BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Wednesday, NPR’s analyst Juan Williams became former NPR analyst Juan Williams after the network fired him for comments he made on The O’Reilly Factor earlier in the week. NPR said that Williams’ comments were, quote, “inconsistent with their editorial standards and practices.” Here’s what Williams said.
JUAN WILLIAMS: I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I've got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court – I think this is just last week – he said the war with Muslims, America’s war with – is just beginning. First drop of blood. I don't think there’s any way to get away from these facts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That specific clip of tape was circulated by a liberal blog called Think Progress, and it hopped from liberal blog to liberal blog until it was swiftly picked up by the mainstream media, and that’s when Williams got axed. The firing has probably been worse for NPR than it has for Williams. Some Republicans are calling for the network to be defunded, while FOX has offered the former NPR analyst a two-million-dollar contract. Whatever the upshot, Slate’s Will Saletan thinks that Williams shouldn't have been fired. He says that Williams admitted fear of Muslims on planes was meant to set up a more nuanced point, one that you don't get to hear in the edited clip.
WILLIAM SALETAN: Williams goes on to put that in a larger context. He says, this is my visceral feeling. I have this reaction. But he goes on to say –
JUAN WILLIAMS: But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all, as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam.
WILLIAM SALETAN: If I can draw a larger point, I think he’s saying this is something for the whole country to get over. If you look at polling data, if you look at the uproar over the proposed Islamic center in New York, we obviously have a problem with fear of Muslims in this country, fear of Muslims driving a lot of what people are saying. And I think it’s probably important that we acknowledge it at the same time that we're trying to overcome it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The other big point you make in your piece is that Williams was indisputably a victim of selective editing. What are people who have been exposed to the ThinkProgress tape not hearing?
WILLIAM SALETAN: Well, it’s very similar – those of you who've heard the Shirley Sherrod video -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She’s the Agriculture Department official who was speaking before the NAACP and was wildly taken out of context by the right-wing blogosphere. She was confronting her own sort of racial stereotyping when sitting with a white farmer who was seeking assistance, and she was initially inclined not to help him. Of course, she saw the error of her ways, and that was the point of her story. That point was [LAUGHING] completely eliminated – people only got the setup – and she was fired by the White House.
WILLIAM SALETAN: That's right. And so if you saw the ThinkProgress clip, you saw something very similar. You saw a short video excerpt. If they would have let it run for a split second longer, he said, but I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all, as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam. And then Williams goes on to say several other things - that we shouldn't draw conclusions about all Christians from the actions of Timothy McVeigh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was an interesting exchange. I'd like to play that.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Because if you said, wait, Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals - very obnoxious - you don't say first and foremost we got a problem with Christians. That’d be crazy.
[OVERTALK] But it’s not at that level.
WILLIAM SALETAN: He’s trying to say, look, if you can't identify with Muslims in this context, you know, let's analogize to Christians because this is something [LAUGHS] that a lot of conservatives find easy, the idea of anti-Christian bigotry, we all can recognize it. And so, how would you feel if someone were to draw conclusions about all Christians from Timothy McVeigh? Obviously, it would upset you. I viewed that as a kind of pedagogical exchange with O'Reilly in which Williams is saying, here is the context in which you might be able to draw the lesson that I'm trying to teach you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But then O'Reilly asks Juan, who’s posing a problem in Germany?
JUAN WILIAMS: But let me get –
BILL O'REILLY: Is it the Muslims who have come there or the Germans?
JUAN WILLIAMS: Absolutely. Well, I – I think –
BILL O’REILLY: Who is more of a problem?
[OVERTALK] I think – no, no, no, wait. You see, you did it again. It’s extremists. It’s people who refuse to assimilate.
BILL O'REILLY: It’s not extremists.
JUAN WILLIAMS: It’s a German society.
WILLIAM SALETAN: He’s saying, focus on the extremism, focus on the terrorism itself. And that’s pretty much the lesson that we all need to draw.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He also seems to offer a caution to O'Reilly for his own rhetoric.
JUAN WILLIAMS: The other day in New York some guy cuts a, a Muslim cabby’s neck and says he’s attacking him.
BILL O’REILLY: Well –
JUAN WILLIAMS: I don't know what’s in that guy’s head but I'm saying, we don't want in America people to have their rights violated, to be attacked on the street –
BILL O’REILLY: If it were gonna – If that was gonna happen, it would have happened.
JUAN WILLIAMS: - because they heard rhetoric from Bill O'Reilly, and they act crazy.
WILLIAM SALETAN: He is saying, I had this reaction. We should treat people fairly. We should not discriminate on the basis of religion, and we should be very wary of what we say on the air. And I guess what really saddens me is I wonder how many people just saw the ThinkProgress clip, not the whole video, and so think that Juan Williams was encouraging some sort of violence, when he was saying precisely the opposite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the attacks on NPR by the right-wing blogosphere, which says, okay, now it’s showing its true colors, all it cares about is political correctness?
WILLIAM SALETAN: I don't think it is affirmatively true that that’s sort of what motivated it, but I do think that it’s easier to overlook things when you have a certain view of the world or when you have a certain sensibility. Racism immediately stands out to you. Anti-Muslim bigotry stands out to you. So do I think he got fired for being – as some ideological thing? No, I don't think so. But I wouldn't dismiss that a certain annoyance at some things that he has said may have been in the background and influenced it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Back in 2009, he said of Michelle Obama, she’s got the Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going. You know, I think this would all have been a lot easier if NPR had examined Juan Williams’ remarks that weren't taken out of context and just decided whether or not they wanted to renew his contract earlier.
WILLIAM SALETAN: Well, I think we'd be having a completely different conversation, you and I and the whole political [LAUGHS] blogosphere, if NPR had said, look, we have a longstanding issue with Juan Williams, and not about any particular comment but over the course of his career, and we don't feel this is appropriate. But for whatever reason, they chose to single out this incident, thinking, I think, that it would be the most [LAUGHING] politically expedient case to make their point that he’s gone off the deep end, as they see it. And I think they picked the wrong case. I think they picked the wrong case to make their case against Juan Williams and I think they picked the wrong case to make a point against anti-Muslim bigotry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will, thank you so much.
WILLIAM SALETAN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Saletan is a columnist for Slate. We called NPR – no one was available for comment – but in an email sent Thursday to NPR member stations, NPR president Vivian Schiller did suggest that Williams was not fired on the basis of a single remark. Quote: “We offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview, not our reporters and analysts.” She went on: “This isn't the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan’s public comments. Despite many conversations and warnings over the years, Juan has continued to violate this principle.”
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