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The Controversy Over NPR's Firing of Juan Williams

Updated on October 25, 2010

The conservative establishment came out in full force in Juan Williams’ defense after he was summarily fired last week by the National Public Radio (NPR) for comments he made while appearing on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor.

Juan lost his job as an NPR news analyst after he told Bill O'Reilly on October 18 that he gets "worried" and "nervous" on flights when he sees people wearing "Muslim garb" because “they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.”

From Eric Cantor, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani to Jim DeMint, the reaction from the right was predictably contemptuous but enormously confused and unhinged.

Republican leaders derided NPR for an action that they unanimously saw as a clear assault on free speech. Huckabee called Williams "refreshingly honest and candid," adding that "there isn't a more honest and fair-minded person in journalism." Lamenting that “the only free speech liberals support is the speech with which they agree," DeMint in a statement opined that "the incident with Mr. Williams shows that NPR is not concerned about providing the listening public with an honest debate of today's issues, but rather with promoting a one-sided liberal agenda."

DeMint and several others even went far as threatening legislative action to strip the NPR of the key government funding it receives through its affiliation with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In a move that seemed to further obfuscate the discourse while appearing to shield or reassure “the victim,” Fox News hurriedly signed Juan to a $2 million, multiple-year deal that now guaranteed him a new expanded role within the Fox news organization.

Juan himself took time to make a few rounds of the media circuit fiercely protesting his innocence, charging NPR with “character assassination,” and citing his prodigious writing career in testament to the fact that he’s not a “bigot.” He additionally claimed that NPR had been gunning for him and only responded in the manner that it did to capitalize on an opportunity that it deemed innocuous and expedient.

NPR President and CEO, Vivian Schiller, later described the manner in which she handled and explained Juan’s firing as regrettable but equally acknowledged that while “reasonable people can disagree about timing: whether NPR should have ended our relationship with Juan earlier, on the occasion of other incidents; or whether this final episode warranted immediate termination of his contract," the veracity of the decision itself cannot be questioned.

Lost in the hullabaloo, of course, was the simple fact that Juan’s comments were stupid, indefensible (not even from a free speech premise), irresponsible and offensive. Saying that one feels “nervous” and “worried” upon sighting fellow citizens in “Muslim garb” at an airport is no less dim-witted, reckless and odious as expressing the same feeling when close to African-Americans or Jewish Americans!

And honestly, to have these revolting comments publicly uttered and shamelessly defended by Juan and his high-profile minders is simply beyond reproach.

Nothing about the American pre- or post-9/11 chequered terrorism experience could remotely provide justification for Juan’s comments. If anything, the attacks on the homeland have, till date, been perpetrated by either European-Americans or others dressed in “Western garb!”

Regarding the reaction from the Republican Leadership, it certainly was interesting that they chose to err on the side of Juan’s right to free speech instead of defending NPR’s bonafide right to fire an employee that it feels took actions that contravened the terms and spirit of his contract.

But it really does not matter; it’s all based on a naïve and one-dimensional guilt or innocence by association logic. It’s easier and certainly more promising, politically, especially less than ten days from the November mid-terms, to cast the issue as a struggle between big government or “Goliath,” in this case NPR, and a defenseless average Joe or “David,” in this case Juan.

The call by these conservative leaders to kill NPR by stripping it of the federal funds it so desperately needs on account of this incident is just as harsh and reckless as Juan’s comments. More importantly, perhaps, it speaks to the absence of rigor in the thought process and vision of its harbingers. For them, this is an ideological war for which nothing is sacrosanct or exempt from their drawn and ever-menacing sword of right-wing righteousness.

Be it known, however, that when these same self-proclaimed supreme guardians of our constitutional liberties were provided an opportunity to weigh-in on the New York Mosque (the Cordoba Initiative) controversy several weeks ago, they ignominiously traded every American’s right to free assembly and worship for what at the time appeared to be political expedient.


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    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 7 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      NPR may have shot itself in the foot itself by firing Juan Williams for making a comment about a fear shared by many Americans as a result of 9-11 and the abundant anti-Muslim fear mongering since then. As a Monday quarterback I think they might have waited until his contract expired and quietly declined to renew it, and announcing a more suitable black replacement. Nevertheless, as far as I'm concerned I'm happy to see Williams gone from NPR. He's been on Murdoch's payroll at Fox News for some time allowing himself to be billed as an NPR political analyst. He's a worse "suckup" than Tim Russert. If anybody expressed any fears when encountering blacks after dark in the inner city he's be the first to scream "bigotry," "profiling." Good riddance as far as I'm concerned.

      Here's a link to a good article by Glen Greenwald on the Juan Williams firing: