Friday, October 22, 2010

Unacceptable Remarks: Ex-NPR Juan Williams

October 22, 2010, 8:00 p.m.

And see Nicholas Johnson's published column on the subject, embedded in Nicholas Johnson, "NPR Botched Firing of Juan Williams; Sacked for Speech," October 27, 2010, and the subsequent reply to Press-Citizen readers' comments in "More on NPR and Juan Williams; Some (Hopefully) Final Thoughts," Oct. 29, 2010.

What Words Warrant Firing?
(bought to you by*)

Juan Williams, a former Washington Post reporter and prize-winning book author, is employed by Fox News and, until Wednesday evening, October 20, 2010, by NPR as well.

See Brian Stelter, "NPR Fires Analyst Over Comments on Muslims," New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010, p. B2; Brian Stelter, "Two Takes at NPR and Fox on Juan Williams," New York Times, Oct. 22, 2010, p. B1; "RAW DATA: NPR Internal Memo on Juan Williams,", October 21, 2010 (Fox News publication of alleged NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller's internal memo regarding Williams' firing); Juan Williams, "I Was Fired for Telling the Truth,", October 21, 2010; Alicia Shepard, "NPR's Firing of Juan Williams Was Poorly Handled," NPR Ombudsman, October 21, 2010.

His case would seem to bear more similarity to that of Shirley Sherrod and Octavia Nasr than Helen Thomas -- all of whom were also fired for a casual remark. That is to say, if one examines the entire transcript of the relevant portion of the Bill O’Reilly October 18, 2010, program on which Williams appeared, Williams was not criticizing, and certainly not condemning, all Muslims. In fact, if his blog comment is to be believed, he was doing exactly the opposite -– in the course of which, not incidentally, he was criticizing O’Reilly.

Williams statement was about himself, not Muslims. In the context of a discussion of the terrorists attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, he conceded that even he felt a little nervousness when there were Muslims among the passengers on his plane. The point was, and is, as William Saletan put it in, “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.”

Moreover, given the totality of Williams remarks and writing, and that he continues to fly, it's clear that, intellectually, he has a fairly accurate benefit-cost sense of the mathematically insignificant risk of any plane he's on being blow up by Muslim terrorists.

Muslim extremists aside, there are individuals who have a fear of flying. They might be willing to concede that when they are on airplanes, like Williams, "I get worried; I get nervous" -- notwithstanding the fact that they, intellectually, know they are safer when flying on a commercial airline than when driving a car.

Since 9/11 the government has told Americans to be on alert, to report anything "suspicious." In calculating risks, irrational attitudes about race, religion and ethnicity may play a role in one's emotional response. None other than Jesse Jackson has said, "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." Remarks at a meeting of Operation PUSH, Chicago, November 27, 1993, quoted in Mary A. Johnson, "Crime: New Frontier -- Jesse Jackson Calls It Top Civil-Rights Issue," Chicago Sun-Times, November 29, 1993, and in Stephan Themstrom and Abigail Themstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 263. An African-American friend has told me of similar feelings when she is walking at night and followed by a number of African-American male teenagers.

Here's six minutes of video from the O'Reilly program in which Williams participated:

And here are some textual excerpts from the range of his comments on the show. It was his first response (to O’Reilly’s question, “So, where am I going wrong there, Juan?”) that has caused the furor. Williams replied:

I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness [i.e., in this instance, a refusal to acknowledge the reality that a disproportionate share of the terrorists wishing, and practicing, harm to America claim to be doing so in the name of Islam] can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.

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. 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.

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.
However, he immediately continued:
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. President Bush went to a mosque –

. . . Wait a second though, wait, 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.

. . . [Y]ou said in the talking points memo a moment ago that there are good Muslims, I think that’s a point, you know?

. . . But, Bill, here’s a caution point. The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby’s neck and says he’s attacking him or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero –

. . . I don’t know what is in that guy’s head. But I’m saying, we don’t want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy. We’ve got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut.
After he was fired, Williams wrote in his blog:
Yesterday NPR fired me for telling the truth. The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims.

This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. I pointed out that the Atlanta Olympic bomber -- as well as Timothy McVeigh and the people who protest against gay rights at military funerals -- are Christians but we journalists don’t identify them by their religion.

