Juan Williams surely didn’t mean to slander Christians when he disputed Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” Appearing on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor October 18, Williams told the host: “If you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say, first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy.”
It would be especially crazy in the case of McVeigh. Although raised a Roman Catholic, the Oklahoma City bomber claimed no theological justification for his crime. In a letter he sent to the Buffalo News just before his 2001 execution, he described himself as an agnostic. (By contrast, Atlanta bomber Eric Rudolph has asserted religious motives, as do the funeral protesters of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose behavior, while foul, is nonviolent.)
Two days later, Williams was accused of religious bigotry and fired from his job as a National Public Radio news analyst. It will not surprise you to learn that his comments about Christianity had nothing to do with his termination. Rather, what cost him his job was something he had told O’Reilly earlier in the segment:
I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean, 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. 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.
Williams’s very next words were: “But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all, as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam.” Shortly thereafter came the invidious McVeigh analogy.
He was making an argument against anti-Muslim prejudice even while acknowledging that he himself was susceptible to it. That was not good enough for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which demanded action:
NPR should address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. “Such irresponsible and inflammatory comments would not be tolerated if they targeted any other racial, ethnic or religious minority, and they should not pass without action by NPR.
This was a gross mischaracterization of Williams’s statement. He said nothing about who “can legitimately be viewed as security threats.” He merely expressed his personal feelings. His confession that people in “Muslim garb” make him nervous is a normal human reaction to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks — although not an entirely rational one. After all, Islamic supremacists typically don Western attire when carrying out terrorist attacks, the better to make themselves inconspicuous.
NPR quickly axed Williams on the grounds, as the network said in a statement, that his remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” The next day, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller quipped that Williams should have kept his feelings “between him and his psychiatrist” — a bigoted comment for which she soon apologized, albeit only in a statement to the press.
In a memo to NPR staff, Schiller downplayed the content of Williams’s remarks and said the problem was that he was expressing opinions at all. She claimed that as a news analyst, Williams was expected to fill “a very different role than that of a commentator or analyst”:
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.
She quoted NPR’s ethics guidelines: “In appearing on TV or other media….NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows…that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
Yet there was considerable ambiguity about what NPR expected from its news analysts. On its website, the network itself reported that Williams’s “status was earlier shifted from staff correspondent to analyst after he took clear-cut positions about public policy on television and in newspaper opinion pieces.”
MEANWHILE, NPR’s Nina Totenberg — who is a correspondent, not even a news analyst — is a regular on PBS’s Inside Washington, where she has a long and continuing history of opinionizing. She can be quite edgy. Most notoriously, in July 1995, she said this about Sen. Jesse Helms: “I think he ought to be worried…about what’s going on in the good Lord’s mind, because if there’s retributive justice, he’ll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will get it.”
Totenberg frequently expresses strong opinions about the Supreme Court, the institution she covers for NPR. Less than two weeks before Williams’s firing, she said this about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a free-speech case that liberals loathe: “Well, you know, really, this is the next scandal. It’s the scandal in the making. They don’t have to disclose anything. And eventually, this is the kind of thing that led to Watergate.” In 2005, on NBC’s Meet the Press, she disparaged the recently nominated judge Samuel Alito as “some white guy.”
Totenberg seemed no more circumspect the weekend after Williams’s firing. She criticized Virginia Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, for her “very visible political activity with money from anonymous sources. That doesn’t reflect well on her husband either, and it can cause serious problems for him in the Court.”
Why is this acceptable if Williams’s expression of his opinions is a firing offense? Fellow Inside Washington panelist Charles Krauthammer asked her, and her response was, to say the least, opaque:
In the modern journalistic world, where people are asked to give opinions all the time, whether you’re a regular on a show like this or not, if you cover a story you may be asked to appear on a television show and talk about it. I think it’s a very, very difficult line to draw. And NPR tries to draw it, in my view, using rules that don’t exist anymore.
In fairness to Totenberg, although she plainly benefits from a double standard, she is not responsible for its creation or enforcement and thus is not in a position to defend it.
Defensible or not, it isn’t hard to explain. The rule that Schiller cited doesn’t prohibit NPR employees from expressing opinions, only “views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.” Williams is no conservative, but he occasionally deviates from liberal orthodoxy, both in his opinions and in airing them on Fox. Totenberg, by contrast, always adheres to the party line. But the P in NPR is supposed to stand for “public,” not “partisan.”