The story, in case you hadn't heard, is this: Juan Williams is a fairly well-known commentator who primarily worked for National Public Radio. Williams has also been a commentator on Fox News for a number of years. Williams would often find himself on Fox participating on roundtable panels, where he had the job of presenting the liberal view. That can be a thankless task on Fox, but Williams always did so with grace. He's a very thoughtful man.
He appeared on Bill O'Reilly last night and committed the dreaded Kinsleyan Gaffe, which means he said what he actually thought:
On the show, the host, Bill O’Reilly, asked him to respond to the notion that the United States was facing a “Muslim dilemma.” Mr. O’Reilly said, “The cold truth is that in the world today jihad, aided and abetted by some Muslim nations, is the biggest threat on the planet.”Mr. Williams said he concurred with Mr.
He continued: “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.”
Mr. Williams also made reference to the Pakistani immigrant who pleaded guilty this month to trying to plant a car bomb in Times Square. “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,” Mr. Williams said.
Well, that's not entirely true. One way to get away from these facts is to fire the guy who says they are facts. Which is what National Public Radio did.
Of course, that's not all Williams had to say. Matt Welch at Reason has this exchange with O'Reilly, from the same appearance:
WILLIAMS: 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 --
WILLIAMS: 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.
O'REILLY: He is a nut. And I said that about the guy in Florida -- who wanted to burn the Koran. I came down on him like crazy.
WILLIAMS: Correct. There you go.
Would those sentiments, urging tolerance and caution, be enough to save Williams? Apparently not. Meanwhile, in lieu of an exit interview, NPR majordomo (or is that majordoma?) Vivian Schiller offered this career advice:
Fired NPR news analyst Juan Williams should have kept his feeling about Muslims between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist,"the network's CEO told an audience at the Atlanta Press Club earlier today.
That little bon mot got walked back pretty quick:
NPR CEO Vivian Schiller just released this statement:
"I spoke hastily and I apologize to Juan and others for my thoughtless remark."
The good news for Schiller is that she didn't say it on Bill O'Reilly's show.
Meanwhile, Juan Williams came out looking pretty good, as Fox News gave him a $2 million contract. We should all have such problems.
So what do we make of all this?
First, let's say the obvious: this isn't a First Amendment issue. I would assume that Williams was an at-will employee of NPR and they were within their right to fire him for whatever reason they saw fit. That's how it goes. We can criticize NPR's reasoning -- oh my yes, we should -- but they were entitled to ash-can the guy.
Having said that, it was a stupid, knee-jerk reaction on NPR's part. It's possible, even likely, that what Williams said was offensive to someone, somewhere. The thing was, he was making the observation in a larger context, which completely changed the meaning of what he said. Williams was talking about a very human thing -- fear, especially of the Other. And he gave the context for why that fear arises. You might recall a few years ago when Jesse Jackson said this:
“"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."
No one thinks that Jesse Jackson is prejudiced against African-Americans. We fear because we are human. The Anchoress makes the point in a very astringent way:
Kind of like when someone is listening to NPR while driving their BMW, and discreetly making sure their doors are locked when they spy a homeless man moving too close to their car. That’s revealing doubt. And it’s human. It may not be the best part of being human, but it is a common thing. Or it is common to people who are honest. There are a lot of people who would prefer to pretend they’re ‘way too evolved to think as Williams admits he does.
It comes down to prudence, which is–or was, last I checked–a Virtue. It is inarguably bigoted to see every Muslim as a terrorist, but I frankly don’t think there are many people like that in America.
But it is prudent to at least be aware of one’s surroundings, and to make note of one’s fellow-travelers, in all circumstances, whether one is on a plane, or going to the movies, or playing in the park with one’s children. We are not meant to traipse through life like naive bumpkins, with our eyes paradoxically shut as we wander about wide-eyed saying “golly, I and my children are perfectly safe because the authorities are regulating and overseeing my air travel, my movie-going and our park safety and therefore I don’t have to think about it!”
Is that an unreasonable way of viewing the world? I don't think so. We may not want to admit to our fears, but we all have them. We all imagine ourselves to be rational, but chances are we are irrational at least once or twice a day. I'm always amazed at how easy it is to lose rational thinking on 35W during a typical commute.
The thing is, those moments pass. What is more problematic is when irrational behavior becomes a matter of policy. What Vivian Schiller said about Juan Williams was nasty and in my view pretty irrational. It is to Schiller's credit that she recognized that and apologized. It didn't give Williams his job back, though.
In the end, my guess is that Williams doesn't want the job back. Here's what he said later today:
Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. 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.
That's going to leave a mark. Is there anger there? Hell yes. Is comparing NPR to a gulag over the top? Yeah, I think so. But no more than Schiller suggesting that Williams needs to talk to a psychiatrist when he expresses a fear that is normal. We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to be honest about such things. When honesty is punished, we're in a dangerous place.