And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed. Bill and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry.
CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called on NPR to “address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats.” While that is one possible interpretation of what he said, it is at least equally possible to conclude that he said precisely the opposite; that is, that all “perceived to be Muslim cannot legitimately be viewed as security threats.”

One can observe that, like Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack’s impetuous response to the selected excerpt from Shirley Sherrod’s speech without first examining the entire videotape or transcript, NPR’s executives also weakened their case by lifting a portion of Williams’ comments without considering, or at least crediting, its meaning in context.

Or one might suggest, as David Brooks did in the case of Nasr, that if any punishment was warranted, a fixed-time suspension might have made more sense than a dismissal.

Or if, as NPR claimed, it was Williams’ dual role of news analyst for NPR and commentator for Fox that had been a troublesome conflict and violation of its rules for years, it might have been a better strategy to wait a few weeks and slip the dismissal smoothly under the radar on those grounds than to jump on the specific statement of his that was chosen as "cause." Of course, this was not the first time NPR mangled what could have been a smooth departure. (“The decision by National Public Radio to replace [Bob] Edwards as Morning Edition anchor [in 2004] was one of the year’s more peculiar media stories.” “2005 Annual Report – Radio Content Analysis: NPR’s Bob Edwards,” Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, March 15, 2005.)

The NPR's own Ombudsperson seems to share some of my judgment about NPR's flawed process:
Williams . . . said he was told his contract was terminated without an opportunity to come into NPR and discuss the firing.

If he is correct, that’s too bad. I think NPR owed him a chance to explain himself.

I’m not privy to the why this announcement was so hastily made. NPR could have waited until his contract ran out, or possibly suspended him pending a review. Either way, a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare. Alicia Shepard, "NPR's Firing of Juan Williams Was Poorly Handled," NPR Ombudsman, October 21, 2010.
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller spoke to the Atlanta Press Club on October 21, 2010. Given her concern about her “news analysts” taking “personal public positions on controversial issues” because it “undermines their credibility,” and putting aside that Williams’ factual statement about his feelings while flying involved neither a “controversial issue” nor an "opinion," it is a mite ironic that NPR itself reports she was so quick to express her own opinion and “personal public position” that Juan Williams should have kept his feelings between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.” Mark Memmott, "NPR CEO Apologizes for 'Psychiatrist' Remark," The Two-Way, NPR's News Blog, October 21, 2010.

Her kind of ad hominem outburst truly does "undermine credibility," suggests a motivation more of petulant personal pique than calm and balanced judment regarding NPR's best interests, and a lack of basic fairness and decency. It has undoubtedly contributed to, rather than ameliorated, what NPR's Ombudsperson has accurately characterized as a "public relations nightmare."

One suspects that NPR's objection was precipitated not so much by a violation of its "rules" for "news analysts" as for the content of Williams' remark (which was both taken out of context, and, as noted, was about his personal feelings of insecurity, not Muslims as such). One wonders if he would have been fired had he said, "Notwithstanding 9/11, when I get on a plane and see passengers dressed in Muslim garb, it makes me proud to be an American, and of the way we respect all people as individuals."

However, Williams was not fired because of his statements taken alone. He, like Octavia Nasr and Helen Thomas, is "a journalist" (most broadly defined). As such, a media employer has a legitimate interest in the public's perception of his absence of bias. Moreover, NPR has the legal right to fire him for any reason whatsoever (consistent with his contract). Nor is this a First Amendment case.

More significant in this instance, NPR certainly has a right to create its own rules regarding journalistic ethics, and preservation of the appearance of its reporters’ (what they call “news analysts”) impartiality. Having done so, it also has the right to investigate, judge, and impose penalties for the failure to comply with its rules.

NPR makes a distinction between what it calls "correspondents" (something similar to what are colloquially referred to as "reporters") and "news analysts." The latter presumably are supposed to interpret the news, tell the audience its significance, or perhaps provide "the back story." It is said that Williams "crossed the line" between "news analysis" and "opinion," or taking a "personal public position on controversial issues." But I can imagine that, at best, that "line" would sometimes be as blurred as the line downt the middle of the highway under a heavy morning fog.

Whether NPR's standards are too strict, ambiguous, difficult of administration, and were appropriately applied in this case are issues about which media owners, editors, journalists, media critics and academics will be debating for a considerable time to come.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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