By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Juan Williams and political correctness

Just a quick observation about NPR’s decision to terminate Juan Williams after he expressed his fear of Muslims on airplanes during an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

To me, Williams was clearly a victim of Rick Sanchez syndrome. That is, Williams was not an asset to NPR, and management was probably happy to stumble upon an excuse to get rid of him. Williams is a supremely uninteresting occasional commentator who will not be missed. What he said was offensive, but if he were a star he’d have been let off with a suspension and an apology.

I’ll add that many people hold the views that Williams expressed. That’s not an excuse. But if NPR hadn’t acted so precipitously, and if Williams were up to the task, Williams might have helped lead a national conversation on the Islamophobia that now pervades this country.

NPR made a mistake in firing Williams, but he should have quietly been let go a long time ago.

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  1. Ken Gornstein


    Why would we want an Islamophobe to lead a national dialogue on Islamophobia? It would only serve to legitimize him and his misguided views. People like Williams need to be marginalized until they apologize and serve some sort of probationary period out of the national spotlight.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ken: I don’t think we should get carried away with labeling Williams an Islamophobe. If he’s one, then so are probably 100 million other Americans. His comments remind me of what Jesse Jackson once said about stiffening up whenever he walked by a group of black teenagers.

  2. Steve Stein

    Dan, that’s the first thing I thought of too. But remember, Jackson is black himself and was making a point. Williams is not a Muslim. If he was, then those words would be taken quite differently.

    If I’m a journalist and not black, and I say “I get nervous whenever a bunch of black people come into the room”, I’m gonna get fired or at least suspended for a while. And I’d deserve it.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: Let me be careful myself, but when we are talking about Muslims and airplanes, we’re talking about something unique. I don’t think analogies work, though I tried it myself with Jackson. I would guess that more people react the way Williams does than not, and perhaps we ought to deal with it in an open way rather than just firing people for saying what tens of millions of others are thinking.

  3. Christian Avard


    Aside from his comments, it was clear Juan Williams didn’t represent the same persona on NPR and Fox. I think it was you or Emily Rooney that said on BTP that he needs to be one or the other. I agree. But apparently he didn’t change and this time was over the line for NPR. I’m assuming you all are going to discuss it tomorrow.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: I don’t see enough of Williams on Fox to know (so I guess Emily said it), but that certainly is the rap against him. Most people seem to give Mara Liasson credit for doing a better job of straddling the NPR-Fox line, but I know she’s been criticized on the same grounds.

  4. Steve Stein

    Muslims and airplanes in 2010. Black kids and street crime in 1988. It’s almost comparable. Certainly in terms of frequency the latter was more prevalent than the former is today.

    For the record, on a flight to London a couple of months go I was seated among several Turkish Muslims who had been taking classes in English at Mt Ida in Newton. I really had no problems or worrisome thoughts – in fact I had a great conversation with this 20-ish guy about life in the US, life in Turkey, World Cup preferences, and religious education in secular societies.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: You get to talking with people and it makes all the difference.

  5. BP Myers

    Any time you begin a statement with “I’m not a bigot . . .” you know you’re already on thin ice.

    The NPR ombudsman had the best take. If he’d said “When I get on a bus and see an African-American with a big afro and a dashiki . . .”

  6. Aaron Read

    Worth noting: Juan Williams has been “disciplined” before about his “problems” being on Fox News and on NPR. Remember that until 2009 he was a “staff correspondent” at NPR, after a similar flap back then, he was “demoted” to “analyst”. A subtle name change, but the change in responsibility and attribution is definite.

  7. Aaron Read

    Just came across this:
    Juan Williams and the Opinions of Journalists by pubradio consultant/guru John Sutton. A very shrewd observation.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: The moral of the story is that if you’re going to express unpopular opinions, you’d better not suck.

  8. Sean Griffin

    Interesting interview with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller on Williams’ firing:

  9. Steve Stein

    @BP – I think if WIlliams had said that, he’d be in better shape, because he’s black himself (as in the case of the Jesse Jackson remark). Here, Williams was disparaging an ethnic group that he doesn’t himself belong to, which is “worse”.

  10. Michael Pahre

    Dan, Juan Williams was a “news analyst” on NPR, not a “commentator” as you wrote. The distinction was crucial for NPR’s justification in firing him.

    The specific NPR contract and work product expectations for news analysts differs from that of commentators at NPR. Juan Williams appears to have been violating those standards regularly — not necessarily for his content (e.g., Islamophobia) but for the nature of his remarks (expressing a personal opinion on a public policy matter, not a fact-based news analysis). See their internal memo quoted at FNC — but is basically ignored everywhere else in FNC’s coverage of the story:

    “NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. 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.”

    If that is NPR’s contract and job description for “news analyst,” then Williams probably violated it.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: OK, fine. But NPR obviously was delighted to have a reason to get rid of him. That was my point.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: I would add that “commentator” and “analyst” mean roughly the same thing in English, though apparently not at NPR.

