In the dark of a Wednesday night (20 October 2010), National Public Radio fired news analyst Juan Williams for remarks that he had made on The O’Reilly Factor the previous Monday. The response from bloggers and Fox News was swift outrage, and as much as it pains me to agree with Fox, here I am, joining in the condemnation.
First, let’s review what Williams actually said. He acknowledged that when he gets on an airplane and sees a fellow passenger in “Muslim garb,” this makes him nervous. He referred to the words of the man who failed to bomb Times Square who claimed that America is in a war with Muslims that is just beginning.
NPR stops there. Williams didn’t, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but take the supposedly objectionable remarks in themselves. Williams didn’t say that this nervousness is appropriate. He wasn’t defending fear. He simply acknowledged something that many Americans feel. If we won’t tolerate that kind of openness, there never will be any genuine peace, and NPR was wrong to fire Williams for being open. There are plenty of media outlets that provide only one accepted narrative.
But Williams hadn’t finished his commentary. He went on to say that treating all Muslims as terrorists is the equivalent of treating all Christians as such because of people like Timothy McVeigh. NPR prides itself on allowing time for extended discussion, but here the organization is doing exactly what it accuses other news sources of doing: cutting down the debate to sound bites.
I’ll go into the blather about biases in a moment, but what this incident shows is the insipid timidity that has infected NPR in the last decade. I see a connection here to the firing of Bob Edwards several years ago. Edwards was fired from being the host of Morning Edition, and the reasons given were a lot of doubletalk for “He’s not stylish enough.” Williams has been fired for making complex remarks.
It’s been my feeling for the last decade that NPR is desperate to avoid controversy and desperate to kowtow to power. To some extent, this is understandable, since the Republican Congress during the early years of the Bush administration threatened to cut funding because of a perceived liberal bias. But when NPR sacrifices depth of analysis for mere volume of talk, it becomes just like all the other vacuous news channels.
I have been an NPR listener for the better part of thirty years, and I find the claims of liberal bias to be off the mark. NPR does have an intended audience, namely educated people. For much of the time that I have been listening, NPR worked to provide context for and prospective on the events of the day. It also challenged those in power. It helped me understand the debate over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court; it rejected the hyperbole surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal in favor of political analysis. All along, it did not take the side of the Democrats. Instead, it stood outside, and its reporters and commentators did what we need them to do: ask questions and refuse to accept shallow answers.
But then came the years of the Bush administration. NPR went from college professor to elementary school librarian (excuse me, media specialist). The information was still there, but we had to be quiet while reading it and make sure not to spill food on the books.
Is there a way out of this? I doubt that Williams would want to be rehired. Fox News has given him a lucrative contract, and he has no reason to return to where he isn’t wanted. NPR can redeem itself by returning to what it is supposed to be. We have quite enough of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, et al. We don’t need any more Entertainment Tonight channels masquerading as news. It is the duty of NPR to be the voice of reasoned opposition.
What can we do? Dear readers, write to the NPR ombudsman; write on your weblogs; write to your local NPR affiliate. Tell them that you want NPR to be what it was. Tell them that there is no point in supporting what it is now. Goad them where it hurts, and be individually what NPR needs to be collectively: well reasoned, but never satisfied.