Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Juan Williams affair

NPR terminated news analyst Juan Williams this week, after he appeared on Bill O'Reilly's program on Fox News and spoke of his fears seeing Muslims in airports.
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.
These words sparked the controversy, yet if you watch the whole segment, I think you'll see that Juan Williams was also attempting to caution Bill O'Reilly from making sweeping generalizations about Muslims.

Surprisingly, Juan Williams' dismissal initiated a huge backlash against NPR. Not surprisingly, especially two weeks before the mid-term election, NPR's decision provided fodder for long-time critics who see the outlet as a voice for liberals. Beyond the predictable criticism, many were upset that NPR's move was an abrogation of Williams' right to free speech, particularly when characterized as not being politically correct.

There are many dimensions to this controversy, and I don't see either NPR or Juan Williams as clearly right or wrong. I am dismayed by the knee-jerk reactions and lack of thoughtful reflection to see the whole truth that both share pieces of. I don't have the time or energy to develop and articulate my views now, but I will share a posting I wrote for the NHPR web site:
Unfortunately, much of the criticism of NPR's termination of Juan Williams reflects the same knee-jerk reaction that NPR is accused of: lack of a thoughtful, measured, transparent response with the flexibility to shape the outcome through dialog and understanding.

The Williams issue raises legitimate questions that don't have easy answers:

Was it possible for Juan Williams to maintain credibility as a "balanced analyst" on NPR while he "editorialized" on Fox News?

More broadly, does the journalist's role of analyst or host of a news program restrict that individual's right to unfettered free speech? Could Walter Cronkite have maintained his credibility if he told us what he really felt about the stories he reported?

As a nation, how can we discuss our fears through a process that leads to learning and understanding, without having the conversation labeled racist or bigoted and abruptly terminated?

NPR is one organization that can help us address these questions, so we all learn and grow from the Juan Williams affair.

To those whose disappointment in NPR leads to the reponse to no longer fund public radio, I ask you to reconsider. Despite shortcomings, NPR is a vital journalistic voice in our democracy and needs to be supported and strengthened.
It's truly unfortunate that this issue has become a political football, and our society has lost the opportunity for the teaching moment.

For more background on the story: