Should NPR Have Fired Juan Williams for Muslim-Airplane Remarks?

The public radio network sacks its senior news analyst

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Longtime NPR news analyst Juan Williams has been fired following remarks made about Muslims on Fox News. In a discussion about Bill O'Reilly's contentious appearance on ABC's The View, Williams confessed to his unease about riding on airplanes with Muslims:

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.

Also, Williams agreed with comments made by would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, that America's struggle with Islamic extremism is just beginning:

He said the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts.
Wednesday night, NPR issued a statement saying "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." Should Williams have been fired for his remarks?
  • NPR Made the Right Decision, writes Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly:
Williams' anti-Muslim sentiment is expressed in various forms throughout the day, every day, on the network. There are no consequences because it's expected -- intolerance and prejudice from Fox News personalities are just par for the course.

The difference with Williams, though, is that he wears more than one hat. On Fox News, he's a token "liberal" who isn't liberal, free to make ridiculous on-air observations. On NPR, he's a less contentious political analyst, who strives for some degree of credibility.

But the tension was always problematic. When Williams was back at his NPR home, the audience was supposed to simply forget that this was the same guy they heard earlier on making offensive remarks on television. It was an untenable relationship.

  • This Doesn't Seem Right to Us, writes Henry Blodget at Business Insider: "We agree that Rich Sanchez should have been fired. And we are fine with the Ground Zero mosque. But it seems to us that, by admitting that he's nervous that some Muslims might want to kill him, Juan Williams was putting forth an unsettling truth that a lot of Americans feel--one that should be acknowledged and discussed." Scott Johnson at Powerline adds:
Williams knowingly prefaced his remarks with the observation: "Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis..." NPR proves that the point is precisely to induce the paralysis of which Williams spoke.
  • NPR Doesn't Like Dealing with 'Uncomfortable Topics,' writes Sharon Waxman at The Wrap:
Honestly, Williams was close to telling the truth... If you fly and you are sitting next to a Muslim in galabiya and beard, there is little chance that you going to be able to ignore that fact. (Ironically, this statement echoes those of 20 years ago, when it was politically incorrect to acknowledge that being followed by an African-American man on an unlit street might make a white person uncomfortable. It took the truth-telling of Richard Pryor and Chris Rock to call that out.) But reality may not be what NPR wants. We don’t like to speak truthfully about uncomfortable topics, especially when it comes to Islam.
  • Williams Deserved It, writes Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic:  "Juan, what you just described is the working definition of bigotry. What if someone said that they saw a black man walking down the street in classic thug get-up. Would a white person be a bigot if he assumed he was going to mug him? What percentage of traditionally garbed Muslims - I assume wearing a covered veil or some other indicator and being of darker skin - have committed acts of terror? And, of course, the 9/11 mass-murderers were in everyday attire, to blend in. So was the Christmas Day undie-bomber. The Fort Hood murderer was in US military uniform, for Pete's sake. The literal defense of anti-Muslim bigotry on Fox is becoming endemic. It's disgusting."
The first quotation reflects the views, I'm guessing, of the vast majority of people who fly in this country (and in Europe and Asia and other parts of the world, as well)... Juan Williams misunderstands one crucial fact: Muslim terrorists who are attempting to commit acts of terror seldom if ever dress in "Muslim garb"; they dress, for obvious tactical reasons, in a manner meant to help them blend in with surroundings. So Williams is wrong, I think, to be particularly suspicious of traditionally-dressed Muslims. But is he wrong to worry about Islamist terrorism? Of course not.

In reference to Faisal Shahzad, Williams is on firmer ground: Shahzad, and other Islamist terrorists, view themselves as engaged in a war with America, in which American cities are meant to be battlegrounds. ... It is not racist to acknowledge that in many different countries, and even within the United States, young Muslim men -- thousands, it would be fair to say -- spend their days thinking up ways to kill American civilians.
  • Let's Take a Step Back, writes James Joyner at Outside the Beltway:
This isn’t NPR “capitulating” to “political correctness” in order to appease the HuffPo and Think Progress gang.  Rather, it’s an organization whose raison detre is reasonable conversation protecting its brand.   Recall that, just last week, NPR told employees not to attend the Jon Stewart rally lest they give “the appearance of favoritism.”

They sent Williams a clear warning in February 2009 when they told him to quit identifying himself with the network when appearing as a commenter on Fox.  They reasoned that Williams ”tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox.”  Given how distinct the two audiences are, it was possible to get away with that for years.  But not in the age of YouTube and blogs constantly calling attention to these things.

It’s hard not to wonder whether the more beneficial, more considered, altogether more NPR thing to do here would have been to devote a segment of Morning Edition, or Weekend Edition, or All Things Considered to having Williams explain just what the hell he was talking about. At least that would have provided a forum for intelligent conversation on the matter, something that is desperately lacking at the moment. Apparently not. Instead it seems that, along with CNN’s dismissal of Octavia Nasr earlier this year for an ill-thought-out tweet, this is merely further proof that no matter how long and respectable your career all it takes is one idiotic soundbite to do you in.
  • This Is Becoming All Too Normal in the Media These Days, concludes Jeffrey Goldberg: "There's a larger trend here, the increasing tempo of journalist firings around the issues of Islam, terrorism,and Israel. There is Helen Thomas, of course, as well as Octavia Nasr, who was fired by CNN for praising the radical Shi'a Ayatollah Fadlallah. Helen Thomas is a ridiculous figure, and her comments touched on the Shoah, so I think my position on her firing remains, good riddance, but Nasr's firing seemed unjustified to me, and Williams's removal, so far at least, seems unjustified as well. More to come, undoubtedly."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.