In the midst of last month's flap over NPR's firing of Juan Williams for his comments on Fox News about feeling "nervous" when he sees people in "Muslim garb" on planes, I received a copy of This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, published by Chronicle Books. It's clearly intended to celebrate the organization's anniversary, with essays, photos, and a CD of six "classic" broadcasts. The handsome book (priced at $29.95) must have been conceived to highlight the ascendancy of NPR (it has dropped National Public Radio in favor of the initials because of its enhanced presence on the Internet and mobile gadgetry) as one of the country's leading news providers. This coincidence of a self-congratulatory volume and a nasty dispute over the sacking of one of its better-known commentators is a reminder that, when things seem to be going well (and NPR has been on a great run), there is a tendency for something to go wrong, which keeps us from succumbing to hubris.
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Summarily terminating Williams on the grounds that he had "crossed the line" of what was acceptable for an NPR analyst was a blunder. Everyone seems to agree that what he said was sincere but inept, and contributed to an ugly strain of prejudice against Muslims that Williams, who is black, should have had the sense to avoid. But the firing was abrupt and awkward, given the circumstances. The fact is that Williams and NPR have long had an uneasy relationship. When he first joined in the early 1990s, he served as a host of Talk of the Nation. That assignment must not have worked out, because Williams was handed an amorphous role as a senior correspondent and, over the years, seemed to be spending more time on Fox than on NPR itself.
Juan is a very talented writer. As the publisher of Times Books, I contracted with him for the biography Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, which was deservedly well received when it was published in 1998. Williams was also the author of the companion book to Eyes on the Prize, the superb PBS history of the civil rights movement. But at the Washington Post, where he wrote a column, Williams became controversial in 1991 because of his outspoken defense of Clarence Thomas at the height of the furor over the allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed Anita Hill. When Williams was fired at NPR, Bonnie Erbe, a columnist for AOL's Politics Daily, recalled that, shortly after the Thomas episode, Williams himself acknowledged that "the newspaper had disciplined him for what he called 'wrong' and 'inappropriate' verbal conduct toward woman staffers and he apologized to his colleagues." Williams soon left the Washington Post.