I love NPR. I haven’t ever liked Juan Williams that much. Still, this story surprises me a little. Williams was on the O’Reilly Show identifying himself as a Fox news contributor (NPR has previously asked him to stop using the NPR name when appearing on the O’Reilly Show) when he said,
“Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. . . .But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”
However, he ”also warned O’Reilly against blaming all Muslims for “extremists,” saying Christians shouldn’t be blamed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh” (NPR). According to NPR’s facebook link, “Williams’ presence on the largely conservative and often contentious prime-time talk shows of Fox News has long been a sore point with NPR News executives.” In a statement, NPR said that while Williams’ had made valuable contributions, his remarks Monday night “undermined his credibility as a news analyst.”
There’s so much to think about here. First, Juan Williams is no innocent, no deer caught in the headlights. As a senior journalist, this isn’t someone who should have been surprised by the furor such remarks could raise. He should have understood that anything he said on the Fox network could potentially affect his position at NPR. Indeed, he had previously been demoted from staff correspondent to analyst after he took clear public positions (rather than remaining neutral) on policy issues.
Second, what about the feelings Williams describes? Williams refers to those “who are in Muslim garb,” people who are “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.” People of faith (and others!) should beware of those who select one religious group or another to demonize. Demonize: to make a demon. But is this what Williams did? In the remarks I’ve read, Williams didn’t say that Muslims are violent, vicious or evil. Does that make it okay? What he did say was that he felt worried, that he got nervous, when people who chose to publicly identify themselves as Muslim got on the plane. Fear is different from hatred and it is different from mistreatment, but does that make it unobjectionable? Not necessarily. When is fearing others a problem? Fearing when we have reason to fear may keep us safe and protect us. However, irrational fear (irrational in this instance because most Muslims–including those who are easily identified as Muslim–want peace and abhor terrorism) not only makes our own lives unpleasant, it threatens the feared person or group. Williams didn’t advise mistreating Muslims who identify themselves as Muslim, but fear often precedes mistreatment (see our internment of Japanese Americans during World War II). We must be careful what we fear because fear is powerful.
Third, a lot of people share the feelings Williams admitted to. Many people are scared even if they think it’s wrong (and of course there are also plenty who are frightened and see no problem with that). I think the interesting question is: What should we expect of people who have these feelings? Is it okay to be honest? Discussion can have either of two effects: it can lead irrational fear to evaporate or to intensify. Although discussion can go both ways, I think we have to optimistically vote for sunshine (by which I mean openness, frankness in discussion) in the hopes that two minds together are less likely to go astray than one.
This same frankness likely wouldn’t be desirable from the President of the United States. If the president did fear Muslims, it wouldn’t be helpful for him to make this known or to discuss it. The president can’t separate from his dual role as both spokesman and opinion leader. In the absence of a credible threat, discussing his own fear would simply cause problems. See for example, Vice-President Biden’s comments on plane travel during the H1N1 scare. Helpful? No.
So, is the case of a journalist more like that of ordinary citizens, friends and neighbors, or more like the President of the United States? Like the president, the journalist has a wider audience than Joe Citizen. But like Joe Citizen, the journalist is not an opinion driver in the way that the President of the United States is. When a journalist states a view he is not stating an official position. With proper disclaimers, his audience need not assume that the views he expresses represent anyone other than himself. He has only his own arguments and his own credibility to back him up. That a media outlet gives a journalist a microphone does suggest that that outlet believes him to be serious enough to be worth listening to, and imparts some measure of its credibility to him. NPR is apparently unwilling to impart its credibility to Williams any longer, because they apparently believe that admitting his fear (or is it having the fear?) undermines his stature as a journalist.
Although I haven’t seen the O’Reilly factor program, it seems to me that Williams’ honesty about his fear might have actually strengthened his position in citicizing those who blame an entire population for what a few extremists do. It might provide a space from which to convince others not to let their natural but misguided fear to get away from them and to avoid the conclusions to which a misplaced fear might lead. Is his admission of fear so serious that this opportunity counts for nothing?
Fourth, is the real issue neutrality? Although I want my news outlets to seek fairness, let’s be honest, neutrality is a myth! Is Williams’ being fired for taking yet another public position (which would be “inconsistent with [NPR] editorial standards”)? Or is he being fired for what his position was (“[his] remarks undermine his credibility”)? If he had taken a very liberal position on some public policy issue, could he have gotten away with it? Perhaps I’m not being fair to my beloved NPR, but I suspect this to be true. As Jim Mahon opined in comments on the NPR blog The two-way, “NPR is as liberal as Fox is conservative.” Unfortunately, the view from nowhere is no view at all.