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. Scott

    I take Juan Williams side on this. NPR should NOT have fired him for his comments. He was on a different network as a guest on a show engaged in a conversation. He did not violate any NPR rules because he didn't offer his opinion on NPR.
    This reeks the same way it reeked when Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walked off the set during an O'Reilly interview where they were sharing opinions. NPR is guilty of trying to kill the dialogue. News is more than facts and analysis, it is also opinion and anecdotal experience. It was an unfair attack on freedom of speech by punishing somebody for sharing an opinion honestly.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • NPR Public Code of Ethics

      10. 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.

      October 22, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jermiah

      He was stating a fact...about his own feelings. If he would have suggested others should feel the same then it becomes punditry. Nothing he said violated this term in his contract. To your logic, if Juan posted an Op-Ed piece in a newspaper he should have been fired?

      October 22, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mark

    I was once a registered Democrat and sided with the liberal agenda. Liberals and leftists are opposed to freedom of speech. Now I am an Independent, I voted early and did not vote for one Democrat, mainly independents. The firing is terrible. I worry to when I see these islamic nut jobs on a plane.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Steve (the real one)

    Its like this... you don't support the President's policies, you're racist, a bigot or in my case an uncle tom (that term does not deserve to be capitalized). You don't support the left's agenda you are called a group of names. (In all honesty the right has been guilty of the same). The tolerant left is anything but unless you agree with their agenda and I don't!! They don't get it! It is policy! Not a BI-RACIAL President BUT policy! Williams had everyright to express his opinion. I 'm sure if he expressed an OPINION that matched NPR's OPINION this would have never happpened!

    October 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • NPR Public Code of Ethics

      Its stated clearly in public here:

      http://www.npr.org/about/aboutnpr/ethics/ethics_code.html

      He violated those ethics guidelines, he got fired.

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

    I listen to NPR regularly and have always enjoyed Juan William's contributions. I didn't know that he was also appearing on Fox, and I think this is just fine since he had that option as an independent contractor. I think this is an interesting case study in contracting vs employee loyalties in the new work place. I'm a contractor currently, and have the freedom to work wherever I want. Since Juan was also apparently a contractor, he should also be able to speak freely anyway he wants when not on NPR's time. Overall, I think NPR really screwed this situation up. The CEO never should have made any public comments. If they weren't comfortable with Juan's actions, they should reconcidered their contractor vs employee strategy. In the end, Juan has become a celebrity overnight, gets a higher paying gig on Fox and NPR gets mud on their face. Classic example of poor management. NPR should fire their CEO and re-evaluate their ethics policy and workforce strategy.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Brian W

    Liberals and political correctness are just blocking us from discussing important issues because they know that they are wrong. We seriously need to be able to sit down and talk about the radical muslim problem around the world. We need to be able to discuss these issues without being labeled as a "bigot" or a "racist" for doing it.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • johnrj08

      You're right. But, what we don't need to do is apply broad, fearful stereotypes to an entire population, which is what Williams did. He was fired because his remarks were inconsistent with the standards and practices of NPR. As an "at will" employee, NPR had every right to let him go. And, it has been made quite clear that this was not the first time Williams has made inappropriate or unprofessional statements. Now, he's exactly where he belongs. On FOX News. Everybody should be happy.

      October 22, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      To johnr08,

      But isn't racism enacted by applying broad stereotypes to huge disadvantaged groups in our population? How can you confront racism without dealing with racism? Political correctness does no good here because while it creates an environment where non-oppressed groups can feel comfortable "knowing" that they will not be perceived as racists, it doesn't actually eliminate the racism they enact on a daily basis, whether on purpose or aversively. I'm all for blowing the conversation wide open...

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

      I do not understand how racism cannot have a serious discussion without people appearing 'racist'... Being at least civil to other people does not prevent you from having a discussion on race, religion, or any other subject. Claiming that people decrying your comments for insensitivity can mean a variety of things. It could be that the message is just not appropriate, the message may need to be re-worded so that it reflects your intent while still being respectful of your audience, or that is just not a message that will spark intelligent discourse as much as it will generate an arguement.

      October 22, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      To Sen,

      The problem is that in an effort to not appear racist, non-oppressed people are unwilling to confront their own prejudices and admit to the ways in which they allow themselves to benefit at the expense of the oppressed groups in our society. I understand that political correctness can theoretically have the positive side effect of temporarily making the world more comfortable for oppressed groups by having less hateful language flying around. Words do have power. But those paying attention know what's actually behind the polite words, and avoiding the issue rather than confronting it perpetuates the racism in our society instead of healing it. I am of the opinion that aversive racism is not really that much better than overt racism, because while it makes individual encounters more pleasant in the short term, it leaves the racist structures in our society intact in the long term.

