No single person has had a greater impact on National Public Radio in the past year than Juan Williams.
The political wildfire started by his firing took down the media organization’s CEO, top news executive and top fundraiser, and sparked multiple votes on the floor of Congress to strip the public broadcaster of federal funding.
As if this were not vindication enough, in “Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate,” a new book out next week, Williams details a decade of what he said was NPR’s effort to “censor, control and belittle” him because of his longstanding relationship with Fox News, and, to some degree, he said, his race.
“It is a very elitist and in this case white institution that I think is struggling with the changing demographics of American society,” he said. “And it struggles with the idea that there are capable thinkers and journalist and people who don’t fit into some box.”
He points out that, after he was fired from his NPR news analyst job for saying on “The O’Reilly Factor” that he gets nervous when he boards a plane and sees people “in Muslim garb,” there were no more black males on NPR’s airwaves. And he writes in the book that “it was clear they wanted me out the door,” an NPR news executive told him, “because I did not fit their view of how a black person thinks.”
NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher took issue with Williams characterizations of his tenure at NPR.
“Diversity of opinions, ideas, sources, voices, and staff is very important to NPR, as evidenced by the work we do and the people who do it,” she said.
Williams, an affable, babyfaced 57, seems an unlikely political bomb thrower, but he has long been drawn to a special brand of provocation located in the dangerous territory between the left and the right.
In a 24-year career at The Washington Post, during which he served as White House correspondent, magazine writer, editorial writer and columnist, he sparked a furor with a column defending Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment, in part because female Post employees had filed sexual harassment charges against him. (He later apologized.)
His last book, “Enough,” was inspired by Bill Cosby’s controversial speech accusing the black community of failing to live up to the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education. And for many years, as a contributor to both NPR and Fox News, he provided two very ideologically divergent audiences a window into the other side.
Fox News, Williams writes, was quite happy with this arrangement, but NPR was not. His relationship with Fox made NPR editors and producers questions his journalistic independence to the point, he said, that NPR would ignore tips he gave them and at one point even passed on an interview with President George W. Bush because the White House had offered it to Williams, not NPR.
“When it served their purpose,” he writes, “NPR officials were all too happy to use my connection to Fox.” Later, when Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, Williams was suddenly much in demand as the author of a biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall, for whom Kagan had clerked. But when he pitched a piece on it to NPR, he was told there was no room for “a Juan Williams piece.”
The official behind much of this bad blood was Ellen Weiss, NPR’s senior vice president for news, who later made the call to Williams telling him that he’d been fired and whose head was the first to roll after an investigation into NPR’s handling of the firing. He claims in the book that NPR had long been just looking for an excuse to fire him because of his Fox work, and didn’t do so sooner because NPR reporter Mara Liasson also contributed to Fox.
But if things were so bad, why did he stick around?
“I guess I was an abused kid,” Williams said. “I just kept thinking they just made this mistake today, but it will get better.”
The firing disabused him of this notion, he said, particularly after he saw how NPR immediately started spinning its version of events. That version took his words out of context, he said, and suggested that he was a bigot, while he says he was just voicing a fear that many Americans share in the wider context of a plea for greater tolerance toward Muslims.
Christopher said NPR was not censoring him but enforcing its standards.
“Informed observation from our journalists is not only acceptable, it is valued; offering personal opinions is not,” Christopher said. “NPR’s standards are critical to our role as a responsible news organization and we expect our employees and contractors to abide by them.”
In the book, Williams argues that neither his firing nor his previous fights with NPR management were isolated incidents, but rather part of a wider resurgence of what he calls “political correctness” in culture today.
“You are not supposed to say certain things in political conversation and I think it is political correctness, like the walking dead, back from the grave,” he said. “Left and right it is all around us. I don’t think most people identify it as the political correctness of the 60s, but believe me, it is back with a vengeance.”
He distinguishes his version of “political correctness” from the more traditional liberal policing of language to avoid offending women, minorities and people with disabilities that is grounded in the civil rights movement and that sparked a backlash in the 1990s. For him, “political correctness” means any adherence to dogma, and refusal to enter into a kind of middle space where persuasion is possible.
True to his manifesto of straight talk, Williams also offers some unusually frank assessments of Fox News for someone employed by the channel.
“The news channel looks for the conservative slant in the stories it selects to tell,” he writes, veering rather substantially from the Fox News script that ideology on the channel is confined to primetime and opinion shows in the same way a newspaper’s opinions are confined to the editorial page.
He devotes an entire, not particularly laudatory chapter to “The Provocateurs,” in which he singles out Glenn Beck of particular criticism.
“[R]ather than spark a genuine debate, Beck seeks to ignite our ire and go on the attack,” he writes. “There is no progressive conspiracy to destroy the United States of America from within, and it is absurd to suggest there is.”
The one “provocateur” who is noticeably immune from Williams criticism is Bill O’Reilly, who he calls a “friend” and on whose show he appears routinely.
Those who were offended by Williams’s comments about Muslims on “The O’Reilly Factor” are likely to feel a bit uncomfortable with his chapter on Muslims and terrorism — but Williams would argue this discomfort is exactly the point, and should be the starting point of a conversation.
He brings up CNN’s firing of Octavia Nasr for her tweet expressing regret at the death of a Hezbollah cleric in the context of his larger critique of the lack of candor in today’s media and politics about the threat that groups like Hebollah pose.
In the book, it’s hard to tell what he thought about the firing itself – an event with clear parallels to his own. But when asked, Williams said he opposed it.
“I think CNN management, in a very callow way, was saying, we are going to be attacked on this, and likely attacked by people who are strong supporters of Israel, and so without thinking, then they hammer this journalist,” he said.
Williams ends the book with a final jab at NPR by calling for an end to its federal subsidy. Yet he is also critical of another public broadcasting funding source that would be likely to fill the hole if Republicans were ever successful in their attempts to strip public funding: wealthy individuals and foundations.
Although Williams had nothing to do with the fundraising sting video by James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas that took down former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller and top fundraiser Ron Schiller, his firing did create the political environment that made them targets in the first place. And the condescending comments that were caught on tape fit perfectly with his own criticism of the organization.
“NPR editors and journalists found themselves caught in a game of trying to please a leadership team who did not want to hear stories on the air about conservatives, the poor, or anyone who didn’t’ fit their profitable design of NPR as the official voice of college-educated, white, liberal-leaning, upper-income America,” he writes.
He also believes that NPR’s coverage is skewed by its major donors – the most famous of whom, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, gave a $1.8 million donation the same week he was fired, further stoking accusations of NPR’s liberal bias.
“The idea was that we have to satisfy these deep-pocketed liberals in order to keep the money flowing, and we want that money,” he said. “And it began to influence the journalism.”
Christopher forcefully denies this charge.
“This is an outrageous claim, and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said. “We make all editorial decisions based on a story’s importance and news value. Period. Further, there is a very clear firewall between underwriters and donors and NPR’s journalism – always has, always will be.”
In the end, Williams’s most stinging criticism of NPR is not racism or liberalism, but arrogance.
“I think the ethos was one in which we operated at a higher level, and people who don’t understand it, and don’t appreciate it, they are the ones that are not as smart, or as well-informed, or as well-educated as we are,” he said. “They felt that they were superior. Is that always liberal? It turns out that in NPR’s case, yes.”
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