Last week, executives at National Public Radio (NPR) managed to do something truly remarkable: they touched off a national discourse in which liberals and conservatives seem to be united.
NPR terminated the contract of longtime news analyst Juan Williams on Wednesday, after remarks he made on the Fox News Channel during an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor last Monday evening. Here were Williams' fatal words, in response to a question from O'Reilly about the dilemma that Americans face with how to interact with Muslims in our own society:
"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."
Two days later, the following statement from NPR CEO Vivian Schiller:
"(Williams') remarks on The O'Reilly Factorthis past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."
The firing of Juan Williams by NPR was absolutely disgraceful for a wide range of reasons, at least three of which have serious implications for our republic.
1. The Public Funding Problem
NPR is a non-profit organization that syndicates radio content to roughly 800 public radio stations nationwide. Although it is not directly funded by the federal government, a small percentage of NPR's revenues come from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which is almost entirely funded annually by a Congressional budget allocation. So even though it's unlikely that forcing a de-funding of any federal dollars to NPR would be a death blow to the organization, there is a widespread perception that they are a publicly funded media producer.
Given this perception, it is particularly distasteful to most Americans that a public radio network would sack one of their employees simply because he said some things they apparently didn't like. The public funding aspect makes this situation different from a scenario in which a reporter for ABC News or The New York Times might have her contract yanked for saying something the boss didn't like. Our expectation is that tax-exempt media organizations receiving federal subsidies ought to be more respectful of their employees' freedom to comment on issues of the day and ought to extend a little latitude their way.
2. The Honesty Problem
The central insanity of the Williams firing is this: he was simply being honest about a feeling he held, which just so happens to be the same feeling that almost all of us have when we travel. He was not saying anything offensive, nor bigoted, nor outrageous. In fact, the full context of his remarks during his appearance illustrate that he was trying to make a serious point AGAINST anti-Muslim bigotry.
During an interview on Good Morning America in the aftermath of his O'Reilly appearance, Williams noted the irony: "I see people in Muslim garb, who are first and foremost identifying themselves as Muslims, in the aftermath of 9/11, I'm taken aback. I have a moment of fear. It's visceral. It's a feeling. I don't say I'm not getting on the plane. I don't think you must go through additional security. I don't say I want to discriminate against these people. No such thing occurs. To me, it was admitting that I had this notion, this feeling."
How in the world can we ever take positive steps toward a national conversation about this vexing public issue -- the tension that exists between our unanimous respect for the freedom of religion and our very tangible concern about the reality that Americans are targeted by jihadists -- unless we at least start from a place of honesty? Juan Williams, a journalist who frequently comments on matters of prejudice, started his conversation with O'Reilly by confessing his own very human feelings about seeing fellow passengers on airplanes who are dressed in full Muslim attire. He went on to talk about how a pluralistic society copes with those sorts of natural feelings and behaves in a way that shows allegiance to our national principles, as opposed to caving into those initial feelings of discomfort.
That is honest, it is wise and it is a blueprint for how to navigate these difficult public issues. The notion that the comments were grounds for termination is absolute stupidity. Which leads us to . . .
3. The Bias Problem
I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican; I am a liberal Independent voter. Above all, though, I am an American -- and the most serious problem that I perceive in this shameful move by NPR has to do with the blatant ideological bias they have displayed as a tool of a wealthy liberal who wants to exert more control over the American news media.
Here are the facts. The Christian Science Monitor reported this week that billionaire George Soros, a vocal liberal who has invested substantial personal funds into a variety of leftist political causes about which he feels deeply, recently donated $1.8 million to NPR (a major gift to a $40 million organization) and another $1 million to Media Matters, a media watchdog group that targets Fox News and other conservative media personalities. Meanwhile, Juan Williams had been under fire at NPR for a couple years because of his frequent appearances on various Fox News shows as a paid news analyst. It does not take an NYPD Detective to connect those dots . . . Soros wants Fox discredited, Williams appears on NPR and moonlights on Fox, Soros dumps major dollars into NPR's bank account, and coincidentally Williams is fired the first time he appears on a Fox News show and says something that can be misconstrued as being inappropriate.
(In full disclosure here, I have similar bias concerns about Fox News itself. With the exception of one anchor, Shepard Smith, I find their "news" coverage to be remarkably slanted and their "commentary" shows to be somewhere between dishonest and downright dangerous to the health of the republic. But that is another topic for another time.)
It is fundamentally anti-American for a media organization -- one of the few types of groups to enjoy First Amendment protection -- to use its Freedom of the Press bully club to be wielded by a rich dude who is hiding behind the curtain, pulling puppet strings. I'm not naive enough to be under the impression that this is without precedent in American history, but it isn't often that we've seen a quid pro quo of this magnitude. The fact that the media company in question is a public radio network that is subsidized by taxpayer dollars makes it all the more abhorrent. The fact that the victim of the sad affair was a highly regarded, soft-spoken, intelligent news analyst with a track record of moderation in his views and independence in his positions . . . well, that makes it shameful.
This is NOT one of those silly fights about political correctness in America. This is a flash point in a far more serious struggle to define how our media companies are going to conduct business and the criteria they are going to use to employ professionals who are entrusted with the responsibility of presenting news, analysis and commentary that enlightens the culture.
NPR failed that test miserably last week. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of their shameful behavior is they have provided us all with a case study in what can happen to a good and honest journalist when he gets in the crosshairs of powerful forces insistent on dictating the operations of a media organization.