  11. M.J.Stevenson

    he should have quietly been let go a long time ago.

    The problem is Juan would never have gone quietly. He would have Goldberg’d it for all it was worth. This has been long overdue and while they were at it NPR should have got rid of Mara Liasson as well. Williams was only a small step above Armstrong Williams in believability.

  12. Matt Kelly

    A young Muslim man with a long beard, skull cap and a thobe strolls onto a plane and sits down next to a U.S. citizen– does anyone seriously believe the thought ‘Is he one of *those* Muslims?” does NOT dart through your mind?

    That’s all Williams was trying to say, I believe, and in that case I think he spoke the truth. But when you watch the tape (I did), clearly he had fallen into the typical Fox News routine of being excited and voluble and blustering–and that tone and body language made his otherwise perfectly sensible observation such a verbal train wreck.

    But as Dan said, Williams should have been dismissed long ago anyway. NPR was looking for any possible reason to get rid of him, and they managed to find the worst possible one out there.

  13. Mike Benedict

    Matt: For everyone except Jimmy Carter, there’s a difference between thinking something and saying it out loud. That’s what your frontal lobe is for.

  14. Michael Pahre

    @Dan: Outside the walls of NPR, I think that “news analyst” and “commentator” also mean something different.

    For example: After a presidential debate, the Boston Globe will typically run two front-page stories — one a straight news story, the other a “news analysis” story. They will also run op-ed columns, but those are confined to, well, opposite the editorial page. The news analysis and the op-ed column aren’t interchangeable, just as NPR thinks that news analyst and commentator aren’t interchangeable.

    Another Globe example: Before Peter Canellos went to the editorial page, didn’t he do regular work in (political) news analysis, in addition to heading the Washington bureau? But you never saw him writing an op-ed during that time. Two different roles.

    While it’s easy to point out many differences between NPR and FNC, I think that the Williams escapade points out an overlooked gulf between the two organizations: NPR is heavy on news analysis and light on commentary, while Fox News Channel is nearly all commentary and very little news analysis. The two news organizations just don’t operate on the same wavelength, so it’s not surprising that Juan Williams could not thread the needle to work satisfactorily for both at the same time.

    As an example of that gulf, think Tom Ashbrook vs. Bill O’Reilly: lots of thoughtful analysis and interviewing from Ashbrook mixed with very little personal opinion, while you get pound-it-into-your-head punditry from O’Reilly with very little thoughtful analysis. Yet both offer an hour-long talk show with guests and regularly address political topics.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: From Jay Rosen: “NPR’s category of opinion-free ‘news analyst’ is deeply untenable.” I agree. I’ve never liked the “news analysis” genre, as it seems to me that it’s defined more by what it isn’t than by what it is (or should be).

  15. Michael Pahre

    I’m trying to do fact-based analysis here about NPR distinguishing news analysis from commentary, so I won’t offer my opinion as to whether or not “NPR’s category of opinion-free ‘news analyst’ is deeply untenable.”

    I’ll leave that commentary to you pundits. I’ll stick to being an analyst.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: Hey, we analyze and comment here. And we do it all for free!

  16. Rick Sanchez syndrome! I love it! Copyright that and print t-shirts ASAP.

  17. Nancy Mades

    If Juan Williams were to sit down in the seat next to me on an airplane I’d be thinking nervously, “Oh no! He’s going to bore me to death.”

  18. Dan Storms

    Juan Williams’s statement was textbook prejudice, in that he admits to prejudging people based on appearance and dress. That those thoughts occur to many Americans after 9/11 does not negate or mitigate the bias. I tense up when I see rednecks at political rallies, wondering if they are Klan members or officials of the local White Citizen’s Council and are they packing heat. Same thing. Williams fell afoul of NPR’s contract, and they used it as an excuse to dump him. I’m interested in how the right-wing and the media elites have come to fervently defend him and his prejudice in the name of free expression, something I did not see when Sanchez or Helen Thomas or Octavia Nasr exhibited sentiments considered to be anti-Jewish (in Nasr’s case, merely a tweet mourning a Muslim scholar who had exhibited some rhetorical support of Hezbollah). Apparently, Muslim’s are fair game.

  19. Steve Stein

    Here’s some irony – the $2M contract Williams received from Fox is nearly the same amount of money NPR gets from the federal government (though CPB grants) annually.

  20. Mike LaBonte

    In response Jim DeMint is trying to get NPR defunded.

    On one hand I have always wondered if that would make any net difference at all. If that 7% of their funding was removed and IF EVERYONE KNEW IT, ie. the perception that public radio is fully funded by tax money was gone, they might make up the difference and more from new individual contributions.

    On the other hand I worry that DeMint might try to defund the entire Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would be disastrous for public TV.

  21. L.K. Collins

    “I’m interested in how the right-wing and the media elites have come to fervently defend him and his prejudice in the name of free expression, something I did not see when Sanchez or Helen Thomas or Octavia Nasr exhibited sentiments considered to be anti-Jewish (in Nasr’s case, merely a tweet mourning a Muslim scholar who had exhibited some rhetorical support of Hezbollah).” — Dan Storms

    Perhaps because discussing a fear for his personal safety is significantly different in nature than an assertion of political belief.

