Thursday, October 21, 2010

San Juan Williams Bueno, Mártir

Everyone is taking a whack at the Juan Williams situation, so I might as well, too.

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."

Jesse Jackson”

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.


Anonymous said...

PC has been taken to another level today. This is disturbing to say the least and federal dollars need to be cut. Great article.

Heidi (your favorite Appleton sister-in-law)

Gino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gino said...

this is a major score for FNC.

williams was the most highly respected journalist in washington by those who disagree with him.

he never took a right wing position, but he took the time to understand it, and present it fairly, prior to disagreeing with it.

clarence thomas, in his memoirs, writes glowingly of williams as the only reporter that actually attempted to report his words accurately, and in context.

it is his professionalism as a journalist, and an honest one, that has earned him such a high level of respect on both sides of the debate.

NPR screwed the pooch. and now they know it.
and the hated FOX gains an allstar.

gotta love the way it turned out.

Bike Bubba said...

I remember flying back to the U.S. from Singapore (which has significant Muslim minorities) on September 11, 2003. Felt exactly the same as Williams that day, and yes, it was awfully nice to know how seriously Singapore takes security that day. EVERYBODY got the full treatment there.

Even so, if I'd heard "Allah Akbar" on the flight, it would have been hard to hold back from going at the speaker's throat.

Brad Carlson said...

NPR indeed had the right to fire Juan Williams for violating a clause in his contract which stated that he could not inject personal opinions. However, it seems to me NPR waived said clause when Williams had previously stated personal opinions but was never reprimaneded.

my name is Amanda said...

Rejecting a person for their bigotry is NOT the same as preventing someone from speaking honestly. Same with Dr. Laura - NOBODY objects to the fact that she is saying what she thinks. But if she says a bunch of bigoted, crappy things on the radio, people are going to label it as such. As they should.

And all the hoopla about getting someone fired is especially egregious, considering the Right's constant drooling delight over getting people on the Left fired.

Like, apparently Liberal reporters can't have private conversations on an email server about Conservatives without getting fired, but it's an outrage if it happens to a Conservative?!

I mean seriously, do these FN people have ANY ability to self-reflect, or are they just that cynical?

Gino - I completely disagree that NPR is regretting anything. They got rid of someone who was besmirching their organization by merely representing them. Good on them. He can go to Fox where he belongs. They all win.

Anonymous said...

NPR is a joke. Pure and simple. The only thing worse are the clowns on MSNBC.

The good news is only die-hard liberals listen or watch NPR and/or MSNBC.

Gino said...

amanda: how was JW besmearching npr by merely representing them?
clear than up for me.

he was an honest and fair journalist in the art of the old school.

is that what it is? they dont need none of that at NPR?

as for bigotry: show me where JW displayed any? you indirectly make the claim that he's a bigot. how?

Anonymous said...

NPR behavior is hypocritical. Nina Totenberg and others have expressed public opinions and there have been no ramifications. The bet here is that they ran Williams for other reasons. It's their loss as they start looking more like TAS than NPR. I really hope that their private support which is most of their budget suffers.

W.B. Picklesworth said...


You never disappoint. You are like an island of goodness in a sea of benighted and bigoted humanity. You are a like a whiff of correct thought in the barn of stinky hate. If only people like you were in charge then you could fix us and bring us up to your level. The seas would stop rising and reconciliation would come.


Stand back, I am Amanda, arbiter of bigotry!!! My super power is calling my ideological opponents racists and bigots. It's neat because I don't have to think.

Anonymous said...

I agree with part of what you wrote and think that NPR was a little heavy handed with Williams. But I don't think your comparison to what Jesse Jackson said holds any water, and here is why: There was a purely anti-Islamic tint to what Williams said because it was based on an irrational fear, and rational vs. irrational seems to be one of your main points.

Jackson's comments about young black men was grounded in the statistical reality that most urban crime is committed by young black men. Assuming that Juan Williams is a very well informed person, he knows, better than most of us that the small group of Muslim jihadists that have attacked us here in the States have gone out of there way to NOT dress in religious attire that would attract attention to themselves. So there is no statistical validation to his statement. No terror attacks in America have been conducted by people in 'Muslim' attire. But that is the only factor he invokes to justify his fear.

This is anti-religious bigotry in its purest form. Common sense becomes bigotry when it is grounded in irrational fear. Don't you think?


Mr. D said...

Assuming that Juan Williams is a very well informed person, he knows, better than most of us that the small group of Muslim jihadists that have attacked us here in the States have gone out of there way to NOT dress in religious attire that would attract attention to themselves. So there is no statistical validation to his statement. No terror attacks in America have been conducted by people in 'Muslim' attire. But that is the only factor he invokes to justify his fear.

One problem with that thesis: he subsequently went on during the interview and said that you can't look at the world that way and cautioned people from doing so. You and a lot of other people are taking what he said out of context.

So, did you figure out the hidden reference in the title of this post? I figured if any reader of this feature would get the reference, you would.

Anonymous said...

I got the Unamuno reference, but wasn't sure if it was just a pun, or if you were also suggesting that Williams doesn't believe in his adopted 'religion' of liberalism. As for me taking what he said out of context, I don't think I do. He state's an irrational fear which he then tries to justify. That he subsequently says that folks shouldn't act violently on those irrational fears isn't exactly walking back what he had previously stated.

Rule of thumb: Prefacing any statement with the words "I am not a bigot." is like saying "It's not about the money." You almost certainly are, or it most certainly is.


Mr. D said...

Rule of thumb: Prefacing any statement with the words "I am not a bigot." is like saying "It's not about the money." You almost certainly are, or it most certainly is.

I don't agree with that, but we can agree to disagree.

Glad you got the Unamuno reference -- I had three purposes -- one as a pun that I hoped someone would pick up on, but also I meant it in the sense that people are going to believe what they want about someone no matter what the person actually believes. And also, I don't really think that Williams is a martyr -- we should all be martyred with a $2 million check.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the 2 million dollar martyrdom.
Muy bueno.