Posted by: mutantpoodle | October 22, 2010

Whither Juan Williams

Well, by now you’ve probably heard that NPR fired Juan Williams, saying, in a statement, “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

This was the offending quote (full video here):

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. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts.

This has unleashed a firestorm on the blogosphere, between people who said good riddance and people who said that Williams’ quote was taken largely out of context.

In the words of Lt. Frank Drebin, they’re both right.

That quote, by itself (and especially in its larger context, where he defends Muslims generally and descries stereotyping) isn’t really a firing offense. But Williams was a long-running embarrassment to NPR, and they probably should have canned him a long time ago. This was a convenient excuse for NPR, and probably seemed easier to justify (and more polite) than saying that Williams had crossed the line from journalism to hackery, and his appearance on a right-wing propaganda outlet in inconsistent with NPR’s journalistic standards.

Well, OK, NPR is waaaaay too polite to say anything like that. But it is the real reason he’s gone.

I twice complained to NPR about Williams’ journalistic laziness. The first time was in the fall of 2007, when Williams repeated, credulously, a Drudge Report story that Hillary Clinton’s campaign had warned Wolf Blitzer not to dredge up character attacks in an upcoming CNN debate.  By the time Williams parroted this report on NPR’s Morning Edition, Wolf Blitzer’s denial was about 8 hours old, and the story was pretty much debunked.

The second time was in August of 2009, when Williams referred to Democratic contingency plans to pass health care reform through the reconciliation process as “literally…the nuclear option.”

As I said at the time:

First, reconciliation is not “The Nuclear Option.”  That’s the term Fox News is pushing to describe the reconciliation process, but if you recall, the term nuclear option has a specific history: it was the term Republicans gave their threat to change Senate rules with 51 votes to prevent the Democrats from filibustering judicial nominees.

Reconciliation is 35 years old; it limits floor debate and prevents a filibuster.  The threat of reconciliation has always been out there – it was mentioned in the spring – as an inducement to Republicans to negotiate on health care reform in good faith.

Which actually makes Scott Simon’s question on point: Senator Grassley has said he’ll vote against the health care bill that he negotiated if other Republicans don’t vote for it, too.  Senator Orrin Hatch says a “bipartisan” bill doesn’t mean 2-3 Republicans, it means 20-30 others. At some point, you have to stop banging your head into a wall and move on, and if ever a party has deserved to be tossed aside that way, it’s this year’s GOP.

Back to Williams, whose abject hackery has now jumped the shark.  I think Fox News likes the prestige of having an NPR contributor on their air – and one they can represent as being from the left.  I hope NPR is having second thoughts about bringing someone on their air who carries with them all the journalistic failings of Fox News while posing as an unbiased analyst….

Williams, by using “nuclear option” as he did, revealed his ignorance or his mendacity, and embarrassed the news network that is supposed to serve the public first. Can someone at NPR please send him back to Fox for good?

Well, now they have, and good riddance. Still, as fur flies on the blogosphere about this, it’s fair to say everybody looks bad.

NPR took the cowards way out, firing Williams now as opposed to a long time ago, when it was clear he wasn’t actually providing any fresh analysis; Williams articulated an honest belief (albeit a bigoted one) inelegantly; and the political right, which believes that corporations should be able to fire anyone at any time unless they are saying something with which they agree, are acting idiotic about federal funding of NPR (which doesn’t exist, directly, but letting facts get in the way of a goodpoutrage has never been a problem before). As Glenn Greenwald notes (see Update I), there wasn’t a big hue and cry when Phil Donahue or Ashleigh Banfield were fired for questioning, respectively, the Iraq war, and the media’s coverage of it.

Meanwhile, Williams will have to scrape together three meals a day on the $667,000 a year Roger Ailes will pay him to be Fox News’s token martyred NPR analyst. Perhaps Fox will host a telethon to help him get back on his feet?

[The clip above, where Williams (about 1:30 in) talks about Michelle Obama as “Stokele Carmichael in a designer dress,” is another high point in Williams history of penetrating insight.]

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