NPR’s Williams Mistake

In the kind of gut-reaction age in which Octavia Nasr and Rick Sanchez were given the boot for speaking their minds (unwisely perhaps), it’s unsurprising that NPR has ended its contract with Juan Williams after controversial remarks he made on The O’Reilly Factor Monday night. But that doesn’t make it right.

NPR recounts the O’Reilly comments as follows:

O’Reilly has been looking for support for his own remarks on a recent episode of ABC’s The View in which he directly blamed Muslims for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Co-hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walked off the set in the middle of his appearance.

Williams responded: “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.”

Williams also warned O’Reilly against blaming all Muslims for “extremists,” saying Christians shouldn’t be blamed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

That caveat was not enough to save Williams.

Late Wednesday night, NPR issued a statement praising Williams as a valuable contributor but saying it had given him notice that it is severing his contract. “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR,” the statement read.

Brian Stelter at the Times further reports on past comments from NPR’s ombudsman Alica C. Shepard regarding Williams’s O’Reilly appearances.

Mr. Williams’s contributions on Fox raised eyebrows at NPR in the past. In February 2009, NPR said it had asked that he stop being identified on “The O’Reilly Factor” as a “senior correspondent for NPR,” even though that title was accurate.

Alicia C. Shepard, the NPR ombudswoman, said at the time that Mr. Williams was a “lightning rod” for the public radio organization in part because he “tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox.”

Ms. Shepard said she had received 378 listener e-mails in 2008 listing complaints and frustrations about Mr. Williams.

This was a strange arrangement to begin with; Fox and NPR are hardly natural bedfellows and the tenor of debate on each outlet is vastly different. So says Captain Obvious.

The question going through my mind this morning is why NPR held on to Williams if he had proved too much of a “lightning rod” in the past, or, alternatively, why they had not come to some sort of agreement that would keep him off the FNC.

Regardless, like other recent firings, the message sent out by the Williams episode is plainly the wrong one. The public radio giant is revered as one of the country’s few outlets for civil, orderly discourse—Williams’s comments would have provided the perfect opportunity to open a discussion with him and others about Islamaphobia in America. The kind of discussion you could never have with O’Reilly, or on The View, where two hosts walked out on O’Reilly in the incident that precipitated the line of questioning that got Williams in so much trouble. It’s now an opportunity squandered. Say something off-key, and you’re silenced. Expect that from CNN, but we thought better of NPR.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.