NPR's public and poorly handled affair

Posted: Friday, October 29, 2010

FORT WORTH, Texas - Because of my relationship with organizations and individuals caught up in a recent flap over a highly publicized firing, many readers are insistent that I comment on the issue.

Today I share my opinion about commentator Juan Williams - his statements on the Fox News Network and subsequent dismissal by National Public Radio-as well as my thoughts on the Council on American-Islamic Relations, NPR in general, conservatives who've adopted Williams as a poster boy and rabid congressional members who have found another reason to attack public broadcasting.

Although I have met Williams a few times, I only know him through his work on NPR, an organization I do know well.

I once worked for the local public television and radio stations and for several years managed KERA, an NPR affiliate. To this day, I help raise money for the public radio station.

Nihad Awad, CAIR's executive director who complained about Williams' comments about Muslims on Fox, is a friend. I've known him since before he co-founded the organization in 1994.

A longtime NPR reporter and analyst, Williams for years has been a Fox regular, usually voicing liberal viewpoints on the ultra-conservative network. Often his comments are measured, and he occasionally was critical of other liberals.

During an Oct. 18 appearance on Bill O'Reilly's program, in which the host was discussing his own criticized remarks about Muslims, Williams said:

"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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Responding on behalf of CAIR, Awad said, "Such irresponsible and inflammatory comments would not be tolerated if they targeted any other racial, ethnic or religious minority, and they should not pass without action by NPR."

On Oct. 21, NPR released a statement saying it had terminated Williams' contract. That news ignited a firestorm of criticism against NPR, mostly coming from the right. Suddenly Williams was the golden child of the right wing. He quickly was offered-and just as quickly accepted-a $2 million contract to work for Fox.

Other critics, including members of Congress, have labeled NPR's action a form of censorship. They are calling for an end to the limited federal funds the network receives through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Now, for my thoughts:

First of all, Williams' remarks about Muslims were not only "irresponsible" and insensitive, but indeed biased. Even though he went on to say all Muslims should not be judged by the actions of a few, the damage was done because he already had articulated his bigotry (and we can debate to what degree) toward an entire group. That is clearly unacceptable.

CAIR, through Awad, was correct in criticizing Williams. Just as with the Anti-Defamation League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, CAIR is a civil rights organization whose mission includes pointing out discrimination, fighting for equality and educating the larger public about the people it represents.

That said, Williams should not have been fired, at least not over that one remark. NPR apparently had other issues with Williams, but its statement specifically said the firing was for comments on The O'Reilly Factor.

For the record, CAIR did not call for Williams' dismissal.

Executives at NPR not only overreacted, but they handled the situation in an insensitive and unprofessional manner by firing Williams over the telephone and then attempting to belittle him in subsequent statements by CEO Vivian Schiller. I wonder how long she will have her job after this fiasco.

As for those who want to see federal funding taken away from NPR, get real.

In my opinion, NPR is the best broadcast news organization in the country. It is fair, thorough and inclusive in its coverage.

Let's put an end to this ugly chapter. NPR did what it thought it should do, CAIR did what it is mandated to do and Juan Williams has gotten paid big time.

It's time to move on.

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