One last look at the Juan Williams/NPR fiasco

Posted on October 25, 2010

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I have purposefully refrained from commenting on the dust-up over Juan Williams’ firing from NPR after comments he made on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News – mainly to just get a little space from the emotional reactions from both sides. A brief refresher on the statements that earned Williams the ax:

Appearing Monday on the O’Reilly show, Williams said, “When I get on a plane … 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.”

Then he briefly discussed Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American recently sentenced to life in prison for attempting to explode a vehicle bomb in Times Square.

“He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drops of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts,” Williams said.

At first blush, Williams’ remarks are at best cringe-worthy. However, Williams goes on to carefully state that such feelings don’t warrant painting all Muslims with the brush of extremism and that we need to try to maintain the rights of individuals despite such feelings. In essence, Williams was unpacking a negative emotional response, attempting to explain it and ultimately to rise above it.

Such context was apparently lost on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who immediately condemned Williams, and on NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller, who then promptly terminated the ten-year NPR veteran over the phone, then smirked that Williams’ beliefs were between him “and his psychiatrist” – a statement for which she would later apologize.

In light of the entirety of Williams’ appearance and his history of standing up for civil rights, it’s hard for me to buy that Mr. Williams was exposed as a closet bigot, and that NPR had no choice but to cut him loose to preserve their credibility. Instead, the reason has more to do with Williams’ appearance on Fox News in the first place and his cozy relationship with the right-leaning news channel.

Most liberal reaction to Williams’ firing has ranged from “Eh, he wasn’t that great of a host anyway,” to “Good riddance! Shame on him for going on Fox!” Indeed, much of the outrage from the left doesn’t seem to be over what Williams actually said to get him fired, but for having the unmitigated gall to appear on That Channel. I strongly believe that it’s this attitude that contributed to Williams’ dismissal, with his comments as mere pretext to punish what the left perceives as a pseudo-liberal sell-out who had strayed too far off the ranch.

Indeed, one need look no further than the left-leaning media watchdog site Media Matters, who just one day after Williams’ firing, opined that NPR should take a look at getting rid of Mara Liasson next simply for appearing alongside Williams on the Fox network. Eric Boehlert even says that though Liasson hasn’t said anything controversial, her association with Fox alone  raises enough issues where her employment status at NPR should also be thrown into question. And it’s more than a little interesting to note that both Media Matters and NPR are recent recipients of donations from George Soros.

In any case, I can’t feel too bad for Mr. Williams – Fox signed him to a $3 million deal and an expanded role after his firing. His critics will merely claim that the deal proves how far in the bag for Fox he was, but I think it’s a smart strategic move aimed at loudly signing a left-leaning commentator to help combat cries of “Faux News!” and to take a publicity advantage of a public scandal.

In addition, GOP lawmakers are making rumblings at defunding NPR. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but not because of Williams’ firing. If, as CEO Schiller maintains, taxpayer funding makes up only a small portion of their budget, then as part of a larger effort to cut costs, I don’t see why that funding shouldn’t be slashed if it’s not needed in a meaningful way. But even it was, with all the media choices available via satellite, cable, and Internet, government-supported media seems like an anachronism from decades-past in a wholly digital and options-based age, and if listeners want to keep NPR on the air, they can do so via donations or syndication like any other wholly private enterprise.

But the lasting issue is the continuing war on Fox News, and why Williams’ and Liasson’s associations with it are seemingly fireable offenses. Even if Fox News was even worse than the accusations of  its most hate-filled critics – in the largeer scheme, so what? I am completely on the same page as Ross Douthat – liberals seem hell-bent on isolating Fox News on some quixotic belief that if they simply ignore it, it will lose credibility and go away. Yet it still remains the highest-rated cable news channel, and it should be the goal of any serious-minded thinker or pundit not preach to the choir and damn the heathens in the fields, but to persuade those who disagree.

Putting a liberal thought bubble around Fox News fails to engage those who might be persuaded with decent arguments. Sure, the formats may not always be the most hospitable and the majority of viewers may not be immediately swayed – but the willingness to engage in honest debate does go a long way toward planting seeds in the minds of viewers, which is why Williams has gotten so much support from the right, not because he’s a whipping boy or a corporate shill, but because he’s seen not as a ruthless enemy but a human being with which we can respectfully disagree.

By isolating any and all who associate with Fox, or by extension, any who have a whiff of conservatism about them, the left seems content to write off its audience as unworthy of persuasion and unthinking idiots to be overcome and stamped down. I would submit that giving up on engagement and dialogue seems to be a troubling sign that many view their political opponents not as Americans to be persuaded, but as adversaries to be defeated and controlled.

Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice

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Posted in: News, Politics