Is Juan Williams a bigot? Probably not. Should National Public Radio have fired him for his anti-Muslim comments on Fox News? Not this time.
No doubt Williams' bosses at NPR hated it when he was introduced several times each week on Fox News as "NPR's Juan Williams" — last year they asked him to stop identifying himself as a NPR correspondent when he appeared on Fox. But if working for NPR and Fox News simultaneously is impossible, then NPR should have cut ties with him a long time ago. Letting him go now makes NPR look biased — the very thing they strive not to be.
Williams was let go after telling Bill O'Reilly the following:
"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."
Sorry, Juan, but Fox is the only place where that kind of analysis is called "fair and balanced." It doesn't make him a bigot, but as Adam Serwer blogged today at The Washington Post, "Whether or not Williams 'is a bigot' is beside the point, this is a bigoted statement." Indeed. Being "nervous" about someone wearing "Muslim garb" is profiling, plain and simple.
But by canning Williams now, NPR is sending the message that a political analyst can't give — wait for it — his opinion.
Opinions are like assholes — everybody has one — and maybe that's how Williams looked after the "Muslim garb" bit. But he isn't there reporting hard news. He's on Fox and NPR to offer his opinion, and that's ultimately what he did. He shouldn't lose his job for doing it.
NPR's own report says that his firing came in part because "Williams' presence on the largely conservative and often contentious prime-time talk shows of Fox News has long been a sore point with NPR News executives" — they changed Williams' title from "staff correspondent" to "news analyst" after he described the first lady as "Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress."
NPR's problem now is that whether or not it's what they intended, they've made it look as if they can't handle a certain point of view. People think of NPR as a liberal outlet, and dumping Williams opens them up to the charge that they're biased. The backlash has started, with Fox's Mike Huckabee already saying that Congress should cut NPR's funding because it's a "purveyor of politically correct pabulum and protector of views that lean left." And that charge won't stop with him.
All things considered, Mediaite's Glynnis MacNicol had it right when she noted that "it's hard not to wonder whether the more beneficial, more considered, altogether more NPR thing to do here would have been to devote a segment of Morning Edition, or Weekend Edition, or All Things Considered to having Williams explain just what the hell he was talking about."
It's NPR's prerogative, of course, but it sets a bad precedent. The correct response isn't a dismissal; it's the counterpoint of other political commentators — and in this case, that came almost immediately. Before NPR removed Williams, The Root's Nsenga Burton observed that "Williams should know nervousness, since plenty of paranoid folks feel nervous when they see him as a black man walk onto a plane or just walk down the street." Too true. On the other hand, Slate's William Saletan wrote, "Sometimes, to work through your fears, you have to face them honestly. … And you have to explain to others why they, too, should transcend their anxieties or resentments and treat people as individuals." Also true.
Williams was trying, however clumsily, to make the point that people — himself included — harbor prejudices. But when he stepped out with a comment that played to a Fox audience, he forgot that what passed for an honest sentiment in the weeks and months after 9/11 flies in the face of reason today.
He apparently didn't get the memo that this doesn't play in 2010 (definitely not safe to play at work):
In the wake of Williams' firing, expect tonight's O'Reilly to lead with a roundup of commentators bemoaning political correctness run amok in the "liberal media." Expect a Williams Op-Ed in Sunday's Wall Street Journal under the headline "Why NPR Fired Me." Expect a Williams-less feature report on NPR. Expect the conversation on America and Islam to devolve further, with all sides sticking to their already established positions.
And expect that the one thing all sides agree on is that they don't want to lose their jobs.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.