October 22nd, 2010
11:17 AM ET

Juan Williams' remark aside, firing draws ire of left, right

The hullabaloo over the firing of ex-NPR news analyst Juan Williams is far bigger than right v. left.

Fox News has assailed NPR for its handling of the situation, calling it an assault on free speech and stoking GOP pundits and potential presidential candidates to demand that NPR's government funding be cut.

But it’s not only the right wing frowning on NPR’s decision. Though a handful have applauded the public radio station, journalists of every shade have come to his defense without condoning his comments. Williams said seeing people in Muslim dress on airplanes makes him nervous, and while plenty view his remark as silly or dangerous, few think he should have been axed.

“First of all, if I got on a plane and someone was in full Muslim attire, I would feel very safe because if you’re about to blow up that plane that’s not the way you’re going to be dressed,” Barbara Walters said Thursday on “The View,” where the controversy ostensibly started. “So if this is what you’re wearing, just as you might wear a cross or a Jewish star, fine. I think it’s a silly statement for Juan to be making.”

Walters, no stranger herself to the line between journalism and commentary, went on to say that “if you are someone who is giving your opinion then you’re allowed to give your opinion. You may or may not agree, like on this show.”

It was on “The View” last week that hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walked off the set during an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly after he blamed Muslims for 9/11.

O’Reilly was discussing those remarks on his own show Monday when Williams made his controversial statement.

Many analysts, both liberal and conservative, have noted Williams also tempered O’Reilly’s remarks by saying that likening Muslims to extremists would be like saying all Christians were akin to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

No matter, though. NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller told the Atlanta Press Club that Williams’ comments undermined his credibility as an analyst and that political activists cannot be reporters or news analysts for NPR.

“This is not a reflection on his comments. This is not a debate. Juan feels the way he feels. That is not for me to pass judgment on,” she said - before passing judgment.

“His feelings that he expressed on Fox News are really between his psychiatrist or his publicist – or take your pick – but it is not compatible with the role of a news analyst on NPR’s air,” she said.

She later apologized for her “thoughtless remark,” but there was no word whether NPR would discipline her for her deviation from the facts.

NPR’s ethics code, repeatedly used to defend Williams’ firing, states, “In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows’ electronic forums or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”

Williams isn't buying it, though. Speaking to O’Reilly after the Los Angeles Times reported Fox had signed him to a $2 million contract, Williams said he was targeted because of his affiliation with the conservative news channel, where he had been a contributor before his ouster from NPR.

“I don't fit in their box,” he said. “I'm not predictable, black, liberal. And let me tell you something else, you were exactly right when you said you know what this comes down to. They were looking for a reason to get rid of me because I'm appearing on Fox News. They don't want me talking to you.”

Williams also said he was provided no opportunity to present his case “eyeball to eyeball, person to person,” despite having given NPR more than a decade of service.

He said he received a call Wednesday, two days after the remark, from Ellen Weiss, NPR’s senior vice president for news. She asked him what he meant to say, Williams told O’Reilly.

“I said what I meant to say," he recalled telling her, "which is that it’s an honest experience that when I’m in an airport and I see people who are in Muslim garb who identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims I do a double take. I have a moment of anxiety or fear given what happened on 9/11. That’s just a reality."

He said he was told the comment “crosses the line” and Weiss implied it was a “bigoted statement.” He said he wanted to discuss it in person.

“There’s nothing you can say that will change my mind,” he quoted Weiss as telling him. “This has been decided above me, and we’re terminating your contract.”

Many journalists have stated in the last 24 hours that while they disagree with Williams’ categorization of Muslims, they also frown on his firing.

Goldberg even drew a line between Williams' opinion and O’Reilly’s remarks that prompted her and Behar to walk off "The View" set last week.

“What Bill O’Reilly said he was saying as fact and he was painting it as fact, and the reason that I was annoyed is because it’s not a fact. When you say Muslims did this, are you talking about Muhammad Ali? Because he’s a Muslim.”

As for Williams, she said, “The point he was trying to make is, I get nervous and that’s OK to say. Firing him for saying that, I think, is kind of ridiculous."

She concluded by summing up the thoughts of her co-hosts, who run the political gamut: “In all of our opinions, it seems the firing of Juan was a total mistake and sends the wrong message. And NPR, get yourself together because we’ve all got to work on this together.”

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Filed under: Air travel • Islam • September 11
soundoff (851 Responses)
  1. Sandy

    It has been obvious for years that Juan Williams used his credentials as an NPR journalist to gain credibility as a faux liberal on Fox Noise. I hope he has enjoyed his status as a token echo chamber for Murdoch and Co.'s talking points. He has certainly shredded any viability he might have had as a serious journalist or pundit. I wonder what the response would have been if a Muslim had publicly announced his overwhelming fear of black men, say on dark urban streets "in black garb, and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as blacks, I get worried. I get nervous." Would that statement have been tolerated by Mr. Williams? NPR took the correct action in firing him, and has my complete support.

    October 22, 2010 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  2. Bill

    I think NPR and most of the comments here are confusing Williams' comment of what he thinks with morality.

    Williams never said his thinking was proper or correct. He even corrected O'Reilly, pointing out that blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few is stupid. Williams does not think Muslims he sees are going to blow anything up. He was merely stating that the first thing that pops in his head is "uh oh!". We are all guilty of similar intrusive thoughts. Some look twice when seeing a black man walking towards them. Some do a double-take when seeing a young girl. Then you realize "omg that is stupid, what am I thinking?" You toss the thought away and go about your business.

    Williams was just honest about it.

