Monday, October 25, 2010

Thoughts on the Firing of NPR's Juan Williams

NPR recently fired long-time news analyst Juan Williams, ostensibly for remarks he made on The O'Reilly Factor. Here is what NPR said about the firing, from NPR's own website:

"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."

Williams also warned O'Reilly against blaming all Muslims for "extremists," saying Christians shouldn't be blamed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

NPR's position is ridiculous. Williams' statements were not in any way inappropriate.

Williams made it clear that he was talking about how he feels, not about what he thinks. All normal human beings have feelings that they do not act upon. Not acting on all of one's feelings is arguably what best distinguishes humans from other animals, or at least adults from young children. Most, if not all, people have different emotional reactions to people of different ages, genders and races. In fact, one of the most pernicious aspects of racism, and other inappropriate biases, such as homophobia, is that the victims tend to internalize society's dislike of them. Blacks and gays end up believing that they are less worthy than straights and Whites. That is why role models are so important.

But I digress. The point here is that Williams' comments were completely appropriate. He did not say that we should be suspicious of all Muslims. He candidly admitted how he feels, and made it clear that it would be inappropriate to act on such feelings. He was quite clear about that.

Ironically, however, Williams was back on The O'Reilly Factor the day after he was fired. giving what I find to be a very good reason why NPR should have fired him. Williams told O'Reilly that NPR does not want him on the show. If so, then I agree wholeheartedly with NPR. Of course, as a matter of fair dealing, NPR should have warned Williams and should have told the public the real reason Williams was fired. But in the end, I am not sad to see Williams go.

The O'Reilly Factor does not contribute to meaningful discussion of issues. Quite to the contrary, O'Reilly cuts people off and is prone to yelling "shut up" at his guests. He profits and advances his agenda by removing all nuance, and polarizing every discussion. Any self-respecting journalist should know that. Williams certainly knows that, yet he chose to appear on the program anyway, thus making a fool of himself and lending credibility to O'Reilly and his circus.

Even more ironically, what happened to Williams is completely predictable given O'Reilly's behavior. O'Reilly works on sound bites. And, he intentionally makes ambiguous statements that can be taken as offensive. For example, he recently stated that "Muslims" attacked us on September 11. That is literally true, but it suggests that all Muslims or some committee representing all Muslims was behind the terrorist attacks. O'Reilly intends to suggest that, but when confronted directly, he disowns it. This is just like George W. Bush suggesting that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks. He wanted to be misunderstood. And he was misunderstood by a majority of Americans.

Williams did not want to be misunderstood, but he should have known better. He opened himself up to being taken advantage of by O'Reilly, and he was. Perhaps he got what he deserved in that regard. In the end, both Williams and NPR embarrassed themselves. I'm not sad to see Williams go, but I am very disappointed -- yet again -- with NPR.