NPR’s firing of Juan Williams exposes muddled logic
By Jeff Bercovici
Does NPR even know why it fired Juan Williams? I don’t think so. I know why the network says it fired him, or at least why Williams, until yesterday a senior news analyst, says he was told he’d been fired. Williams says NPR news chief Ellen Weiss told him it was “bigoted” of him to say, on Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor,” that he gets nervous when he sees men in traditional Muslim garb board an airplane he’s on. That remark “crossed the line,” according to Williams’s account of his conversation with Weiss.
There are, to my mind, two ways to understand Weiss’s words. (I’ve emailed her to confirm Williams’s account but haven’t heard back.) The first is that Weiss and/or other NPR brass truly found Williams’s words repugnant and prejudiced. This would be strange. Pretty clearly, Williams wasn’t trying to justify a bias against Muslims; he was, in admitting to a reflexive anxiety, exploring and unpacking his own response, and, by extension, inviting viewers to explore their own responses. Williams was, in other words, examining an uncomfortable truth, which is what journalists are supposed to do — again, not the “truth” that “All terrorists are Muslims,” as Fox News’s still-employed Brian Kilmeade erroneously asserted last week, but the truth that fear breeds suspicion. For NPR to call what Williams said “bigoted” is to make the same mistake
Andrew Breitbart made when he claimed Shirley Sherrod’s speech about overcoming her prejudice against white people was proof that she was prejudiced against white people.
But maybe the real mistake Williams made, the line he crossed, was in trying to talk about his own experiences and views in the first place. In NPR’s high-church journalistic values system, that kind of thing isn’t encouraged. The ideal journalist is one conceals his beliefs and affiliations from view at all times. That’s why people who work there are told they can’t attend even a non-partisan rally put on by professional comedians, or talk about the abortion debate in common-sense terms most listeners would understand.
Williams’s role as a paid contributor to the opinion-driven Fox News, where he’s clearly a pundit, has coexisted uncomfortably with his NPR duties for some time. NPR’s ethics code says employees speaking in other forums “should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist,” but NPR doesn’t give its journalists much latitude to express any views at all, unless they can be justified as “fact-based analysis” rather than opinion.
In its official statement on the matter, NPR says, “[Williams’s] 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, NPR’s president, says Williams overstepped the limits of his role by taking “personal public positions on controversial issues,” this time and in previous instances.
It’s clear that NPR was embarrassed by Williams’s high-profile role at Fox News, an opinion-driven network with a thoroughly different set of journalistic principles. It had every right to sever ties with him whenever it felt the need. But to call him a bigot in the process is unfair and undeserved.
•Jeff Bercovici is a contributor to Forbes, and has been in information and technology media work for almost 10 years.