Friday, October 22, 2010


The Juan Williams saga

Long-time NPR journalist Juan Williams is no longer an NPR journalist, because of a comment he made out of school:

NPR News has terminated the contract of longtime news analyst Juan Williams after remarks he made on the Fox News Channel about Muslims.

Williams appeared Monday on The O’Reilly Factor, and host Bill O’Reilly asked him to comment on the idea that the U.S. is facing a dilemma with Muslims.


Williams responded: 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, we can think about how any sentence that begins with Look, I’m not a bigot, will end. We can note that Mr Williams is more conservative than NPR has a reputation for; some of us knew that before, and some just found out now. We can tut about how that very thing that Mr Williams said is often said by white people about his kind. We can do all those things, but it doesn’t really matter, because the bottom line is that places that practice real journalism[1] — places such as NPR, the New York Times, and the BBC — have rules that make sure their journalists remain publicly neutral.

That means that there’s a difference between people such as Juan Williams and people such as Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, and Jon Stewart. The other three are supposed to be making political commentary — one might say that they’re paid to be inflammatory. But the folks who report and analyze at NPR and the Times, for instance, are not allowed to support candidates, accept money from people they’re reporting on, and that sort of thing. I have a friend who used to be a researcher for Canada’s CBC news, and I know that they’re not even allowed to have political signs on their front lawns.

So you might imagine that making an inflammatory, politically charged comment about getting the willies when you see Muslims on the plane... well, that clearly crosses a well known line. And it’s no surprise that he was sacked.

Of course, NPR is now taking flak for the sacking. People are complaining that Mr Williams is being censored. People are complaining that NPR is violating Mr Williams’s first-amendment rights.

Damn right he’s being censored. That’s what real news outlets do to make sure that their reporters and analysts do not appear unduly biased. How could anyone take any future item about Muslims by Mr Williams seriously now? He obviously has a non-exclusive contract, and as an analyst he has more flexibility than the reporters do. He was allowed to be on Bill O’Reilly’s show in the first place. But, unlike the guy from New Jersey Transit, he knew the rules. He knew that he was risking his job by saying something that damages his credibility — because, unlike the guy from New Jersey Transit, his credibility is his stock in trade.

But first-amendment rights? Mr Williams absolutely still has his first-amendment rights, and NPR did nothing to take those away — they are not letting me comment on the air, and I’m not making any first-amendment complaints about that. He exercises his rights in his books and his many speaking engagements. NPR can’t stop him from speaking, but they have no responsibility to put him on their payroll or their news feed.

On the other hand, the poor man is not lacking other places to speak: he’s just been given a two million dollar contract by... yes... Fox News.

One might speculate on whether that was in the works before Mr Williams had his tête-à-tête with Bill-O.

[1] Among which I do not include Fox News.

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