by Matthew L. Schafer
On Wednesday, NPR terminated the contract of Juan Williams, a long time news analyst for the station, after Williams made remarks about his anxieties when seeing Muslims in airports. In a statement, NPR wrote that Williams’ conduct was “inconsistent with [its] editorial standards.” Thursday, Williams responded to his firing on Fox News, saying “You cannot ignore what happened on 9/11 and you cannot ignore the connection to islamic radicalism.”
Williams, who came to NPR in 1999, made the comments Monday on the O’Reilly Factor. During a discussion about political correctness, Williams argued that political correctness leads to “paralysis.”
“I mean, look Bill [O’Reilly], I’m not a bigot,” Williams said. “You know the kind of books I’ve written on the civil rights movement in this country, but when I get on a 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.”
Williams has been appearing on Fox News since 1997, and has also written for the Wall Street Journal. Williams has also written several books, including “My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience.” According to NPR’s own David Folkenflik, William’s relationship with conservative media outlets had been a source of tension between NPR and Williams.
“Williams’ presence on the largely conservative and often contentious prime-time talk shows of Fox News has long been a sore point with NPR News executives,” Folkenflik wrote.
NPR’s firing of Williams has not gone unnoticed by the conservative media. Rush Limbaugh, The Daily Caller, and Sarah Palin have all weighed in on Williams’ firing. As a result of NPR’s move, Limbaugh, The Daily Caller, and Palin each questioned the appropriateness of NPR’s public funding.
“President Obama should make clear his commitment to free and honest discussion of the jihadist threat in our public debates,” Palin said. “…Congress should make clear that unless NPR provides that public service, not one more dime.”
Limbaugh, equally frustrated, went further to suggest that NPR is ostensibly controlled by the philanthropist George Soros. Soros’ non-profit, Open Society Foundation, recently gifted a $1.8 million grant to shore up failing statehouse coverage across the country.
“I guess, folks, we just can’t call ’em Muslims anymore because you can’t say anything about Muslims,” Limbaugh said. “I mean if Juan Williams gets canned from NPR for being truthfully honest, open about — well, we’re going to have to start calling ’em Middle Eastern liberals.”
The conservative website, The Daily Caller, which was founded by Tucker Carlson, called for a revival of a bill drafted by Rep. Doug Lamborn [R-CO] which would cut all government support for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, which funds public media like NPR and PBS. The bill is currently sitting in committee, and likely will not see action before the end of this session of congress. Additionally, the conservative Media Research Center, wrote a letter to congress calling for an investigation of the firing.
As reported in June, the government spends approximately $420 million dollars on the CPB or just 2% of its total budget. That $1.43 per person covers about 13% of the CPB’s total funding. Cutting funding to the CPB would reduce the 2010 $1.5 trillion dollar federal deficit by 0.028%, and the $13 trillion national debt by .0032%.
Despite the fallout among the right, NPR’s ethics code allows for termination upon violation of its terms. The ethics code states that it applies to “news contributors” and “outside contributors,” which likely applies to Williams. The code states, in pertinent part:
NPR journalists may not speak to groups where the appearance might put in question NPR’s impartiality. Such instances include situations where the employee’s appearance may appear to endorse the agenda of a group or organization…. NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows, electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis. (emphasis added)
Thus, it appears that NPR put Williams and its other employees on notice. Indeed, the ethics code advises employees to avoid the situation that landed Williams in trouble in the first place.
According to an interview Williams gave to Fox News, Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss told Williams over the phone that he “crossed the line.” He added that Weiss gave him no opportunity to plead his case.
Williams’ firing follows a string of reporter oustings, which resulted from questionable comments made to the press. Both Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr were fired in similar incidents this year. While each firing has been laden with political undertones, it seems that, in general, the public and the punditry from either side are becoming increasingly surprised. Indeed, in an age of journalism where opinion wins out over objectivity, it may seem odd that news analysts and journalists are being fired for speaking their minds.
This is the second controversy that NPR has run into in the last few weeks. NPR created controversy last week, when it sent out an email reminding employees of the company’s ethics policy and advising its employees who were not covering the Stewart/Colbert rally to not attend.
Photo: Pete Wright