Juan Williams and NPR: Sacked for Speech

On October 27 the Iowa City Press-Citizen ran two columns related to NPR's firing of Juan Williams. Nicholas Johnson from one perspective. Shams Ghoneim, coordinator of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Iowa, wrote from her perspective. Ms. Ghoneim is also a community member of the Press-Citizen's Editorial Board. Her column is reproduced following his.

NPR botched its firing of Juan Williams
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 27, 2010, p. A15

And see, "NPR Botched Firing of Juan Williams; Sacked for Speech," FromDC2Iowa, October 27, 2010, and  "Unacceptable Remarks: Ex-NPR Juan Williams; What Words Warrant Firing?" FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com, October 22, 2010.

NPR fired Juan Williams.

They botched it.

Even NPR's own ombudsperson, under the headline "NPR's Firing of Juan Williams Was Poorly Handled," said of her organization, "a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare."

It's not the first time. NPR stirred up a comparable storm when it fired NPR pioneer Bob Edwards.

Fox TV immediately responded with a multi-million-dollar contract to keep Williams in grocery money. And the Congressional conservatives who never did like public broadcasting now want to eliminate NPR's funding.

NPR's CEO, Vivian Schiller, said Williams violated the rule that NPR employees should keep opinions to themselves, while offering her opinion that he should see his psychiatrist. (He has none.)

A number of persons were fired this year for a single utterance. Williams is only the latest in a long line that includes Tony Hayward, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Octavia Nasr, Rick Sanchez, Laura Schlessinger and Helen Thomas.

Williams "offense" is most like that of Shirley Sherrod, fired by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In a 40-minute speech explaining her evolution regarding race-based reactions, she confessed to an early one of her own (a white farmer; ultimately she saved his farm).

Williams was interviewed on Fox by Bill O'Reilly, who was making some statements about "Muslims." Williams, a prize-winning civil rights author and advocate, said, "there are people who want to somehow remind us . . . it's not a war against Islam." After Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building "you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy."

He warned, "Bill, here's a caution point. The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby's neck . . . or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero. ... We don't want in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street, because they heard rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly and they act crazy."

In the course of taking on O'Reilly, he made his own Sherrod-like confession that, "when I get on the plane ... if I see people who are in Muslim garb and ... they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

It's not easy to have a "conversation" with Bill O'Reilly. But when Williams' confession is fairly evaluated in context, he was not saying "all Muslims are terrorists" anymore than Sherrod was saying all whites are unworthy. He, and she, meant just the opposite.

As Slate's William Saletan said, "Sometimes a confession of prejudice is part of a larger reflection on the perils of prejudice. That was true of Sherrod. And it's true of Williams."

Williams is saying in a country and age of suspicion and fear some people will respond emotionally as "worried and nervous" -- even when they know better intellectually, as he does. And that fact imposes an enhanced responsibility on those with microphones not to foment hate speech -- and actions.

The anxiety is not limited to Williams.

Jesse Jackson once said, "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery -- then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."

NPR forbids "news analysts" expressing "opinions" and taking "personal public positions on controversial issues." But Williams' report of his emotional feelings on planes is a statement of fact, not opinion or advocacy, and certainly doesn't involve a "controversial issue."

New media don't help. Nasr was fired for a tweet, Thomas over an amateur video. Now Williams for a well-intentioned extemporaneous remark during a shouting match with O'Reilly.

NPR and other institutions can hire, and fire, whomever they please. But there are consequences -- for them, their employees, and all who believe in fairness and a robust democratic dialogue.
Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org.

Addressing fear and xenophobia
Shams Ghoneim
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 27, 2010, p. A15

Juan Williams, former NPR news analyst and now full-time Fox News political commentator, recently said that when he boards a plane and sees "people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, that they identify themselves first and most as Muslims, I get nervous and worried."

As a member of a minority community and an expert on the history of civil rights in the U.S., Williams should have known better than to publicly share both his ignorance and Islamo-phobia for profit and to create national controversy so close to the Nov. 2 election.

Ethical journalists should not mix their personal opinions with facts. And Williams -- in this most offensive and biased remark -- not only violated this journalistic code of conduct, but also used his public position to spread more prejudice and fear mongering against a minority religious community. Muslims in America have become a punching bag for right-wing commentators, public officials, fringe religious figures and even some elected officials.

This is not about freedom of speech. This is about journalistic ethics as well as the personal responsibility that go with this ethics. I feel compelled to ask, "What would Williams think if a white American were to say, 'Each time I get into a store or a plane, and I see a black man, I get nervous and worried?'"

Williams not only has offended millions of law-abiding American Muslims, but he also has demonstrated the worst kind of journalism. I personally think NPR was right to fire him for his bigoted statements alone. I'm disappointed that Williams chose to be in the company of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others. And if he wants to be in the company of such admired journalists such as Bill Moyers, Thomas Friedman, Christiane Amanpour or Fareed Zakaria, then I think Williams needs to re-evaluate his conduct as well as his professional goals.

But the Muslim Public Affairs Council recently issued a statement that criticized the firing of Williams.

The council stated, "In the past few months, a number of high profile commentators and journalists -- including Rick Sanchez, Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Helen Thomas -- have been fired or quit due to offensive comments they made. These incidents have made it clear that more discussions need to take place addressing race, religion and American identity in the face of xenophobia and fear."
Shams Ghoneim is a community member of the Press-Citizen Editorial Board and the coordinator of the Muslim Public Affairs Council for Iowa.