“When I get on a plane, I’ve gotta tell you if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think, you know, that they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried, I get nervous.”

Illustration by Bruno Stortini

These were the caustic remarks by Juan Williams, National Public Radio news analyst, during a guest appearance on Fox News’s O’Reilly Factor last week. Two days later, he was on the phone with Ellen Weiss, Senior Vice President for News at NPR. “That crosses the line,” Williams recounts her saying. Shortly thereafter, Weiss informed Williams, an 11-year NPR veteran, that there would be no discussion — NPR had terminated his contract.

At first, it would appear that NPR made the right decision. But Williams’ statement needs to be contextualized. After his remark, O’Reilly responded that Williams’s anxiety was the reason why it’s fair to say “Muslims attacked us on 9/11.” That’s when Williams retorted, “Hold on…because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals… you don’t say first and foremost ‘we’ve got a problem with Christians,’ that’d be crazy.”

Clearly, Williams’s statements lacked finesse — a costly omission when discussing sensitive issues. Nevertheless, any careful observer will realize that Williams wasn’t being a bigot. Rather, he was making the case that while we should be aware of our own bias, we should refrain from projecting it onto an entire group of people. This viewpoint is far from being worthy of termination.

The day after the decision to terminate Williams, Vivian Schiller, NPR’s President and CEO, added fuel to the fire. Speaking about Williams’s firing, Schiller argued that “his feelings that he expressed on Fox News are really between him and his, you know, psychiatrist or his publicist.”

If Williams crossed the line with his statements, Schiller’s remarks jumped well past it. Her suggestion that Williams either has psychological problems or made the statement as part of a publicity stunt was of poor taste at best.

Yet, Schiller’s remarks begin to expose the real reason Williams was terminated. Appearing on NPR last Friday to discuss the firing, journalist Richard Prince said that Williams had become “a headache” for NPR. He argued that Williams was terminated because NPR was in the middle of a pledge drive and, more importantly, because of Williams’s association with Fox News. “You can’t serve two masters,” Prince concluded.

Now, I’m no fan of Fox News, and I realize that many of NPR’s donors were upset with Williams’s remarks, but diversity of opinion is vital for journalism.

Asra Nomani, a visiting professor of journalism at Georgetown University who also discussed Williams’s firing on NPR, seems to agree. “What Juan Williams expressed,” Nomani said, “is the sentiment of many people, including Muslims … I believe, unfortunately, that NPR short-circuited a conversation that we really need to be having.”

Indeed, NPR has found itself defending Williams’s termination rather than engaging in a constructive dialogue regarding religion, terrorism and xenophobia. Further, if it was NPR’s objective to punish Williams for his remarks, the move backfired — within a day of his remarks, according to a Oct. 21 report in the Los Angeles Times, Williams signed a hefty $2-million contract with Fox News, whose executives were eager to cash-in on the controversy. It’s a fitting conclusion to a story that highlights the worrying state of our domestic media institutions.

Over the past decade, the media has become increasingly polarized politically. It’s in this light that Williams’s termination is most concerning. Now, NPR has lost one of its more moderate voices and has thereby reinforced allegations of the organization’s liberal bias and allowed Fox News to exploit the situation. The real loser, in this case, is us – a public that’s left to rely on media sources that are increasingly bound by political ideology instead of journalistic principles.

When diversity of opinion dies, journalism dies with it. Journalism requires a lot more than just news reporting — it needs analysis and debate, which in turn, calls for a variety of perspectives. While it’s too late for NPR to ask Williams to return — I don’t foresee him giving up a two-million dollar paycheck — there is an important lesson to be learned from his firing: sometimes it’s best to engage, rather than to denounce, those with whom we disagree.

Tommaso Pavone can be reached at tpavone@umich.edu.

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