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Juan Williams, NPR and journalism's new Sharia law

Juan Williams, a former Washington Post journalist who became a "news analyst" for National Public Radio and has been in a similar role with the Fox News Channel, was fired last night by NPR for something he said on FNC, during a panel discussion with their top-rated host Bill O'Reilly. Last week, as noted here, O'Reilly caused a stir for appearing on ABC's "The View" and blaming the 9/11 attacks, quite broadly, on "Muslims" as opposed to the actual band of extreme radicals who were responsible.

So O'Reilly had a panel discussion -- the goal of which was to exonerate him, apparently -- and Williams chimed in with this:

Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don't want to get your ego going. But 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.

In short order, Juan Williams was fired as an NPR news analyst. In the last 24 hours, a lot of the reaction had played out along predictable lines. The usual conservative sources raced to the defense of Williams and blasted NPR -- Sarah Palin went well beyond calling for the public broadcasting entity to be "refudiated," urging instead that they be defunded. On the left, reaction on the actual firing was mixed but the focus tended more to be on the bigotry and wrongheadedness of Williams' comments.

No argument with that here -- what Williams said not only came off as pandering to the Fox News host O'Reilly (whose bigoted comments on Islam were not "right," except maybe in the sense of far right) but his remarks about Muslim garb and his judgments were fairly idiotic. I think when you're talking about the issue of prejudice, there are two components. One is our initial emotional, gut-level reaction to people (or their "garb") or situations that we can't control, and the other is how we chose to process and act on those reactions. With 9/11 still the biggest American event of this century so far, it's not surprising that someone is going to react viscerally to a "Muslim" on an airplane. But as many have pointed out, Williams seems to be telling O'Reilly it's OK to remain prejudiced. As Adam Serwer wrote for the Washington Post:

Everyone at some point succumbs to their prejudices -- if reasonable people couldn't possess them then prejudice wouldn't be a problem. Had Williams phrased his statement differently, or made it under different circumstances, the conversation might have been constructive. The problem is that it's clear from the context that Williams wasn't merely confessing his own personal fears, he was reassuring O'Reilly that he was right to see all Muslims as potential terrorists.

Still, Williams was fired by NPR without a chance to explain or clarify his remarks -- either to his bosses or to the nation -- or to apologize, and that seems like an extreme overreaction. For someone to get canned for one comment, that statement should be way over the top (among the several recent media flaps. ex-CNNer Rick Sanchez' remarks about Jews controlling the media struck me as the one crossing that line, as such a trite expression of a classic and long-standing tenet of dangerous anti-Semitism). Williams discussed a touchy subject and he whiffed badly, but I don't think he should have been fired.

But I'm not surprised this happened. NPR's rash and ill-considered actions did not take a place in a vacuum. Increasingly, the public radio entity has become a leader (along with the Washington Post, which makes me think this is more of problem the closer one gets to or inside the Beltway) in an almost Taliban-like drive to enforce a brand of unrealistic-to-the-point-of-insane journalistic purity. By that I mean that NPR -- like a number of other big-name journalistic outfits -- is reacting to an age of modernity, in which new media and a new playing field  have allowed for a broader and more open discussion of issues with more potential for transparency, by retreating deeper into a dank temple of objectivity when journalists are stripped of opinions and the ability to discuss things in ways that most normal people would recognize as...being human.

Although it didn't, and won't, get as much attention as the Juan Williams firing, because it doesn't involve the hot-button issues of race or religion, the bosses at NPR actually made an even more bizarre decision earlier this month, when they told the network's journalists they could not attend the much-hyped Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert "rally" on the National Mall on Oct. 30; their memo said "NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers," even though it was pretty clear from Day One that the event by two comedians -- ambiguous though it may be -- has no "cause" and is unlikely to touch on an issue more complex than "restoring sanity." (I'm basing this on part on what Stewart himself told CNN's Larry King last night, that "this is not a political rally.") NPR journalists would probably get a lot more exposure to real political causes by attending a Bruce Springsteen concert, but for God sakes don't tell the head honchos at NPR --lest they issue a memo banning the Boss next.

And so what if the Stewart/Colbert rally does turn out to be a little political -- would NPR folks really be that corrupted by walking out into the October sunlight and hearing a snippet of someone's point of view, regardless of whether the event was this one, or the conservative-oriented Glenn Beck rally also held on the mall back in August? Or do we want a generation of journalists living a monastic existence, cloistered in their basements when they're not in the office so they won't be exposed to the scary cacophony of voices that is the real world? Sure, you probably would not want a situation in which NPR's White House correspondent carried a sign in a march on a Saturday that said "Impeach Obama" and then marched back into the press room to cover Obama on Monday -- these things are matters of common sense. But common sense seems to be in short supply at NPR headquarters.

NPR's logic regarding Juan Williams is equally baffling. Just like ancient monks and clerics used to argue how many angels could fit onto the head of a pin, the leaders of NPR spend a lot of time worrying about the differences between a "commentator" and a "news analyst." This is from NPR CEO Vivian Schiller's memo today about why Williams was fired:

First, a critical distinction has been lost in this debate. 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.

After three decades in journalism, I certainly recognize the sentiments behind Schiller's memo -- but I have come to strongly disagree. In the Internet age, I think transparency and openness completely trumps the forced and ultimately phony version of objectivity that Schiller and NPR want to enforce. What I mean by that is this: If I'm going to listen to Juan Williams "analyze" the news, I'd like to know as much about where he's coming from -- the values and, yes, opinions that are informing his judgments -- as is possible to know. If Williams is analyzing the new wave of Islamophobia in this country, frankly I'd rather know that that Muslim garb on a plane makes him nervous than not know that.

"News analysts" are not all going to analyze the same story the same way; do you honestly believe that Rush Limbaugh would "analyze" the federal bailout of General Motors the same way that Michael Moore would "analyze" it, to use an extreme example. Yet NPR prefers to live in a fantasy land of opinion castrati -- who are now trained as of today to be even more circumspect, or they could be fired in a single brief phone call.

Meanwhile, the list of journalists with long careers and track records losing their jobs on the basis of one poorly thought-out and blurted-out remark is growing rapidly, as the journalism world -- under assault on so many fronts, losing readers and dollars as we struggle to adapt to the new digital age -- retreats into what is increasingly becoming the media's version of Sharia law, requiring reporters and "analysts" to wear their opinion burkas, and holding occasional stonings and beheadings in the public square to enforce the old world order. Glenn Greenwald wrote earlier today that you can definitely make the case that Williams should not have been terminated but only if you argued likewise for CNN's Octavia Nasr or for Helen Thomas, fired for remarks that were not anti-Muslim but seen  as pro-Muslim extremist or anti-Israel.

Here's what I wrote back in late July of this year:

The new Taliban ignores the unalienable fact that journalists should largely judged in one simple way, by the character of their content. A writer can hold strong opinions or even make an occasional intemperate remark and still be a great journalist whose work is hard-hitting, fair and, dare I say it, accurate. In recent weeks, we've seen successful careers ended over one comment, like Octavia Nasr of CNN, and a journalism icon like Helen Thomas destroyed  by one (admittedly pretty dumb) remark, and a promising young journalist like Dave Weigel leaving the Washington Post not because of his work -- which is outstanding -- but because of a few comments he tossed out on Twitter and the dreaded JournoList (Weigel was hired today by Slate, a glimmer of hope)

Now we can add Juan Williams to the list of journalists fired for making an all-too-human remark. A very dumb remark, but a human one. How ironic. Journalists are so afraid of being supplanted by the Internet, yet we want our newsrooms to be populated with bloodless machines.