One more post about Juan Williams and then I’m done

This controversy has eaten up my whole day, so I won’t spend much more time on it. Glenn Greenwald has some thoughts up at his blog that I very much disagree with even though on most matters of journalistic dismissals (from Helen Thomas to Octavia Nasr) we tend to be on the same page. On Twitter today, Greenwald replied to me saying that Williams’ statement on what he meant doesn’t line up with what I said he meant.

Here’s Williams’ statement:

Yesterday NPR fired me for telling the truth. The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims.

This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. I pointed out that the Atlanta Olympic bomber –  as well as Timothy McVeigh and the people who protest against gay rights at military funerals — are Christians but we journalists don’t identify them by their religion.

And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed. Bill and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry.

This is pretty much what I said Williams was attempting to get across (and again here) – though I’ll be the first to admit he didn’t do it very well. I imagine if I were talking with O’Reilly I might not say things all that clearly either given that he interrupts and cuts people off and makes it pretty hard for guests to get full, cogent statements out. I’m sure Williams could have said it much better. But that doesn’t change what he actually said.

Furthermore, are we all so pure of heart that none of us ever feel a pang of fear or doubt or nervousness when we see very obviously Muslim people boarding our planes? We know it’s irrational and wrong, but we still do it or have done it at one point. Right after 9/11 I know I felt this way – and I was vehemently opposed to both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I’ve gotten over those irrational fears, but I’m not really surprised some people feel this way after the 9/11 attacks even all these years later. Our ridiculous foreign policy in the Muslim world means that many Muslims do in fact really despise Americans.

But this is all beside the point. Williams was saying that fear shouldn’t be the driving force behind our politics or our punditry. Here is the full transcript of the video. And here’s the video:

Some argued that Williams needed to get sacked one way or another, that he’d already pushed enough buttons with NPR enough and that this was just the final straw. Fine. Track records matter. But you can only use the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ argument if the straw in question is legitimate – if it’s is an actual offense in line with previous offenses. I simply cannot see how anyone could watch this video and come to the conclusion that Williams was endorsing everything O’Reilly said.

Greenwald points to this post by Adam Serwer. Adam argues that “The problem is that it’s clear from the context that Williams wasn’t merely confessing his own personal fears, he was reassuring O’Reilly that he was right to see all Muslims as potential terrorists.”

But I don’t see it that way at all. Williams quite clearly argues that no, it’s the extremists who are the problem and that we can’t let our fears of extremists lead us to blanket judge all Muslims even if our instincts might get the better of us sometimes. I think the only point at which he agreed with O’Reilly was that political correctness can muddle up these conversations, and that was in reference to O’Reilly’s appearance on The View, not any assertions about all Muslims being potential threats. O’Reilly’s larger point, for that matter, is that there is a problem globally with Muslims and really I find that hard to deny given that we’re at war with Muslim nations all across the globe. I disagree entirely with O’Reilly on why that’s the case, but hell, the focus here on pundits is kind of ridiculous anyways. Williams isn’t ordering drone attacks in Afghanistan. He’s not ordering assassinations in Yemen. Somebody is, but it sure isn’t Juan Williams.

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48 thoughts on “One more post about Juan Williams and then I’m done

  1. “Furthermore, are we all so pure of heart that none of us ever feel a pang of fear or doubt or nervousness when we see very obviously Muslim people boarding our planes? ”

    Exactly right. I get a little nervous when I see black people or Mexicans walking towards me on the sidewalk. I’m sure that most people do. There’s nothing bigoted or racist about reacting to the way people look.

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    • What if somebody said this:

      Bill, I’m not anti-Roman Catholic. You know how much I admire the ancient cathedrals and that the modern world uses a papal calendar . But when I walk my son onto a plane and see a man in priestly collar, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as a child molester. I get nervous. I mean, these guys give communions to conservative media – even those working in Fox. They have access to the heavenly gates. And I don’t.

