Independent’s Eye by Joe Gandelman
When NPR shocked many by axing commentator Juan Williams for comments he made on Fox News about fearing Muslims on planes it sparked a battle to define exactly what his firing meant…
Was it smothering free speech? Zero tolerance political correctness gone mad? A consequence for bigoted comments that if uttered by a Pat Buchanan about African Americans would have sparked a firestorm? Was Williams violating his NPR agreement’s terms after being warned? Was an employer exercising its right to terminate an uncooperative employee or independent contractor?
In reality, Williams’ firing ““ which netted him a nice $2 million expanded contract consolation prize from Fox News as Roger Ailes’ high-profile “So there!!” to NPR ““ involved several of these. But the real motor driving this controversy is differing world ideological views.
Both NPR (and its fans) and Fox News (and its fans) have a different set of political assumptions. Foxers see NPR as a left-wing-slanting outlet feeding off public money. NPRers see Fox News as a right-wing propaganda machine. Others see NPR as more moderate than the late, unlamented Air America progressive talk network and more objective than Fox. Williams seemingly tried straddling all sides
Who could have predicted that Williams, the 56-year-old Panama-born journalist who worked on the Washington Post for 23 years, would be controversial? But when he spoke to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly he thrust himself in the middle of America’s 24/7 ideology war:
He said that when he got 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.”
A firing offense? Williams could have been called in and been warned by NPR bosses who apparently felt Williams pandered to Fox’s audience while using a different tone on NPR. NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller insisted Williams was axed for violating a rule that “news analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation.”
Schiller later apologized for saying Williams should keep his views on Muslims for “his psychiatrist…” Williams later endorsed defunding NPR. So was this really about his comments and NPR axing him? Or were longstanding issues at play as well here?
No matter. The firing became symbolic for those championing free speech — who somehow didn’t defend Helen Thomas’ inflammatory comments about Jews or fired CNN’s Mid-East Affairs Senior Editor Octavia Nasr’s controversial tweet on the death of a Shiite cleric. (Will Thomas and Nasr get contracts from free-speech advocate Roger Ailes, too?)
In reality, the furor over Williams’s comments is one more salvo in America’s ideological and polarized media wars. Fox reinforced its branding as home of those disgusted with PC and worried about Muslims. NPR reinforced its branding by insisting it was defending 20th century journalistic objectivity standards — which critics note somehow aren’t strictly enforced when it comes to liberals such as Nina Totenberg.
NEWS FLASH! Williams’ firing caused conservatives to demand NPR compete in the free market and have its government funding cut. But wait: in 2006 GOPers called for slashing Public Broadcasting funds, leading to articles about Republicans wanting to kill Big Bird.
So there’s a “been there/done that” tenor to the Williams furor. It’s due to an underlying thread.
It’s called ideological h-u-b-r-i-s.
Copyright 2010 Joe Gandelman
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and can be booked to speak at your event at www.mavenproductions.com.
Follow Joe Gandelman on Twitter @joegandelman