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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow What NPR doesn't want you to hear

What NPR doesn't want you to hear


We’re not shocked that Juan Williams’ tightrope act — working as a news analyst for both National Public Radio and Fox News, not what you’d call an ideologically identical pair — has, in effect, snapped.

But we are surprised, and disappointed, at how Williams came to be knocked from his precarious perch.

NPR fired Williams last week for comments he made Oct. 17 on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor.”

We expected better from NPR, an organization that receives tax dollars.

During a discussion about Muslim terrorists, Williams said this: “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.”

Ellen Weiss, NPR's head of news, branded Williams’ remarks as “bigoted.”

We don’t much like Williams’ comments, either — but not because we’re offended or we think he’s a bigot.

We’re just skeptical that any Muslim terrorists planning to hijack an airline would advertise their faith by their choice of garments. The 9/11 hijackers didn’t, based on airport security photos.

But whether or not it’s reasonable to feel unsettled when you share a flight with a person you believe to be a Muslim isn’t the most relevant part of Williams’ case.

The key point is whether NPR’s decision to fire Williams bodes well or ill for Americans who get their information from that enterprise.

We believe it bodes ill.

Williams is not a reporter, paid to deliver facts with the dispassion of a computer.

His job was to comment on events, a task which requires that he express his opinion.

Which is exactly what he did last week on O'Reilly's show.

And for that he was fired by an employer which purports to be open-minded.

As a minor aside, we don’t agree with NPR critics who argue that Williams’ firing is a First Amendment issue.

Williams is entitled to the right of free speech, but he’s not guaranteed a job with NPR.

In any case, we would agree with NPR’s decision to fire Williams were there credible evidence that he is a bigot.

But the evidence leads us to the opposite conclusion.

Later in the same discussion with O’Reilly, Williams explained that he did not intend his earlier comments to be misconstrued as a blanket indictment of Muslims.

“If you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy,” Williams said.

He’s right about that.

And the statement that cost Williams his job in no way contradicts his later comment.

Notwithstanding our earlier point — that it’s unlikely hijackers would call attention to their religious faith — Williams’ unsettled feeling when he sees a Muslim on an airplane is hardly irrational.

After all, the 9/11 hijackers were Muslims.

That’s not bigotry. It’s fact.

And in the end that’s what bothers us about NPR’s decision: They fired a commentator for talking about how he feels, based on factual events.

We do wish Williams had been more articulate. We wish he had emphasized that his nervousness stems not from a belief that all Muslims are budding terrorists, but from the reality that most of the people who have taken over airliners in recent times were Muslims.

Yet it’s an onerous standard to insist that Williams, a commentator with impeccable credentials as a critic of hatred and intolerance, should have to satisfy every thin-skinned nitpicker by parsing his every public utterance.

We want to hear from Juan Williams. And we want to hear from people who think Juan Williams’ distrust of Muslims is misguided, and why.

Until last week we thought NPR wanted those things too. Now we’re not so sure.

 
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