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  2. The first thing that struck me upon reading Juan William’s statement is what a cowardly population we now have in this country. Setting aside for a moment the usual issues of religion and speech and bigotry and profiling and plurality and whatnot, the fact that an adult would actually be frightened or even nervous at seeing Muslims on a plane is absolutely pathetic. Again, I am not making an argument on behalf of Muslims or calling for tolerance or any such thing, but rather noting that the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are insanely small, and that they remain small even when one gets on one of the hundreds of flights that Muslims take each and every day. What an illogical thing to fear.

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  3. “The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims. This is not a bigoted statement.” Yes, it is, pretty much by definition.

    “It is a statement of my feelings.” Ahh, poor baby. He’s got the frights. He’ll fit right in a Fox.

    Canning him gives more room for the adults at NPR to have an adult conversation with those of us who are done with running the country based on feelings.

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  4. As I said at Balloon Juice (which I believe your write for, and read occasionally):
    E.D., after viewing, I don’t really find the context helpful to Williams’ cause. He’s not really apologizing for his bigotry or admitting it’s wrong, he’s using it to find common ground with O’Reilly so his further arguments can be more successful. This is a large part of the left’s problem with Williams (when actually examining his function/purpose on Fox in detail); he exists to give credence to the bad instincts of the O’Reillys of the world while quibbling over details. I read his statement as “It’s ok to be scared of muslims just for being muslim, I know I am”. You can follow up by saying that muslims aren’t the devil, but you’ve already given acceptance to allowing people to accept bigotry and irrational fear…

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  5. Greenwald can’t come after Williams as hard as he does in the beginning of his piece today and then claim that he doesn’t support a standard where opinion talkers lose their jobs due to mistaken, but he does support this firing because if that’s the standard, then it should be applied uniformly across the board. That’s a legit position (I’d argue it’s the right one), but if you want to make it, you need to argue forcefully up top why the standard in now place is wrong otherwise you’re just contributing to the atmosphere of approval for such short leashes. Greenwald leads with colorful approval of this move (“That double standard suffered a very welcome blow last night(!)”), which allows his typical overexuberance to expose what is an unfortunately common duplicitousness in his argumentation, despite his almost uniformly sound fundamental positions.

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  6. I’ve lost a lot of respect for NPR after this. I like listen to Williams on NPR and as an African American who isn’t liberal, like that he wasn’t predictable.

    On the issue that got him fired, I don’t get how people could see this as anything but a conversation on our fears and how we deal with them.

    The whole thing is pathetic.

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  7. While I agree with you on the merits of your argument, NPR claims their ethics code includes the following: “In appearing on TV or other media. … NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows … that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.” I think it’s pretty reasonable to say that Williams broke this part of the code by going on O’Reilly and has done so repeatedly in the past (and it’s not like he’s volunteering over there). This is now the main reasoning that NPR is using to justify their decision and it seems sound. How does your argument address this issue at all?

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    • @trizzlor, He was not an NPR journalist, he was an independently contracting commentator. “They should not participate in shows … that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”???? What in the flying hell could this have to do with Juan Williams — THAT’S ALL HE DID — FOR NPR, MUCH LESS FOX! You’re citing something that explicitly applies to NPR’s staff news reporters. Juan Williams had the same relationship with NPR that David Brooks and E.J. Dionne – they got paid precisely to give their “punditry and speculation.”

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      • @Michael Drew, I was under the impression that those commenting on this story actually know or care how NPR functions. To wit: “A critical distinction has been lost in this debate. NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation.”

        I’d be happy to learn that this statement is inaccurate, but so far I haven’t seen anyone demonstrate there. You may not shared NPR’s definition of a news analyst, but they’ve gone to great lengths to make it quite explicit. As it stands, Williams signed on to NPR under a specific code of ethics and then decided to repeatedly break that code so that he could make some money on the side. In response, he was fired. You’ll have to excuse me for not attending the prayer vigil.

