Friday, October 22, 2010

Juan Williams: Firing from NPR "is a chilling assault on free speech"

Many years ago when my husband and I were renting a house, we were told, “You can paint the walls any color you want as long as it's off-white.” That struck me as an odd way to tell us not to redecorate. Why not just say that instead of making a pretense of giving us a choice?

I remembered those words when I heard yesterday that National Public Radio had fired longtime news analyst Juan Williams because of his controversial remarks during his Monday-night appearance on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. (View the video clip of that segment here.) Does freedom of speech apply to journalists, or does Williams' termination send the message, “You can say anything you want as long as you agree with us”?

Williams said to host Bill O'Reilly on that program, “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.”

He was describing his own knee-jerk feelings in that situation to make a point, and his words were taken out of context. The rest of his comments in that interview emphasized that despite people's personal reactions and fears, they should distinguish between moderate and extremist Muslims, and they should not violate anyone's rights because of religious affiliation.

In an opinion piece published on the Fox News website yesterday, Williams further clarified his remarks:

Yesterday NPR fired me for telling the truth. The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims.

This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. . . .
And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed.
He also recounted his conversation with his boss at NPR, Ellen Weiss, in which she informed him that he "had violated NPR’s values for editorial commentary” even though his comments were not made on NPR. He wrote:

I asked why she would fire me without speaking to me face to face and she said there was nothing I could say to change her mind, the decision had been confirmed above her, and there was no point to meeting in person. To say the least this is a chilling assault on free speech. The critical importance of honest journalism and a free flowing, respectful national conversation needs to be had in our country. But it is being buried as collateral damage in a war whose battles include political correctness and ideological orthodoxy.

NPR had already distanced itself from Williams by changing his status from “senior correspondent” to “analyst,” and in Feb. 2009 they requested that he stop identifying himself with NPR in his Fox News appearances. In a statement issued on Wednesday night, NPR said, “His remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, said on Thursday that “Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself, 'his psychiatrist or his publicist'—a comment she later said she regretted. 'I spoke hastily and I apologize to Juan and others for my thoughtless remark,' Schiller said in a statement released by NPR.”

How interesting that Schiller is allowed the freedom to make an unprofessional, unkind remark like that and is let off the hook with an apology, while Williams is fired for stating an opinion that was taken out of context.

Some Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, are calling for an end to federal funding for NPR. Already there is proposed legislation in Congressional committee, introduced by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) in June, which would cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after fiscal year 2012. According to NPR, it receives about one percent of its budget each year from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and another one percent from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional federal funds are received indirectly through fees paid to NPR by affiliated public radio stations that buy its programming. NPR posted charts showing its sources of financial support and those of member stations. Whether or not NPR should continue to receive federal funding, I am not convinced that cutting it would hurt NPR financially that much although I do believe that the government should protect Americans' freedoms and should hold recipients of federal funds accountable if they violate those freedoms.

I don't always agree with Juan Williams, but I do support his freedom of speech, and I'm not a fan of political correctness when it jeopardizes that freedom. Ironically, in Monday's interview, Williams was actually advising O'Reilly to be careful about what he says. Perhaps Williams should have been more careful himself, but at the same time, he should have the right to express his opinions without censorship. He should also be afforded the fairness that journalism is supposed to exercise, but NPR executives failed to give him that when they took his remarks out of context and fired him without even granting his request for a face-to-face meeting.

On the bright side for Williams, Fox News has signed him to a new three-year exclusive contract worth almost $2 million and has given him an expanded role at the network, with an online column and more frequent appearances. He will guest-host The O'Reilly Factor tonight. And I hope that Fox News lets him paint his office whatever color he wants.