Juan Williams fired: pitfalls of the ‘insta-opinion’ age

Juan Williams
Juan Williams

ATLANTA — Juan Williams, the venerable NPR news analyst and civil rights era expert, joined a growing list of journalists fired for making bold statements on the air or online – in his case, telling Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that people in Muslim garb on airplanes make him “nervous.”

In NPR’s view, Mr. Williams stepped over a boundary by needlessly offending American Muslims. Juan Williams was fired Wednesday. But a quick dismissal for stating a fear that many Americans share, media experts say, also sends a puzzling message to reporters, who are laboring under increasing demands to share their personality and opinion while at the same time abiding by ethics rules. Those rules don’t always jibe with the “insta-opinion” atmosphere of new media like Twitter and Facebook.

“This case reinforces the need for institutions like NPR … to instill the elements of journalism … and to be clear what the standards are for blogs and TV appearances,” says Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Media organizations need to think hard about whether they should have double standards – about whether you should say in blogs or on Twitter what you wouldn’t put in the newspaper.”

Speaking on Fox News, where he is a contributor, Williams told Mr. O’Reilly, “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 a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams’s firing cuts to an increasingly sensitive topic in US culture: how to talk about Islam in the wake of 9/11 and how reporters and media groups approach discussions about Muslim culture.

“In this particular case, because Juan Williams did say something that a lot of people think, as insensitive as it may have been, it sounds like it could have been a good opportunity for him to come to grips in a public way with what he thinks and a lot of other people think,” says Dan Kennedy, an assistant journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston. In that light, “firing him was taking it a little too far.”

Even journalism observers who have been critical of Williams’s appearances on Fox News, which is ideologically opposite in its presentation compared with NPR, felt the firing could send the wrong message to journalists, as well as citizens. These observers point to various efforts to expand and inform national debates – something that Williams himself, in a column Thursday, said he was trying to do in his O’Reilly appearance.

“At some point political correctness overwhelms common sense,” writes Jacob Heilbrunn, author of “They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons,” on the Huffington Post. “Yes, there should be taboos when it comes to public discourse. Some taboos are necessary and even vital. Yes, trash-talking about Muslims has become dangerously prevalent. But firing Williams only feeds those sentiments.”

In a new Rasmussen Reports survey, 57 percent of adults say that America has become too politically correct, while 23 percent say the nation is not politically correct enough. Seventy-four percent regard political correctness as a problem in the United States today.

Williams is the latest entry in a growing list of journalists whose employment ended after trying to state their opinions quickly and plainly. They include CNN producer Octavia Nasr, for bemoaning the death of a Hezbollah cleric, CNN host Rick Sanchez for calling Jon Stewart a “bigot,” and longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas for saying that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine.”

The Williams firing shows that NPR, in many ways, is an example of a news organization trying to navigate new media without muddying the role of journalism in society, says Jen Reeves, an associate journalism professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“It’s confusing to the general public what journalism is anymore,” says Ms. Reeves. “Our job as journalists is to question the culture and present it to the general public to think about. But instead we’re constantly [playing up people’s fears].”

She adds, “The way Williams presented himself was at a level of personal opinion that, as a journalist, is not appropriate.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/22/2010 - 01:00 pm.

    A leftist, publicly financed media group fires someone for making a simple, non-inflamitory statement of opinion….and FOX news comes to his rescue citing his freedom of speech.

    “In wake of NPR controversy, Fox News gives Juan Williams an expanded role”

    “The cable news network signs the analyst to a new three-year contract for nearly $2 million. Meanwhile, conservative figures blast the public radio network for its response to Williams’ comments about Muslims.”

    This story plays out every time MinnPost publishes a piece that smacks of right of center bias…the leftist readership condemns MP and promises financial retaliation.

    Reasoned Democrats may be excused for pondering the implications to their beliefs.

  2. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 10/22/2010 - 01:27 pm.

    It is kind of a tough call. What Juan Williams said in itself was not reprehensible; but as a professional journalist or commentator, sometimes bluntness is not the wisest of routes.

    And he should know better that (as he later acknowledged) there is always a danger of things being taken out of context. However, in the last few years, he has been (forgive the cliche) ‘pushing the envelope’ more and more.

