Thursday, October 21, 2010
Juan Down. NPR Fires Long Time Liberal Lightning Rod Juan Williams
It was when he appeared on Fox News that his tone changed.
Williams has a Zelig-like ability. He can sound like NPR when he was on public radio, yet voice Fox-like observations on Fox programs which appealed to the red-meat Fox audiences.
He once stated (on Fox) that Michelle Obama's "... got this Stokely Carmichael-in-a designer -dress thing going. If she starts talking . . . her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I'm the victim. If that stuff starts to coming out, people will go bananas and she'll go from being the new Jackie O. to being something of an albatross."
On NPR, his tone was more measured, largely because Williams knows what his audience will tolerate and more often because his scripts were vetted in advance by NPR producers - something that I suspect may not happen as frequently on Fox.
Over the years as NPR's Ombudsman (2000-2006), I received many complaints about Juan's comments on Fox; relatively few about his commentaries on NPR. Management was willing to tolerate Williams on Fox because of a respect for his First Amendment rights - something I think was in fact a deformation of that Amendment, rather than an affirmation, but that's another subject for another posting.
The final straw for NPR management occurred yesterday when Williams appeared on Bill O'Reilly's show on Fox.
O'Reilly, always the master provocateur asked Williams if he agreed that Muslims caused 9/11. Williams agreed and then went farther: "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."
That did it for NPR: Williams was fired after the public broadcaster and the ombuds, Alicia Shepard received hundreds of complaints.
With CNN's recent firing of Ric Sanchez and now NPR's firing of Juan Williams, it appears that media organizations are finally stating that there are limits to free speech at least when their corporate reputation is at stake. Robust civic discourse is one thing; bigotry disguised as fair comment is another. Both CNN and NPR showed they can understand the difference.
Serendipitously, this could not have happened at a better time for NPR management: just after NPR announced that it did not want its employees to attend the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally in Washington next weekend (and took considerable flack from liberal bloggers), Juan Williams is fired for his anti-Muslim statements.
This has the dual advantage of placating (if such a thing is possible) both conservatives and liberals in this high-charged atmosphere.
Sometime, it seems management just gets lucky.