      October 22, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      To Sen, (an addendum)

      Your last sentence has some truth in it. People should spend more time thinking about the language they use and the value of the positions to which they stake claims before they spout whatever they feel like spouting. However, do I think politicians and other public figures are better people for learning to talk about things in a politically correct way while secretly harboring prejudices and ignoring the ways in which they benefit from denying privileges to large groups of our country's population? No.

      October 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sen

      @Ryan – I do not applaud nor endorse encasing racism or religious intolerance with flowery words and false senses of understanding. I mean if you are seriously intending on talking about any negative situation people must approach it from a standpoint of mutual respect, even if they strongly disagree with each other. On the subject of racism or religious intolerance itself, I agree that it has gone underground but is not gone. It would be better if people spoke clearly on the issue with a frank serious mindset rather than glazing over it like it doesn't exist. America seriously needs to purge itself of its fanaticism and wake up to the idea that the only way we can maintain the glory of our society is through rational discussion. Somehow we have strayed down a dark path towards yet another cultural casualty just because people need someone to blame and a distraction from their own situation, and that is unacceptable.

      October 22, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Wide Awake

    Where was this bi-partisan support for the 1st amendment when Rick Sanchez was fired from CNN? I wonder why? Rick's words just ring louder and louder.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      I agree. CNN could have chosen to engage in all kinds of dialogs here but ran away from the issue, demonstrating perhaps some prejudice themselves. Stewart seemed critical of the decision...

      October 22, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  7. johnrj08

    Try this analogy on for size. Let's say I'm the Chief of Police for a major city. I go on a television show, not wearing my uniform, and say that I get nervous whenever I drive through a neighborhood where there are a lot of dark-skinned people. My career as a police officer would be over the next day. Why? Not because my 1st Amendment rights had been taken away, but because I had contributed to a destructive racial stereotype. As a recognized person of authority, I would have betrayed a personal prejudice that did NOT represent the views of my department or the city that had hired me. As a reporter, Juan Williams must have known what he was saying. If he didn't, then he's too stupid to be a reporter... except at FOX News.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pete

      Okay, I have been swayed. After reading NPR's Code of Ethics and this post, it kinda makes sense that Williams should be fired.

      October 22, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Antler

    NPR was wrong to fire Williams for expressing his opinion. I am a middle-ground independent who listened to NRP (and supported it) it for many years. I cannot stomach their biased reporting any more for the last few years. They need to get a grip!

    October 22, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Cindy

    I am dealing strictly with the issue of whether it was correct to fire the man. Personally, I think more alleged journalists should be fired. It is time for "journalists" to decide whether they want to be reporters or celebrities. Juan Williams long ago decided he wanted to be a celebrity. Fox is the place for him. NPR is not.

    Let us be honest here. Is Juan Williams an expert on air travel or The View? Why was he using his journalistic credentials to comment on the issue? Was he reporting on the issue. No, he was being a celebrity. Reporters have a right to make decisions. To they want to be Oprah or do they want to be reporters. Juan Williams obviously wants to be Oprah.

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

    Juan – how does it feel to be white? We need a new group.....I hate to suggest a new attack but we need a new group...how about an Indian attack on fort Riley, or a barakade to all but Mormans going through Utah. Somehow the Muslims have reached the top of the PC chain by killing Americans.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Brian W

    All you people criticizing Juan Williams, you do realize that he spent this entire conversation defending Muslim culture and saying that they should not be grouped with extremists, other than this one statement right?

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

      No he spent his NEXT INTERVIEW backtracking and covering up his racism.

      October 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. sherrod5

    It's obvious that NPR leans to the left, if it leaned to the right NPR would be called racist and Al Sharpton would be all over it. Where are you now Al??

    October 22, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Saboth

    I'm not fan of faux news, but I'm feel they are correct on this. Just because he is a news analyst doesn't mean he can't express his own feelings, especially when he wasn't on the air with NPR. If I said "sometimes when I am in a bad neighborhood, and see a large group of African Americans standing on a street corner, sometimes I feel nervous." Is it racist? I don't know, but a person can't help but feel the way they do in certain situations, whether it is logical or not. Humans are animals, and our emotions and instinct can't be controlled, not matter how intelligent you may be. And being honest about it is nothing to be embarrassed about.

    October 22, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. DB

    None of the hijackers, Reid, Padilla wore the Islamic garb when they attacked us. So why the uncomfortableness (out of fear)? It is nothing but one religion judging others as 'not us'

    October 22, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  15. CenterOfLeft

    Count me among those who disagree with NPR's decision. Williams injected much-needed non-leftist perspectives into NPR's political coverage and punditry.

    It was colossally bad timing for NPR to fire Williams right during the middle of their affiliates' fund-raising campaigns, especially during a time when Americans are already cutting back on giving.

    I got nervous the other week around a woman dressed head-to-toe in conservative Muslim garb. It was hardly conscious; I realized at the time that it was very irrational, but I did feel like I had to put some distance between us before I felt at ease. Call me a bigot, I could care less; it was an honest and unintentional reaction.

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