    NPR would have been well advised to wait and just not renew Williams’ contract.

    As it is, they have a black eye as well as a foot with a bullet hole through it.

  22. Steve Stein

    @Mike LaBonte – NPR gets no direct federal funding and about $3M in Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants. George Soros just contributed $1.8M, so I think it would not really make a difference. The CPB grants are mostly directed at low population density areas anyway (stations that can’t get supportable level of funding from their lister bases), so maybe NPR would have to do some pledge-redistribution, but the loss of CPB support wouldn’t affect them much.

  23. Steve Stein

    @LK – yeah, but in the meantime we can make fun of all the right-wing outlets hyperventilating over false concerns about “censorship”. As if NPR *owed* Juan WIlliams a job. Hah!

  24. Dan Storms

    @LK: expression of collective judgement on a group based solely on their membership in that group (Jews own the media, blacks are lazy, the Irish are a drunken, priest-ridden mob, Muslims are all terrorists) is bias, whether motivated by a sense of fear for personal safety or simple kneejerk stupidity. And bias is opinion, not fact. As opinion, JW’s utterance violated NPR’s written standards and practices. Yet because it was about Muslims, suddenly it is a case of freedom of expression under attack by liberals. My point, again is that if it had been about any other group, chances are that all the usual subjects would have been howling for Williams’s head, as they did for Sanchez, Thomas, and Nasr. Although oddly, the everloathsome Pat Buchanan can get away with racism and anti-Semitism with impunity. Though that’s a topic for a different day.

  25. L.K. Collins

    Yea, Mr. Stein, just the way that all the usual subjects,and quite a few unusual ones, had fun with the firing of Shirley Sherrod.

    The loathesome Kieth Olbermeir has the same touch of teflon as the loathesome Pat Buchanin. I suspect Buchanin gets a pass because he actually had experience in the Washington political world (I know you will not recognize that).

    I’m not sure why Olberman does, but I sense that being a sports announcer is seen as being an absolute qualifier for any one with a liberal view. to spout the drivel that he does. (On second thought, most sports announcers jobs are to spout drivel, so Olberman may come about the talent naturally.)

    Mr. Storm, you missed the point. Williams stated his personal fear as a PERSONAL FEAR, and that is a fact that only he can say is true or not. Are you implying that his statement of his own fear is not something that he truly felt?

    Come on. Put some intellectual honesty in the thinking.

  26. Mike Benedict

    Intellectual honesty is elitist!

  27. Steve Stein

    @LK – I can’t understand why Buchanan still is allowed in polite company, but I understand about Olberman. If a pundit rages in the forest and no one is listening, does anybody care?

  28. Dan Storms

    LK–expression of personal fear about Muslims AS Muslims is an expression of opinion, namely, “Muslims scare me because they are all be mad bombers.” NPR does not allow its news analysts to express opinion in their public role, be it on All Things Considered or on O’Reilly. So bye-bye Juan. Now he can be the house liberal at Fox, like Alan Colmes was, at $1 million per. Let him bloviate there. Thomas, Nasr, Sanchez (and you could add Phil Donahue, for that matter, fired for saying the Iraq war was going to be a bad thing)were hounded out of jobs for voicing opinions (and in Thomases and Nasr’s cases, not even on air) no more biased than Williams, but they didn’t get a hefty cushion from Rupert Murdoch. No, they got drenched in merdre by the right-wing talkers and by the mainstream media because their targets were other than Muslim. Not equal strokes.

  29. Michael Pahre

    @ Dan: Since you said that you agree with Jay Rosen (that “NPR’s category of opinion-free ‘news analyst’ is deeply untenable”), care to do some analysis on today’s Boston Globe, which carries both “news analysis” and op-eds on yesterday’s gubernatorial debate?

    Brian Mooney wrote the news analysis piece (that the Globe buried inside section A and buried in the right-hand-column of the Metro section in GlobeReader).

    Three op-eds in the opinion pages: Weiss | Jacoby | Keane | Quinn.

    I read them and saw the op-eds as being written in a very different style from the news analysis. When Weiss wrote, “Baker has played the part of chief doomsayer this year, and that’s how he’s now trying to spin the 1998 memo”, that is something that would never be said in the news analysis piece. Same with Jacoby’s text: “For months the Patrick campaign has struggled to find their gifted opponent’s Achilles’ heel. In a 12-year-old memo to the file, they may have found it.

    I see a clear distinction between the genres, not a feigned distinction that is “deeply untenable.” What say you?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: Did Rosen say he didn’t understand what the difference is, or did he call attempts to maintain that difference “deeply untenable”? I understand what the difference is. I also think it’s a lot easier to draw boundaries at a newspaper, with editors, than with someone who talks for a living. Deeply untenable.

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