    Perhaps, Juan feels that he is not marketable enough unless he says something “outrageous” and “controversial” in today’s trashy media. That in itself may not be a journalistic sin. But when he is defending his positions with … “[You know] I’m not a bigot …,” and …”…I see people … they’re wearing … I get nervous,” you have to wonder. How is that different from some prejudiced persons getting nervous when they see a black urban kid walking on the same sidewalk that they are on.

    Irony , if not hypocrisy, rears its head!

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/22/2010 - 10:13 pm.

    The Oppressed Become the Oppressors, and those who have been the victims of bigotry inflicted on them by others sometimes go on to inflict their own bigotry on others still.

    Juan Williams seems incapable of understanding that judging people by their appearance without bothering to come to know them is, in itself, an act of bigotry – exactly the kind of bigotry, in fact, that black people were so victimized by for so long here in the United States.

    A mature, rational, emotionally and psychologically secure person might have a similar fear-based instinctive reaction in today’s world, but would consider that reaction carefully and reject it as an instinctive response which originates in the lower brain and should be disregarded until there is ample other evidence that the people to whom one responds in this way are, indeed, dangerous – especially since the reality is that true terrorists are highly unlikely to dress in ways that draw attention to their appearance.

    By failing to understand his own bigotry or that he, himself, is capable of bigotry, let alone understanding from whence his bigotry arises, Mr. Williams calls into question his reactions to all the most important issues of our own day and time.

    Rather than relaying accurate information, providing carefully-considered analysis, and educating us to the most accurate facts of the many troubling situations in our daily lives, we can only expect that Mr. Williams’ reactions will be based, in part, on his own tendency toward bigotry and his own absolute denial of that fact, which disqualifies him as anyone I’m interested in listening to and, at least in my book (as I had long since concluded) disqualifies him as a news analyst for NPR.

    No doubt he will be far happier at the weasel where bigotry of every sort is not challenged, but rather, celebrated.

    NPR can and SHOULD do better.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/23/2010 - 08:09 am.



    Research what Jesse Jackson has stated about walking in urban areas.

  5. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 10/23/2010 - 06:20 pm.

    @#4 – What?
    Research what Jesse Jackson ….

    I’m not sure what you are driving at there. But, I’ll hazard a guess, and say that you are of the opinion that what I said is wrong … that prejudging people on the basis of their skin color or what they wear is not being prejudicial.

    Well, I’m sorry… but I stand on what I have said. And as far as Jesse Jackson is concerned, he is neither a saint nor the ultimate authority on matters of prejudice. He is human, same as you and me. I’m sure if you asked him, he would tell you he wishes he hadn’t said some things in his life. Or, very probably, he will go into denial and say that he was misquoted or what he said was taken out of context. And another thing, Mr. Jackson sometimes has a problem of his brain not being able to catch up with his mouth. I don’t need to cite examples here.

  6. Submitted by Dan Kitzmann on 10/23/2010 - 07:39 pm.

    Absent, so far as I have seen from the predictable, jejune reactions to this story (Hey, everybody! Look! Juan is a bigot!), is any discussion of Williams’ more interesting comment about the reason for his uneasy feelings–namely, that Muslims who wear traditional garb identify themselves ostensibly as Muslims foremost instead of, I presume, as Americans. Discussing what it means to be an American might elevate this story to something other than the sham morality play from theatre of the absurd it immediately became.

    Hearing NPR senior management’s Janus-faced rationalization for his firing was also priceless. Dan Schorr never interjected his own biases into his thoughtful news “analysis,” right? Ethics guidelines indeed.

  7. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/24/2010 - 10:36 pm.

    Journalists should not be fired for having their own opinions, even if they are offensive. This is just as true of Juan Williams as it was true of Octavia Nasr, Helen Thomas, and Rick Sanchez, as Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out.

    However, NPR really had to get rid of Juan Williams, and his bosses should have justified the firing simply by pointing out the obvious: that Fox News is a purveyor of the journalistic equivalent of quackery, and that any NPR journalist who agrees to accept money from Rupert Murdoch damages NPR’s reputation.

    The purpose of the Fox News Corporation is to exalt the opinions of right-wing ideologues as truth and to cast contempt upon scientific research and journalistic investigation as the nerdy tools of “elitist,” “patronizing” eggheads who lack the ability to think with their guts. Serious journalists should disavow any association with Fox News, just as decent doctors distance themselves from quacks.

    This goes for Mara Liasson, too. She should leave Fox News, or NPR should let her go.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/25/2010 - 06:30 am.

    I would be a lot more careful about stating what thinking lies behind an opinion I don’t share.

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