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  8. @trizzlor, Mea culpa – I did shoot off half-cocked. Your link is helpful. The background here is that they have apparently been talking to him about his Fox commentary repeatedly. He was simply openly violating this guideline and doing nothing to change. The problem is, NPR had no business keeping him on if that was the case, and they take their policy to justify firings. People are trying to justify this decision based on the comments; that is untenable. yes, he validated O’Reilly’s bigotry by admitting his own and denying it was bigotry, but he was clearly making the point that we must overcome that shortcoming, Shirley Sharrod-like. These words should not be a firing offense. Because NPR did not treat as such a situation that they apparently did regard as a firing offense, or at least a situation that was not tenable under the rules, for years previously, they put themselves in a position to appear to fire an analyst for words that should not have merited it. Being lenient on a policy until a final straw is reached is a company’s prerogative, but in the case of an organization that presumably exists to promote open communication, this was the worst possible way to handle the situation. Indeed, to allow what is a direct violation of established guidelines to go on for years, even if warnings are given and conversations are had along the way, is to undermine any credibility in a future appeal to those guidelines to justify a firing. One or two warnings is a reasonable amount of leeway. Letting something go on for years bespeaks unseriousness about the policy, and undermines the credibility of an explanation for a firing pursuant to it. You can’t just let someone do something publicly on popular cable television for years at a time that is against your policy, and then claim to fire him for breaking the policy when he says something that causes you a headache, even if you have given him warnings about the policy. You can absolutely fire him for saying something that causes you a headache or that you don’t like, but you should own that decision or else you look like your full of it.

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    • @Michael Drew, I’m still sticking with my stance that this is extremely not like the Sherrod affair. JW’s statements to the effect of ‘it’s not bigotry because I wrote about the Civil Rights movement, it’s just feelings I wish I could get beyond ‘is completely different than Sherrod’s ‘I thought I was entitled to be indifferent to whites because of my background and I realized I was wrong’. Not to mention the whole imbalance of JW is a public figure making his living discussing political issues on the air, Sherrod was a civil servant giving a speech to an NAACP chapter. JW was brought down by his employer when after their customers complained about what he actually said. Sherrod was fired when political appointees got worried their politcal adversaries made hay out of a dramatically edited video was bandied about without the context fully available. it’s solidly apples and oranges and I wish people would stop trying to make that comparison.

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        • @Michael Drew, Fair enough, I do think there are crucial differences but if you’re of the position that such firings in general come too easily in our PC society, I think it’s completely understandable and those details wouldn’t matter to you.
          I am seeing a lot of angry commentary on this subject that takes the opposite view and it’s probably coloring my reaction.

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        • @Michael Drew, I do tend to think the government has an extreme burden to satisfy in ensuring non-discrimination by its employees, and what she was describing was being somewhat inclined to discrimination in her provision of service in a previous job serving the public, though outside of government as I understand it. That in my view would’ve had to raise eyebrows of her current federal government employer. A media org, i would think, would have a somewhat more commitment to people in their employ being able to say what they think, though certainly not without any limit, and clearly they can do whatever they want in any case. The fact that the Dept of Ag. was equally in the dark for that part of the day as everyone else actually works in their favor as far as I can see. The full Williams segment was available to NPR at all times. A media org, I would think, would have a somewhat more commitment to people in their employ being able to say what they think, though certainly not without any limit, and clearly they can do whatever they want in any case. In terms of teir policy, I’d second what NYU journo prof Jay Rosen tweeted, to the effect that these categories of various kinds of contributors seem deeply untenable. On the other hand, Williams was admitting to present bias, while Sharrod said she was all over those feelings long ago. And to hear NPR tell it, it wasn’t even about the comments per se. Or something. I don’t really get it. But yeah, I was against both firings we’re discussing, and all the other recent firings too. Let ’em talk. Why aren’t we talking about firing O’Reilly?

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        • @Michael Drew, Why would I do that, Jay? It would have no effect. Writing it here and pissing you off probably has more total effect than that would. And I don’t care; I’m not trying to get anyone fired. he makes them money; more power to ’em. It’s up to us to considerp the value of his speech. Point is, people are getting fired for dumb reasons. If people are going to get fired for speaking their minds/being honest about their private thoughts, I wish we’d also be talking about firing people for constant insanity-on-stilts.

