier this week, Mr. Williams said something on O'Reilly's program that actually, in context, wasn't all that strange. In fact, he seemed to be trying, perhaps a little too gently, to talk a little sense into the man.

Last night, NPR fired him for allegedly making "bigoted remarks." At least, that is what the news director who made the phone call told him, according to Williams.

Here is the quote that seems to have everyone all in a pother:

Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. 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.

Here is the context. Bill O'Reilly has made a stir this month with some anti-Islamic comments. On another show where he was a guest, he yelled that "muslims killed us on 9/11." The choice of noun is significant: he did not say terrorists killed us, or Saudis killed us, or insane fanatics killed us. He chose to say that muslims killed us. And here we have the problem of mass guilt by association, the kind of islamophobia regularly served up on the Fox network and entertained even in the supposedly legitimate news media.

So O'Reilly brought Williams on his show and said, "Where did I go wrong?" So Williams started with the comment above. And then, in the midst of O'Reilly's constant interruptions, he also said (and I paraphrase, but the tape is all over the internet) that this kind of thinking is motivated by fear, and in fact it is wrong to tar all muslims with the atrocity of 9/11. He even brought up the terrorism committed by radicalized Christians who have murdered doctors who provide abortions and blown up clinics. Do we blame all Christians for these acts of terrorism? Certainly not.

Williams actually tried to be sensible. He could have done a better job of it, I suppose. But here is the crime: he admitted to feeling uncomfortable around muslims in traditional dress, even when he knows better.

That's the beginning of healing, friends. Feeling uncomfortable around people who are different than us -- especially when we have been trained to be afraid of them -- is understandable. Admitting it to ourselves and holding that feeling in conscious awareness is a vital step. As the saying goes, the truth shall set ye free. Honestly copping to where we are is the beginning of the process of healing the divisions created by fear and demagoguery.

He followed up the confession with reason. Yet he gets no credit for this, and NPR axed him in an abrupt and public way, certain to shame him. This decision was hasty and it plays right into the hands of NPR's critics, who so often present NPR as a biased liberal media source.

Indeed, Williams said in the very interview that got his contract torn up: "Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality."

NPR's action gives credence to that claim. It also denies justice to what Mr. Williams actually said. And, finally, it discouraged honest and open discussion about the "phobia" in islamophobia.

If we can't discuss the sickness, we cannot heal it.

This is probably NPR's worst decision since firing Bob Edwards.


Nathan said...

NPR has mostly sucked for years in my opinion. When I first saw Williams' comments, I was inclined to go along with the firing. But actually, now that I've seen more coming out about it, I think NPR simply chose to get rid of him now, using the remarks as an excuse. Which makes NPR's stance pretty damned weak. They long didn't like the guy's presence on FOX and his views, so their statements about these particular comments are hollow.

I have to say though that Williams' statements are offensive. Even though he's trying to shift the conversation, he still comes off as a bigot in my book. Perhaps his biggest mistake was trying to bring anything remotely sensible to the O'Reilly show. O'Reilly is so tainted that everything becomes a circus, and any real substance just gets lost.

Pam said...

I'm in total agreement with you. BAD move on NPR's part! I've watched and listened to Juan for years and this is just one more example of PC run amok.

I listen to NPR in my car quite a bit. I'm disappointed in this decision by them.

Algernon said...

To Nathan: The major error in judgment on Williams's part may have been trying to utter a complicated and nuanced position on Bill O'Reilly's show. The man cuts in before anyone can get to the "however." And as a result, the "however" is not getting heard. And it leads to nonsense like what I will address below,

to Pam! The "PC run amok" is really overblown. It's code that is used when complaining about "liberals." What is important to the right wing is called "values." What is important to the center-left is called "political correctness."

Sadly, NPR has only encouraged this kind of idiocy by handing demagogues something they can use to "prove" that the media is "PC." (I.e. liberal, i.e. disloyal to America, i.e. anti-Christian, anti-family, and anti-capitalism.)

Petteri Sulonen said...

Come to think of it, do any of you guys remember anyone ever using PC in a positive sense? As in, "You shouldn't say that, it's not PC?" 'Cuz I can't. I've only heard it used as a hammer to beat someone up with (as Algernon described), or as an object of (usually mean-spirited) satire.

(I do remember some moderately funny jokes involving it, though, such as one where women were supposed to be relabeled vagino-Americans...)

Adam said...

I have to agree - this was a pretty terrible move on their part. I wonder if something else was motivating this decision besides simply political collectedness. Recently NPR reminded their employees not to attend John Stewart's rally to restore sanity in the name of remaining objective. Part of me has to wonder if this move was a knee-jerk reaction in order to appear as an objective and un-biased organization. Fox and MSNBC are well known for their political leanings, and get dragged through the mud because of it. I'm wondering if NPR has of late made some internal decisions focused around maintaining objectivity, and William's comments simply didn't "fall in line" with this policy.

That's just a small hunch I have. I'm probably wrong, and regardless this was a gross over-reaction to William's comments which in context I found not to be all that bad, especially since he was simply admitting some prejudice on his part, not openly condemning Muslims.

Pam said...

According to what I've heard and read this was the excuse NPR jumped on to finally fire Williams. I understand they had been uncomfortable with his appearances as an analyst on FOX news for some time.

However you look at it, not a good PR move on their part.

Ryan said...

I feel like Juan Williams is typical of a lot of writers, journalists, analysts, and guests on these "debate" programs as of recent. He is a smart sensible guy who almost is forced to portray some type of alternate personality or character when he is in front of a camera. Then, when little bits of sensibility or his real opinion comes out, it is such a difference from the norm that he gets lambasted for it. Anymore, to me, these analysts, debaters, great minds, newscasters, forecasters, and the like are no more different from anyone else on the TV or radio. They are just characters acting out a script handed to them for the masses to either like or dislike depending on the situation. Sad really.