Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Bad Chess Move

So Juan Williams has been fired from NPR for his comments on the Bill O'Reilly show on Faux.

"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot….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."

I think NPR got this wrong for a number of reasons. First, Williams is expressing a personal perception to which he has every right. He is not expressing NPR's editorial policy. Plus, he is appearing on a TV network as an independent journalist, and not as a representative of NPR. But more than this, an organization's party line must be awfully narrow to find comments like these so objectionable as to warrant firing the person who utters them. If he had replaced "Muslim" with "atheist," I would think him a fool (not least because atheists aren't known for wishing harm on anyone) but I don't think it would even strike me to demand his job.

But the worst thing here, honestly, is that it gives News Corp an opportunity to step in and make a huge P.R. ploy for its deluded viewers. Making NPR seem bigoted and intolerant and having Faux come to the rescue absolutely makes up look down, which is the very playbook by which the network operates. Faux News chief Roger Ailes ran quickly after the ambulance to make a simulated show of affection for Williams, who has played the double token for Ailes' network since 1997. NPR might surely have seen this coming. (It's well and good for NPR to stand up for journalistic integrity, but what will be the net loss when the actions provide such fodder for Faux's blizzard of lies and spin?)

I'm not a particular fan of Juan Williams, though I don't blame him for taking his $2 million wherever he can get it. His straight reportage has been fine, but when he briefly held the anchor at NPR's midday talk show, Talk Of The Nation, I thought him pointedly unequal to the job (a deficit brilliantly neutralized now for several years by shuffling Neal Conan into the seat and making Williams a "senior correspondent," who featured on the network only rarely).

Regardless, I can't celebrate his firing. He spoke his mind--rather mildly, it seems to me--and was sacked for it. If this is a convenient way for NPR to get rid of someone whose aura had faded, they've made quite a mess of it. And if he was fired for not toeing the party line, then they're demanding a too-rigid adherence to their standards of people who have lives outside NPR.

NPR remains my single most important new source, and they've rarely stepped wrong in the 27 years I've been happy to send them a monthly check. But here's one they got wrong.

(P.S. What would Faux have done if Bill O'Reilly went on Talk Of The Nation and said he welcomed a mosque in lower Manhattan? His fans might have lynched him, but I suspect he'd keep his job.)


Williams has now come out swinging in a column at Faux:
This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought. [emphasis mine]
I understand the desire to say "NPR was wrong to fire me," and I'd agree with that sentiment. But this, this is rich coming from a guy now solely employed by Pissed-n-Paranoid-White-Guy-Liars-R-Us. In fact, his paragraph describes the Faux News model to a T. NPR has historically had the widest-ranging coverage available, and indeed it's one of the few places one can go and actually hear all viewpoints for a story. And as for their staffing, take a look through the who's who of NPR and compare that to any other news organization. To sit at a desk at Faux News and claim that NPR's staff lacks diversity is almost comical.

And I have indeed overestimated Mr. Williams if a generic fear of everyone "dressed like Muslims" qualifies as independence of thought.


wunelle said...

As always, I've not been fully aware of Williams' history of (to the powers that be at NPR) controversial statements in the past. It seems they have had several discussions with him about not voicing his personal views on other networks if those views would be deemed inappropriate on NPR.

If so, this firing (or, if we prefer, the decision to terminate his contract) is a last-straw situation, rather than an out-of-the-blue lightning bolt.

I love the NYT article which talks about all the protests coming into NPR from people who identify themselves as "longtime viewers" and who are threatening to "stop watching." Certainly sounds like Tea-Baggers to me.

Jeffy said...

I can't really decide whether his comments were a firing offense or not, but it does seem that he is undermining his credibility as an unbiased reporter.

I did, however, find it ironic that Juan put himself in the position of being suspicious of minorities when he would likely be offended by someone who expressed similar fears about scary black people.

wunelle said...

But that's why he has had longevity on Faux. He's a member of a minority race who will helpfully say just what the white folk want to hear (or will disagree with the appropriate deference). That's why ghouls like Ann Coulter are such a boon for them: here's a woman (look how diverse we are!) who says "Women should not be allowed to vote!" What sexist, racist white pig doesn't thrill at that?