The Firing of Juan Williams: NPR Got It Wrong

Ironically, the right-leaning Fox News is showing rightful outrage in the aftermath of two mistakes on the left: Juan Williams' faux pas and NPR's hypocritical overreaction.

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You have to admit: Whether the spectacle is staged or genuine (I lean toward the latter), it is pretty ironic to see the Fox News Channel's crew of media personalities gang up on National Public Radio in defense of Juan Williams, the man who regularly makes Bill Kristol reach the point of verbal explosion on Fox News Sunday.

They're not defending Williams' admitted fear of Muslims when he gets on an airplane. Whether Williams or others address the actual statement that got him canned from his 10-year stint at NPR, it must be said: The sentiment is either a tragic prejudice that many Americans won't admit to or a ridiculous generalized fear that a civil rights author should have been able to purge from his conscience before the words came out of his mouth.

Juan Williams, who was born in Panama, has spent his career speaking to the history of the civil rights movement; he's also been forthright about calling out the racism that permeates a lot of criticism of Obama. So his statement, though honest, was as disappointing to hear as it was destructive for Williams' relationship with NPR and, perhaps, for race relations and cultural diversity.

It was clearly wrong, but not a fireable offense. The fireable offense -- at least from a funding point of view -- came from National Public Radio.

NPR's hypocrisy is obvious. Its decision to fire Williams (one of its better-known analysts) will raise red flags for anyone remembering the many opinions rendered by all of the other analysts and personalities featured on the taxpayer-funded news source. Williams' admission of cultural prejudice certainly doesn't put him in a flattering light, but it's no less controversial than other opinions aired on the radio network.

Feeling nervous about flying with devout Muslims displays a level of cultural misunderstanding or intolerance at the same level as calling Tea Party attendees "tea-baggers" -- a slur that speaks to sexual debauchery and that some use as a smear akin to epithets bashing homosexual men. Without a clear balance when addressing over-the-line comments, the tax-funded network made it easy for "Fair and Balanced" Central to call out NPR on this.

Of course, there is a difference between a journalist such as Williams, who is expected to be neutral, expressing opinions and a layperson expressing a strong point of view. But in a small way, NPR made the same point that many conservatives make about tax-funded organizations that claim nonpartisanship (and its tax-friendly perks), only to operate otherwise: It is OK if NPR or another organization is unwilling to be balanced in its alleged nonpartisanship, so long as it is willing to immediately forfeit any advantages gained from that unique perspective.

The double standard displayed by NPR brings up another rub from the right as well, something that the Fox News Channel actually has done correctly over the past several years. Aside from Fox's increasingly misleading moniker, both MSNBC and the Fox News Channel make no bones about where their political allegiances lie. Unlike these two clearly partisan networks, however, National Public Radio does the public a disservice whenever it treats the news it broadcasts and the analysts that do the broadcasting in an uneven manner.

 

If Don Imus can come back and host his own radio show after the "nappy-headed hos" comment, and Lawrence O'Donnell can keep his new MSNBC show (without much flak) after commenting that Michael Steele was "dancing" for "his real master … the Republican National Committee," then why shouldn't Williams have kept his position for stating an opinion -- even as he clarified it repeatedly and defended Muslim Americans in the same segment?

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