Recently I wrote that CNN shouldn’t have fired Rick Sanchez for his offensive remarks about Jews, Jon Stewart and his CNN bosses. Last week NPR reacted with similar hair-trigger speed to Juan Williams, firing him for his offensive remarks about Muslims. As satisfying as it was to see a major media outlet finally treat an anti-Muslim slur as if it were as routine a firing offense as an anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli comment, I have to agree with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which says that firing Williams was "a mistake."
Look, NPR—or CNN, NBC, or any other corporate alphabet that solves a PR problem by summarily firing an employee over a phrase or a perceived intent without first giving that worker a chance to publicly explain—is trying to send a signal about its own morality at the expense of its axed employee. But the larger point about firing journalists left and right is that it plays into Fox’;s dominant narrative, which entails a direct assault on journalism itself. Remember, Fox has expanded its snipe hunt for "liberal bias" in the media to attacking even-handed journalism of any sort, which puts NPR squarely in its sights. By canning Williams when and how it did, NPR has allowed Fox to make its case that the media voices you hear aren’;t there because of their seasoned reporting but because they push a hidden ideology. You can’;t trust any of them—except for Fox, of course, which is completely out front about whose side it’;s on.
Meanwhile, NPR’;s sometimes prissy rules for its staffers—like banning them from participating in Jon Stewart’;s Rally to Restore Sanity next week to avoid appearing partisan—won’;t protect the news outlet from the right’;s mounting insistence that ousting Juan Williams proves its underlying bias. And anyway, there’;s a much better way to handle occasional eruptions of forbidden speech than sacking the talent.
Fox was helped in all this by the fact that both Sanchez and Williams let loose boneheaded slurs in the context of a confused but larger argument. Sanchez was trying to say that cable news doesn’;t have enough black and Latino primetime hosts. Williams was trying to simultaneously agree and disagree with Bill O’;Reilly’;s blanket statement that "Muslims killed us on 9/11," the line that caused Whoopi and Joy to walk out on him on The View and which Bill-O provocatively refuses to qualify with the word "extremist."
Here is Williams’;s prevaricating response (video below):
Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don’t want to get your ego going. But I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.
I mean, look, Bill, 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 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. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts. [They’;re simply not the facts, as Michael Moore details here.] 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. President Bush went to a mosque—…if you said 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’s crazy.
That last part is true, but is it really a big enough fig leaf to cover Williams telling O’;Reilly he’;s right to blame all Muslims indiscriminately? Williams has come out of this whole thing much, much better than Sanchez—Fox rewarded his seconding of O’;Reilly’;s bigotry with a $2 million contract, and since then, he’;s been attacking NPR as a "gulag" of "one-party rule." On the other hand, Rick Sanchez, who apologized profusely to CNN and Stewart, is for now off the media and out of a job.
Yet there are probably more similarities between the two cases. CNN may have wanted to fire Sanchez all along, and merely used his uncharacteristic remarks about Jews as an image-saving excuse, not caring if they stained the guy as an anti-Semite (which Stewart himself says he’;s not). NPR seemed even more eager to shake off its in-house embarrassment, and found a pretext to do so in Williams’;s latest lickspittle observations.
There’;s little doubt that NPR has been onto Williams’;s game of using his public radio reputation to lend credibility to Fox’;s "fair and balanced" act for some time. It told Williams to stop identifying himself with NPR on Fox in January ‘;09, when he said—again to O’;Reilly, whom he seems anxious to impress—that Michelle Obama has "this Stokely-Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going." It’;s hard not to see the pattern NPR saw, nor is it difficult to distinguish Williams from fellow NPR-to-Fox loaner, Mara Liasson, who does a better job of speaking primarily as a reporter.
But there’;s a cannier way to handle this sort of problem, as the Rev. Al Sharpton insisted during Don Imus’;s "nappy-headed" stumble in 2007: Instead of firing somebody, let’;s have an open discussion of race, with all sides taking part, every time this happens. Christiane Amanpour did something like that on This Week earlier this month, devoting her hour-long show to a town-hall debate on the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque, with representatives from Muslim groups, anti-Muslim groups, families of WTC attack victims on both sides and Franklin Graham to boot. It was a fascinating discussion, good TV, and even better Americanism. Instead of leaving us more confused and divided, it leached some of the hysteria out of the issue.
Wouldn’;t it have been better for NPR to have done an hour-long show where Williams could explain not only his statement about Muslims but the role he plays on Fox? Maybe, with the right moderator, instead of asking who fired who for saying what, we might get to the question of who pays who to say what.
Of course, Fox—which never fires anybody for bigotry, but did allegedly fire a black technician after he complained about workplace racism, according to a lawsuit filed last week—would not air a show like that. But that’;s what a policy of more discussion, more communication, here in the land of free speech, could help do: isolate Fox, and make it a little harder to exploit ethnic tension for political fun and profit.