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California State University East Bay

The Pioneer

California State University East Bay

The Pioneer

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In the Wake of the Williams’ Firing, Only the Public Stands to Lose

When Juan Williams, former NPR news analyst, was fired by the organization for his comments on FOX News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” neither he nor the media could have expected the outcry from both sides.

The spectacle that evolved from the entire affair has threatened both NPR’s federal funding and the opportunity for Americans to engage one another in an open, honest discourse about race, religion and the role of the media in providing a forum for this exchange.

Williams was in a discussion over Bill O’Reilly’s recent appearance on “The View,” which resulted in hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar storming off the set after O’Reilly stated “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”

When prompted by O’Reilly to comment, Williams offered this: “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 a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

These remarks were enough to get Williams sacked from NPR, for whom he had spent the last ten years serving as a senior national correspondent.

NPR terminated Williams’ contract two days after his appearance on O’Reilly’s show, and gave a statement. “His remarks…were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

Williams, a Fox News contributor since 1997, is an accomplished journalist and writer, having worked at the Washington Post for nearly 25 years before his stint at NPR, as well as authoring a number of books on the civil rights movement.

It is incredible that, for someone who has devoted no small portion of his career to recount the story of the struggle for civil rights in America, Williams could make such insensitive, offensive comments—especially comments towards a group that is so negatively perceived in America today and has found itself the victim of an increasing number of hate crimes.

To be fair, Williams qualified his statement, reminding O’Reilly, “it’s not a war against Islam.”

Still, by admitting his own bias towards Muslims, he violated basic journalistic standards of impartiality. While Williams’ defenders among media commentators address the fact that he was asked his opinion on a talk show, they fail to account that Williams was using his “NPR News Analyst” title while serving as contributor on Fox News—a practice that NPR warned him not to continue in 2009.

Documentarian and modern day-muckraker Michael Moore, in an open letter to Williams, quoted the former NPR analyst in a New Republic article.

The New Republic addressed a Richard Cohen column in the Washington Post Magazine, which defended jewelry store owners who refused to buzz in young black men.

Williams responded to Cohen’s piece, stating, “Racism is a lazy man’s substitute for using
good judgment… Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me.”

It certainly seems that Williams, a black man, would do well to look back upon his own words. He simply disregarded his own principle, substituting “dress code” for skin color.”

NPR, whose sacking of Williams resulted in an outcry from numerous pundits, was right to fire Williams, not only for violating their standards and practices but also for doing so using
the organization’s name to represent himself.

Leslie Savan, a writer for The Nation, notes that Williams has been using his credibility as an NPR correspondent to “lend credibility to Fox’s ‘fair and balanced’ act.” Indeed, Williams was such a regular contributor to Rupert Murdoch’s news network that Time Magazine, in a story about Williams’ dismissal, referred to him as a “conservative pundit.”

And yet, the content of Williams’ candor seems to have flown under the radar in the midst of the outcry over his termination by NPR.

When Helen Thomas, former White House bureau chief and scourge of every president from Eisenhower to Bush, suggested (to put it mildly) that Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and return to Poland, Germany or the U.S., she found herself at the center of a media firestorm and abruptly resigned.

The same happened to former CNN host Rick Sanchez, whose comments about “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and his Jewish heritage seemed to some media commentators to insinuate that Jews controlled CNN and other networks.

Sanchez also described his experience as an Hispanic person in the news media:“…they see a guy automatically who belongs in the second tier and not the top tier… White folks usually don’t see it, but we do, those of us who are minorities.”

Sanchez was promptly released by CNN.

How would Williams’ comments have been taken were they referring to another group not villainized by the media? Almost immediately upon finding himself unemployed, Fox News offered their long-time contributor a $2 million contract.

Thomas and Sanchez, on the other hand, ended their careers ignominiously—although Thomas’ end was partly due to sheer longevity, Sanchez has yet to find work.

Instead, Williams has found himself much richer than he likely ever would have been working for NPR and something of a martyr to a purported “left-wing agenda” by NPR—indeed, there is no shortage of support for Williams by various media correspondents.

Unwittingly, NPR played into Fox News’ hands, and in doing so, risks losing federal funding support for itself and its 797 national affiliates thanks to the clamoring of conservative pundits and Republican congressional representatives.

While federal funding makes up only two percent of NPR’s $164 million revenue, its members stations rely on federal support for up to ten percent and more—the loss of those funds could prove fatal to some of public radio’s smaller affiliates nationwide.

And while we feel that Williams’ comments were insensitive, in violation of NPR’s standards (and thus worthy of termination) and, worst of all, help contribute to the climate of fear and distrust of Muslims and Muslim-Americans, we recognize that Williams was not explicitly fomenting hatred or inciting violence, but rather voicing a concern that no doubt many Americans share.

But airing out irrational biases on a network known for exploiting those same biases and fears to pander to its base is journalistically irresponsible.

When Don Imus made racially insensitive comments about Duke University’s women’s basketball team in 2007, Reverend Al Sharpton called for an open discussion of race, with all sides taking part.

The same call for an honest dialogue on racial relations in America was made by then-presidential candidate Obama in the 2008 election during an impassioned speech that helped cement his reputation as a skilled orator.

After he was elected, President Obama called for the same after Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested outside his own home.

We’re still waiting for this conversation to happen. Juan Williams’ comments might have been a real opportunity to explore the issues of race beyond black and white, as well as religion and the meaning of religious identity in America.

When a public figure makes statements of this nature in a public setting, the public has the right to engage the issue at hand openly, and the media, as servants of the public, are supposed to facilitate such dialogue.

That in mind, we’ve seen one journalist lose his job for violating the ethics of his profession, only to gain a much more lucrative one where he’ll be paid for providing opinion, while his former employer—voted by Americans as the nation’s most trustworthy news source in a 2005 Harris poll—tries to salvage its reputation and combat ludicrous allegations of bias from a rival that deals primarily in opinion and, well, bias.

The media don’t get much more meta-referential than that.

And through it all, only we as the public stand to lose.

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In the Wake of the Williams’ Firing, Only the Public Stands to Lose