Thursday, October 21, 2010

Was NPR Correct to Fire Juan Williams?

National Public Radio fired Juan Williams, its political analyst of many years, this morning for statements he made about Muslims on The O'Reilly Factor. Williams remarked,
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.
First of all, I've been a long time admirer of Juan Williams. He often speaks with a degree of honesty that is refreshing among reporters. Also, he is a true professional in his craft. He is careful to keep his reporting of the news and his opinion journalism (he does both) separate--not an easy task. When he appears on Fox News Sunday to present his liberal viewpoint, he does so by being combative without being uncivil--also not an easy task. So, I was shocked to hear that he was fired.

Having said that, let's get to the question I posed in the title. Upon closer inspection, it appears that NPR has rushed to judgment in its firing of Williams. Bloggers and pundits from the left and right have already taken a look at the full context of Williams' comments (see links below) and concluded that they were taken out of context. The quote you read above was a setup for a larger point he was trying to make. Williams was saying, in effect, we all have certain prejudices, even I have prejudices, such as my reaction when I see someone in Muslim garb, but (and this is the larger point that got cut) we need to recognize those prejudices so we can move past them.

Some have already pointed to the similarities between this incident and the Shirley Sherrod incident. Sherrod, you may recall, was also telling a personal story about her own prejudice, but that story was told to convey her message that we need to recognize our prejudices so we can confront and correct them. The admission of her personal prejudice was shown across the Internet with the second part of her message left out. Sherrod was quickly dismissed from her position at the Department of Agriculture by those who did not bother to view her words in the context of the entire speech. Apologies came later as the mistake was discovered. I wonder if NPR will end up apologizing to Williams and offering him his job back as the Agriculture Department did with Sherrod?

I'm concerned that another lesson may be learned from these two incidents coming so close together, however. Namely, public figures should never admit to having personal prejudices. This would be a horrible. As Williams and Sherrod were both trying to point out, we all have prejudices, and hiding that fact is not the answer to overcoming them. NPR and the Department of Agriculture have done us all a great disservice in their rash judgment. Because of their actions, fewer public figures will say what needs to be said.


Also see:

"Shirley Not Again: The left is doing to Juan Williams what the right did to Shirley Sherrod." Slate.com.

Doug Mataconis, "What Juan Williams Has In Common With Shirley Sherrod." OutsideTheBeltway.com 

Update: The NPR contact page has been shut down due to user volume. NPR encourages the use its Twitter and Facebook pages to let your thoughts known.

Williams appeared on Fox News to discuss his firing. You can watch that here.

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