News analyst Juan Williams was fired Wednesday. Was his dismissal fair?
Before we get to that, we’ll just note this obvious point: As the 2010 elections rocket toward us, the United States remains roiled by a continuing debate about attitudes toward Islam. The proposed mosque near ground zero has been a political flash point. A surprising percentage of Americans believe President Obama himself is a Muslim. And so on.
In that context, a commentator such as Mr. Williams may need to weigh words carefully.
What’s known so far is this: NPR issued a statement late Wednesday saying that Williams’s contract as a senior NPR news analyst was being terminated following his comments about Muslims made Monday on Fox News's “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Williams’s words “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR,” the statement said.
So what were the offending remarks?
Appearing Monday on the O’Reilly show, Williams said, “When I get on a plane ... if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried, I get nervous.”
“He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drops of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts,” Williams said.
The ex-NPR commentator is surely not alone in becoming nervous when seeming Muslim garb on a plane. According to a study released by the Muslim West Facts Project earlier this year, 43 percent of Americans admit to feeling at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims.
Should Williams have kept this feeling to himself? At least one Muslim-American group criticized this aspect of his commentary.
“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 Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
In the second part of his statement on the O’Reilly show, Williams appeared to be indicating that the US is at war with Muslims in general. Perhaps these are the words that tipped the thinking of top NPR officials and led them to hand him a pink slip. It’s just such an attitude, after all, that President Bush warned the nation against in the days following the 9/11 attacks.
However, as Williams's O’Reilly appearance progressed, it became clear that he was not equating all Islam with the acts of a few extremists. He seemed to be arguing against that very proposition, although, given the vehemence of the host, Williams was getting few words in.
At one point, Williams noted that Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, was a Christian. But because of that “you don’t say first and foremost we got a problem with Christians," Williams said. "That would be crazy.”
Host Bill O’Reilly objected to even having to make this point. Everyone knows it, Mr. O’Reilly says, and he is tired of “qualifying everything 50 times.”
“I’m not gonna say it’s only a few [Muslims].... It’s not, Juan; it’s whole nations,” said O’Reilly, citing the anti-American feelings in Pakistan and elsewhere.
There is a possible irritant to NPR here, as well: Williams’s dual-hat role as an NPR commentator and Fox News analyst. Perhaps NPR has tired of seeing Williams stretch to straddle these two very different roles.
“You live in the liberal precincts; you actually work for NPR,” said avowed conservative O’Reilly to Williams at one point.
Not anymore, he doesn't.