NPR, Juan Williams: Did firing put network smack in tea party's crosshairs?

The NPR Juan Williams affair may not be a real campaign issue, but it has given conservatives the chance to rail against government waste and liberal elitism, favored targets of tea party groups.

Richard Drew/AP
News analyst Juan Williams appeared on the 'Fox & friends' television program in New York, on Oct. 21. NPR, Juan Williams affair has provided conservatives the chance to rail against government waste and liberal elitism.

Has the firing of Juan Williams injected a new hot-button issue into the 2010 midterm elections?

Well, maybe that’s going a bit far. It’s not like congressional candidates all across the country are taking positions on whether the ex-National Public Radio analyst should have been dismissed for comments about Muslims he made on Fox News. [Editor's note: The parapgraph has been changed to correctly identify Mr. Williams's role at NPR.]

But the Williams affair has provided conservatives with an opportunity to label NPR itself as an example of government waste and liberal elitism. In that sense it’s become a symbol of just the sorts of things tea party groups and tea party-backed candidates often campaign against.

Take ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. She’s chortled on her Twitter feed about the widespread reaction to the Williams dismissal.

“NPR & LSM: you’re shocked at public outrage over your censorship of Juan? This is what happens when our Constitution starts shaking her fist,” Palin tweeted on Thursday.

(LSM stands for “lame stream media”, Ms. Palin’s take on the mainstream media, in case you didn’t know.)

Newt Gingrich, at the end of a Fox News interview about midterm elections prospects, opined that the axing of Williams was “total censorship” and that Congress should investigate cutting off NPR's money.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, a sort of scoutmaster for the tea party movement and a gadfly to the GOP establishment, is one step ahead of Gingrich. He’s announced that he indeed will introduce a bill to end federal funding for NPR.

Such legislation has already been filed in the House. Last June Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) of Colorado introduced legislation to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after fiscal year 2012.

Taxpayer support for public broadcasting long has been a target for fiscal conservatives. However, NPR is not exactly a ward of the state. It gets just a bit more than 2 percent of its $166 million annual budget from the government. The bulk of the money comes from affiliate stations, corporate sponsors, and donations from individuals made to feel very guilty after they tune in to hear “Morning Edition” and find out it is fundraising week.

NPR has not strengthened its position with its reaction to the reaction to the Williams firing. Vivian Schiller, NPR CEO, said on Thursday that Williams’s comments about Muslims were between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist – take your pick.”

(She later apologized for that intemperate comment on NPR’s website.)

Plus, the reaction has not exactly broken down along partisan lines. While some liberal bloggers are defending NPR and criticizing Williams’s remarks as anti-Muslim, some Democratic politicians are agreeing with the GOP on this issue. Kind of, anyway.

Williams should not have made the statements about Islam that he did, said Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania in a Fox interview.

“People are very sensitive about that stuff,” said Rendell. “But to fire someone with his incredible reputation for integrity is wrong.”

Meanwhile, Williams himself has actually made money out of getting fired, apparently. He signed a new $2 million deal with Fox that includes slots as guest host of the “The O’Reilly Factor.”

He continues to defend what he said, including remarks to the effect that he feels nervous if he spots someone in Islamic clothing on an airplane. And he professed himself offended by CEO Schiller’s “psychiatrist” remark.

“I don’t understand why she has to get that low,” Williams said Friday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

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