NPR Right to Fire Juan Williams

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NPR Right to Fire Juan Williams

Imagine for a moment that there was a prominent American conservative journalist who ignorantly disparaged an entire minority group on national television, got fired for it by the nation’s largest public radio media organization and then still managed to pull down a $2 million payday with the television network where he made the remarks.

Man, it must be nice to be Juan Williams.

A quick recap: Williams, a National Public Radio “news analyst,” appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” on Monday to talk about Bill O’Reilly’s recent remarks about Muslims on ABC’s “The View;” the latter’ shows co-hosts, Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg, had walked off the television set in protest.

When asked what he thought about the incident, Williams responded: “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.”

When someone begins with the weak disclaimer that he is “not a bigot,” you can probably bet the farm that he is about to say something pretty bigoted.

Soon after, Williams was terminated as an NPR news analyst — a position he had held for 10 years — for reasons that included his repeated opinion statements that have teetered on the brink of bigoted nonsense in the past.

For example, many African-Americans were rightfully shocked in January 2009 when Williams, who is black, said on Fox that the first lady “Michelle Obama, you know. … She’s got this Stokely Carmichael [of the black power movement] in a designer dress thing going. …”

In her first interview after the firing, National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “There have been several instances over the last couple of years where we have felt Juan has stepped over the line,” she said, citing the Michelle Obama remark and others. “This isn’t a case of one strike and you’re out. …”

Additionally, during this week’s Fox appearance, Williams kept referring back to the September 11 attacks in describing his uneasiness about people in “Muslim garb.”

Sadly, this is where he should lose any objective argument with any reasonable observer out there.

As a historical fact, neither the 19 hijackers from September 11 nor the failed “shoe bomber” nor the failed “underwear bomber” ever wore any “Muslim garb” when committing their criminal acts of terrorism on an airplane.

Once Williams made that factually wrong statement, he then no longer continued being a “news analyst”; he had crossed over the line into simply voicing his paranoid and irrational fears to the general public.

“Juan Williams is a news analyst; he is not a commentator and he is not a columnist,” Schiller told an Atlanta Press Club luncheon Thursday. “We have relied on him over the years to give us perspective on the news, not to talk about his opinions.”

She added, “NPR news analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on our air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview — not our reporters and analysts.”

As someone who has been an on-air NPR commentator for more than three years now, I can understand the difference between a news analyst and a commentator.

Just as I support NPR’s firing of Williams, I also publicly supported both the firing of CNN’s Rick Sanchez and Helen Thomas’ forced retirement from Hearst Newspapers for their own bizarrely bigoted statements about Jews and Israelis. Both crossed any reasonable line for an objective journalist.

Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com correctly points out: “The Helen Thomas/Rick Sanchez incidents — and countless others — demonstrate how unequal and imbalanced our standards have become in determining which group-based comments are acceptable and which ones are not. … If we’re going to fire or otherwise punish people for expressing prohibited ideas against various groups, it’s long overdue that those standards be applied equally to anti-Muslim animus, now easily one of the most — if not the single most — pervasive, tolerated and dangerous forms of blatant bigotry in America.”

The First Amendment of our beloved Constitution allows all people to express racist or bigoted thoughts. However, it does not mean that a reputable, mainstream media organization (such as NPR) must give these people a continued platform for those xenophobic views.

Fox News is a different story.

As prominent right-wing figures such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee publicly called for Congress officially to cut funding for NPR, Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes “handed Williams a new three-year contract Thursday morning,” said the Los Angeles Times, “in a deal that amounts to nearly $2 million, a considerable bump up from his previous salary.” He’ll have a steady gig on the cable news network and a regular column on its website.

The sad moral of this story is that if you take a bigoted potshot against Muslims in the public media today, no need to worry. There is probably a certain “fair and balanced” news network that might have a $2 million check waiting for you.

lan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington.
This article was published by CNN on October 22, 2010:
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