Liberal media outlet National Public Radio announced late on Wednesday (October 20th, 2010) that it had terminated the contract of its political news analyst Juan Williams, as a result of off-handed comments he had made the previous week on the Bill O'Reilly Program "The O'Reilly Factor."
Responding to O'Reilly's comment that "Muslims killed us on 9/11" Williams said that O'Reilly's statement was factually true, and went on to say, by way of qualification "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." This was cited as the pretext for firing Williams for, as NPR put it, making remarks which were "inconsistent with [their] editorial standards and practices, and undermine[d] his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."
There has been speculation that the incident was just a convenient opportunity for the firing, that NPR may have had other, perhaps long-standing, reasons for wanting to dump Williams.
However, taking the network at its word, which is what NPR obviously asks us to do, one must wonder what the underlying meaning of this precipitous action by NPR is. O'Reilly is known for his very aggressive, neo-conservative reactionary style of interviewing. "Guests" are frequently treated to boisterous dressings-down and provocative, in-your-face verbal attacks. Under the pressure of these on-air broadsides, his subjects often lose their cool, or their presence of mind, and end up saying things that are either highly combative, or conciliatory (giving ground).
Williams has been a regular contributor (guest) on the Fox News Sunday afternoon round table discussions, presently chaired by Chris Wallace. In what can only be construed as a conservatively weighted show, Williams is usually one of two "liberal" media whipping-boys, set up for castigation by the resident hit-men William Krystol and Brit Hume. As one of the sacrificial lambs, Williams usually does his best not to capitulate to the premeditated outcome, in the course of which, Democratic policy and office-holders come in for routine opprobrium. Williams could even be seen as a pathetic heroic figure in the fake partisan dialectic which Fox News has created.
There are at least two ways of looking at the Williams firing. For those who might advocate positional solidarity--after all, aren't all news services or networks fundamentally committed to a certain slant on events, which they intend to follow, overtly or not--and aren't ashamed, are they, of conducting these public disciplinary performances in public?--then, one would expect, those news commentators who stray from the party line are a luxury the network can't afford, and can expect to be dealt with accordingly. On the other hand, most news services, including the most partisan (like Fox), generally pretend to present themselves as fundamentally unbiased in their presentations, and will even attempt to appear to be representing contrarian viewpoints, by employing weak opponents to defend predetermined "losing" side(s). This was the role that Juan and Maura Liasson were usually brought on the panel to fill.
Generally, I will tend to side politically on the side of NPR, but occasionally they'll take a position that is so patently "correct" and "proper" that it makes my teeth ache. Trying to appear, for instance, non-partisan with respect to the threat posed by Islamic terrorist groups, and the factions they claim to represent, can be like trying to defend Al Qaeda against charges of prejudice. This is a two-edged sword. Muslims who try to protect their interests by pooh-poohing the threat posed by radical Islamic elements in their midst, both here and abroad, do not inspire either a sense of domestic security, or a convincing case for religious tolerance.
Williams's remark may have strayed over into the "personal" realm, but certainly journalists are allowed enough latitude to make the occasional personal observation or admission. Who among us has not wondered, even if for a moment or two, about the implication of sharing a passenger jet with openly dressed Muslims, particularly when the 9/11 bombers made little effort to hide the fact that they were ethnically Middle Eastern. Homeland Security agencies have freely admitted that the real threat of anarchistic terrorism is associated primarily with Middle Eastern males; it arises within that ethnic context, and would be expected to be carried out by them.
NPR's hasty washing of its hands of Juan Williams and his faintly embarrassing, though frank, disclosure, about the entirely natural and rational reservations about traveling in the air with Muslims, smacks of disingenuous chicanery. Williams had been one of NPR's most eloquent commentators, both because of the genuineness of his conviction, and the care with which he always described his position, which was typically (loyally) a liberal position. NPR's sudden seizure of fake conscience is an embarrassing example of trying to save public face.
But NPR's action did anything but. Williams is going to come out of this smelling like a rose.
There was even a rumor--or was it an actual report?--that Williams has been hired by Fox!