The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Taken In Context

Nobody Is Really a Villain in the Juan Williams Incident; Everybody Is a Hypocrite

People living hundreds or even thousands of miles away may soon feel the causal results of the earthquake that occurred off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia Monday morning in the form of tsunamis. Likewise, a wave that formed as an aftershock from Bill O'Reilly pissing off Whoppi Goldberg swept away Juan Williams’s career at National Public Radio a few days later. The NPR journalist has frequently appeared on FOX News in recent years as a liberal adversary to its bevy of conservative pundits and analysts.
Juan Williams (insert) has
frequently appeared on FOX
News in recent years

Williams turned up last week on O'Reilly’s program in this very role and took him to task for generalizing Islamic extremism to include all Muslims. O'Reilly had previously caused Goldberg to walk off the set of The View by opining, "Muslims attacked us on September 11," to justify his opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. Then, desiring to concede everyone makes mistakes, he attempted to throw O’Reilly a bone that boomeranged.

“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're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams’s remark caused uproar in various circles. However, it was nothing to the reaction that followed his dismissal by NPR for the offense. Virtually everyone agreed the organization had overreacted. This included Williams. “Obviously, I feel that I should have had the opportunity to supply NPR with the entirety of the context of the statement to make sure they understood,” he told the Associated Press.

I have to agree with those holding that Williams’s opinion – while perhaps poorly expressed, perhaps even downright stupid in some aspects – was not a fireable offense. I also agree with Williams that context is key in this matter, although perhaps not in the same way he meant it.

First, everyone is focusing on the part about “If I see people who are in Muslim garb [on a plane] . . . I get nervous,” as the objectionable aspect of Williams’s statement. I agree with those who maintain many Americans in a similar situation would react the same. It is understandable but not necessarily rational.

As numerous conservative commentators – Reuel Gerecht, author and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and columnist Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic to name two – have pointed out, the September 11 hijackers dressed in Western garb to blend inconspicuously with other passengers. It is likely that future Islamic terrorists will do the same, regardless of venue. If Williams had acknowledged his nervousness to those in Muslim clothing as natural but irrational, I would join his most ardent defenders in declaring him blameless.

However, he did not do this. In fact, he took it to the next level with the phrase I find most offensive in his characterization of anyone wearing traditional Muslim garb “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.” It well may be a (big) part of the wearer’s identity but Williams conflates it to primary religious/ideological/political expression. And lest “first and foremost” be dismissed as a casual choice of words, Williams uses this exact phrase again in an op-ed piece he posted the next day at FOX News, in which he defends himself and blasts his former employer for politically correct intolerance.

In this context, Williams appears guilty, albeit unintentionally/subconsciously, of the same thing he harangued O’Reilly about earlier and urged listeners not to do in the next breath. He is no Islamaphobe but it is also understandable how his comments could be negative perceived by many Muslims.

Second, there is widespread acknowledgement that NPR fired Williams less for his specific comment and more for a mounting dissatisfaction with him by its management over his evolving role at FOX. Williams said exactly this on ABC’s Good Morning America. For its part, NPR management insisted it had warned Williams repeatedly for violating its ethical code against journalists expressing controversial opinions on the air.

“Juan has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants. He does not have a First Amendment right to be paid by NPR for saying whatever he wants,” explained one NPR executive. He characterized Williams’s latest pronouncement, “the last straw.” While this may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, NPR picked a poor straw over which to exhibit a fragile vertebra.

Williams insisted during a phone call with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller that he would have said the same thing on an NPR program that he said on FOX. However, there are considerable examples of a tendency by Williams to concede or even endorse right-wing talking points while on FOX. NPR asked FOX to stop using its name in connection with Williams after he commiserated with conservative FOX colleagues over First Lady Michelle Obama’s “blame America instinct.”

In this context, NPR had every right to fire an employee whose other professional associations had made him an embarrassment/irritant to their organization. However, this should have been the reason provided for the firing. It was despicable of NPR to conflate a poorly worded/stupid statement into hate speech in order to vilify Williams and thus dismiss any culpability on their part for his release.

Third, many liberals have criticized NPR for the draconian nature of its response, even if they do not necessarily agree with/approve of what Williams had to say. Conservatives have also flocked to Williams and trashed NPR. Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina announced he is introducing legislation to end federal funding for public radio and television. Republican Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado is introducing similar legislation in the House.

“These programs should be able to find a way to stand on their own,” contends DeMint. “There's simply no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize a liberal programming they disagree with.”  However, conservative disgust with NPR has little to do with their love of free speech or support for Williams. Lamborn already submitted legislation to cut funding for public broadcasting after fiscal year 2012 that has been languishing in committee for some time. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wanted to “zero out” public broadcasting in the federal budget back in the 1990s but never could muster the necessary votes to do so.

Conservatives have long targeted NPR, arguing it is a mouthpiece for liberal propaganda or, at the very least, gives insufficient times/support for conservative viewpoints. Frankly, they might not have a bad idea. NPR only receives somewhere between two percent to fifteen percent of its annual budget from direct taxpayer money, depending on how exactly this term is defined. The time may have come for it to cut its apron strings to government altogether.

In this context, conservative politicians have every right to oppose public funding for broadcasting with which they disagree. However, much like NPR, they are using this incident to make their stance appear more principled and less dogmatic than it really is.

FOX announced it just signed a contract with Williams that is worth over $2 million. This is undoubtedly more than NPR paid him or ever could afford to pay him. While publicizing the deal, FOX chief Roger Ailes sanctimoniously intoned that Williams’s right to free speech “is protected by FOX News on a daily basis.” It will be interesting to see how long this continues.

So, to sum up, in an effort to prove his reasonableness to one of his employers, Williams said something more stupid than bigoted. His other employer pounced on that statement as a politically correct guilt-free excuse to fire him. Conservatives rushed to his rescue as justification for their long-standing desire to end public funding for something with which they disagree politically. Nobody is really a villain here but everybody is a bit of a hypocrite.

In this context, Williams paid a price but also received a reward. He can cast himself as a truth-telling victim, yet is going home with a bigger paycheck for doing so. Ultimately, he will get what he earned and deserves. The only difference between how liberals and conservatives view Williams and this incident is that many liberals now consider him merely an idiot whereas conservatives regard him as a useful one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What NPR did to Juan Williams

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