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        • @Michael Drew, This is true. That’s why I wouldn’t write the letter. If people want to be in that world, that’s their business. I’d rather respond to what they say publicly where I think it’s really harmful than pretend I have some private pull inside such a closed community. As I’m sure you do with us affiliated, epistemically closed groups of non-yous, Jay.

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    • @Michael Drew, you hit the nail on the head. I too was pretty surprised by their ethics code, especially since I’m usually the one yelling at the radio for them to call interviewees on bullshit. And I think the NPR ombudsman had the right idea solution here: Williams should have been publicly told to make a choice between continuing to appear on FOX news or continuing to work for NPR. To be fair, this kind of conversation could very well have taken place over the many previous instances Williams broken the code and NPR just bungled the final step.

      In that sense, this is really just a collision of old-guard and new-school newsmaking; NPR has an archaic ethics policy and unceremoniously fires Williams – the “twitterverse” responds with ghost-written facebook posts accusing them of first amendment violations. It’s a sick sad world :)

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      • @trizzlor, I was going to pull out that ombudsman statement about an ultimatum. They couldn’t have given it before, cuz he’s been at it so long. How long can it be, ‘It’s either them or us’ with him making it both, before it’s clearly not either them or them? That’s what makes their hiding behind the policy at this point so weak. It would clearly seem to say he can’t do what he’s been doing for years and years. Either he can do it or he can’t. Clearly he could until the comments.

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  9. As many of you know, I’m easily confused. The Juan Williams ‘incident’ causes me great confusion.
    Is it ok for a librul network (NPR) to fire an Af-Am (Mr. Williams) for declaring his opinion on a conservative (Fox) network?
    Would it be ok if a ‘conservative’ network (Fox) fired an Af-Am for declaring his opinion on a ‘librul’ (NPR) network?
    Can networks fire white guys anytime for any reason?
    Are we allowed to ask these kind of questions these days?

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    • @Robert Cheeks, Definitely anyone can be fired at any time for any reason, but your point about if this were perfectly reversed with Fox in the NPR position, there would be howling outrage. It would be tinged with jadedness, as the conservative smirking here is, – i.e. people ar enow saying, ‘Well, this NPR here, people,’ while liberals would be saying, ‘Well, this is Fox here, people.’

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  10. Mike, was I doing ‘hate’ speech?
    Oh my!
    BTW, linked to Jaybird’s site that has the “Reagan 80′ T-shirts and I’m tellin’ ya Miss Martha will have one for Christmas!
    “..fashionably eclectic..” now that’s excellent. I hope Brafford, Kain, and the boys were blushing on that one!!

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  11. Kudos to NPR for finally proving what they have been denying for years; that they really are a liberal mouthpiece and don’t deserve their reputation for “independent” journalism. Sure he propably violated NPR’s code but I find it surprising that NPR suddenly decides to enforce the code.

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    • @Scott, so firing juan for owning up to bigotry was the last straw for them means NPR is liberal. check. People have been so caught up in the meta story to talk about what he said and why it is wrong. And yes he did add a bit of context to it.

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      • @greginak,

        No, it doesn’t mean NPR is liberal. It just means that NPR has now shown their liberal hypocrisy for every one to see. Every one with half a brain already knew that NPR was a liberal mouthpiece, just like the Washington Post which continually claims they are one either. Besides, what is wrong with Juan being honest about his feelings and admitting what many people likely feel as well?

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        • @Scott, he can be as honest as he wants. I don’t think he should have been fired for what he said. I’m glad hes honest. But that doesn’t change the bigotry of what he said. In a sensible country that would be that start of a conversation about bigotry and moving forward.

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        • @greginak,
          Did you ever hear the saying that there is usually a grain of truth in a stereotype? Since I can’t read a person’s mind or know their intentions I have to go by other things or context. Bad Muslims have killed enough people to give them all a bad name. If the good ones don’t like it, tuff shit, maybe it will encourage them to clean up their religion.

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