    October 22, 2010 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  3. Tom Anderson

    Williams said what a majority of Americans feel. (This is not always the case with NPR reporting.) And he got fired for it!!! It's the same ole "if ya look like a duck, walk like a duck, quake like a duck, people are gonna call you a duck" And that my friends is human nature–thats the way it is!

    NPR, you can forget my support!!!!!

    October 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. ranch111

    Same thing happened to me on the bus recently. Three Arab young men got on the bus. They spoke in Arabic, loudly. Were very animated and marginally disruptive compared to normal behavior on the bus. I was wary, to say the least, and I can understand Juan's feelings about this. I didn't have anything personal against these young men, but you are not human if you don't have a reaction in a situation like this. To say the least, my senses were heightened and I was on guard.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Stop using "Slam" in your headlines

    Dear CNN,
    Please stop using the word "slam" in your story headlines. You consistantly over-use the word wrong and its extremely annoying.
    -CNN Reader

    October 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. daveinla

    If Williams were white would the liberals in the media still be sticking by him, or throwing him under the bus?

    October 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Sharky

    NPR = National PC Radio. Unless you are a flaming liberal socialist progressive you don't belong on that station. Pathetic.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • madmatt

      NPR=No Paranoid Racists which is why you seldom listen...careful scary brown people are behind you!

      October 22, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  8. brewhafunk

    There may be a bigger problem here than bigotry. People have been dumbed-down by opinion media, which unfortunately is most of what we see today. God forbid National Public Radio for actually trying to hang on to any fraction of journalistic integrity left in this country. News journalism is supposed to be the reporting of fact in order to have an informed electorate that is so crucial to the survival of the democracy, not the opinions of those with degrees in journalism. WE DON'T NEED JOURNALISTS TO TELL US WHAT THEY THINK OR WHAT WE ARE THINKING! WE NEED THEM TO DELIVER THE NEWS!
    The fact that NPR is being attacked for trying to hold their employees accountable for their words is nothing short of hypocritical. I ask those who think anyone should be able to say whatever they want without repercussion this: What would happen if President Obama (our employee) said today, "white people make me nervous" and then came right back out and said "and I meant what I said"?..... The House of representatives would be back in session tomorrow to impeach him and he would quickly be removed from office. (rightfully so) People are free to be bigots or racists all they want but don't expect their employer not to fire them for behavior that the employer doesn't condone. So go ahead and take your millions from Fox, Juan, and don't let the door hit you in the a#*... Oh, and by the way, they may give you a platform to "freely express your views" of bigotry towards Muslims or the Islamic religion, just don't say anything bad about the white christian corporate elite or you will be fired for being a racist, a bigot, and a socialist n***er.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian W

      No, the big problem is that our freedom of speech is being taken away from us. Look at all the examples within the past few months. People are attacked for saying the word "retard", South Park had the word "Muhammed" bleeped out, saying that Muslims attacked us on 9/11 gets criticized by a bunch of angry old women on their periods, Vince Vaughn's new movie is criticized for making a gay reference, and now this? Soon we won't be able to say "idiot" because it will become politically incorrect and offensive to liberals

      October 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      *** “His feelings that he expressed on Fox News are really between his psychiatrist or his publicist – or take your pick – but it is not compatible with the role of a news analyst on NPR’s air,…” (said NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller) “…They should not participate in shows’ electronic forums or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.” *** So under NPR’s own rules for appearing Schiller should face immediate discipline. The rule though is totally unenforceable even at an at will employer given the fact that NPR allows this to happen all the time with its staff and never does anything.

      October 22, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. mack the knife

    Had Mr. Williams made remarks similar to those made by senior White House correspondent Helen Thomas about Israel instead of his observations concerning Muslims his firing would have gone without commentary.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Frank

    NPR???? National??? Public???

    Lets rename it "Liberal JUST US Radio" and cut off all public funding.

    Let the New York TImes fund it.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. faboge

    i travel all the time and super nervous when anyone looking middle eastern boards the plane! Ok, I am paranoid.... but with cause!

    October 22, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ivory

    NPR is a joke. Extreme leftist orthodoxy is ALL they preach. They never had a problem with Juan's liberal comments over the last 10 years but, when he speaks of a "feeling" he has (which most Americans have felt at some point since 9/11) he gets fired. The PC movement will be the end of us.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Harry Ball

    Why is NPR still federally funded? If they were using their own money then they could do as they please with their employees, but they are using tax dollars to silence those who don't step in line with the rest of that blatantly liberal news station. If they want to roll like that, do it without help from us the tax payer.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  14. david

    if i was on a plane and a towel,head came on in one of thoes robes on i would demand to be put on another flight....not the one that is going down.....let them fly with all liberals like soros or walters and hopfuly obama their own sand monkey

    October 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Harry Ball

      I'm no friend of Muslims, but do you really think that a muslim terrorist would be dumb enough to get on a plane decked out in Muslim garb? Give them more credit than that. It's the ones dressed like us that you should be on the lookout for.

      October 22, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • david

      And what kind of monkey are you and your family members? Dumb, uneducated trailer trash monkeys?

      October 22, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Violets

    Remember when Eric Holder stated that Americans are cowardly about TALKING about race (anxiety)? This misguided reaction of NPR is an example of why. Williams was expressing his PERCEPTION, his emotional, gut response. He wasn't celebrating it or condoning it. We will never make progress with uptight liberalism such as this NPR move. I won't contribute to them further, until they demonstrate a more enlightened, freedom-respecting approach. It is a shame! Btw, I'm a so-called "liberal" according to most definitions( though I prefer moderate label).

    October 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
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