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.