Juan Williams: Return Engagement

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Juan Williams, Fox News political analyst, former senior correspondent for National Public Radio and author of Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, takes the media to task for failing to get beyond demagoguery and political correctness.

Williams, who was fired from NPR last year after saying on Fox that he feared getting on airplanes with people dressed in Muslim garb. While Williams went on to say that fears like those should not be the basis for public policy, he was quickly terminated, and the ensuing firestorm led to the resignation of senior vice president for news at NPR, Ellen Wiess, and cost the then-president of NPR Ellen Schiller her yearly bonus.

Now Williams has written a book about this experience, which critiques assaults the attack on free debate from a variety of political views. He said he was not attacking Muslims.

I said right then and right there… that Timothy McVeigh is a Christian, the Westboro Baptist Church, who engage in what I consider such offensive rants at military funerals, they’re Christians. The Atlanta Olympic bomber is a Christian. We don’t make judgments about all Christians on that basis… and we needed to avoid making similar stereotypical judgments about Muslims in America based on the fact that radical Muslims, who spoke of jihad, had attacked us on 9/11.

He said at the time he was fired he asked the executive whether she had listened or read the transcript in its entirety and was told that they didn’t want to read it, they had had enough. Williams said he was told he could not even discuss the decision with management, and that NPR had said it was a violation of their journalistic ethics for him to have made such a statement.

First of all, it wasn’t even a statement of opinion, it was an admission of feeling. And subsequently, by the way... so many people came up to me and said “I have the same anxiety” and they don’t consider

He said like Shirley Sherrod he was taken out of context, made to seem as though he was saying the opposite of what he said, and fired for it.

Part of a journalist’s job is to maintain credibility and access to all communities. Williams said people who wear “Muslim-garb” won’t be less inclined to speak with him now that they know he has certain fears directed towards them.

I don’t think I’m biased. I was revealing my feelings, and I thinking the aftermath of 9/11 I think I would have to be somewhat brain-dead not to have an awareness of what’s going on.

 He said that discussion is necessary in order to keep good ideas to the forefront.

Williams said some of his critics pointed out that William’s is black, and said that while if they were to talk about their nervousness when confronted by a crowd of rowdy black young men who are acting out, Williams would call them racists. Yet he doesn’t see that his statements about Muslims amount to the same thing.

I said wait a second. I would be anxious if I saw a bunch of rowdy young black guys late at night on the street.. I would change the side of the street or avoid that situation. So, it’s just like anything you’d say now will be used against you. You’ll be shunned, you’ll be called a crazy right-winger or a crazy left-winger, told that’s not the appropriate thing to say. I just think it doesn’t allow for honest discussion in this society.

Williams said NPR was unhappy having a prominent NPR personality appear regularly on Fox. They said that having him on helped legitimize Fox's claim to be fair and balanced. More than that, though, he said, NPR was unhappy with the amount of opinion he was giving on Fox.

Williams pointed out that he was already working for Fox when he was hired by NPR, and that prior management teams had liked having Williams on Fox because they felt it expanded the NPR brand and exposed watchers who might not otherwise be familiar with NPR.

Fox has a tabloid aesthetic that Williams said he likes. Furthermore, he believes that Fox is, in fact, fair.

Nobody’s telling me what to say and I’m on Fox, so no one says shut up, or, you’re not allowed to express that opinion, or don’t challenge – never, never such a word. To the contrary, when I wanted to write op-ed pieces for the Times or the Washington Post or write books, the NPR managers were like wait, we don’t want you to do that, or we want to give you approval, or why are you doing that, or, when I appeared on Fox, why do you identify yourself as an NPR person, telling me.. don’t identify yourself as an NPR person. Like the rest of the world didn’t know I work for NPR? I mean, come on.

Williams agrees that the stories selected for the network are selected from a conservative point of view, and that many of the top personalities on the show are very conservative, but he points out that many of those personalities, such as Bill O’Reilly, chose to invite Williams on their show.

He denies that he serves as a foil for the ideologues, a buffoon to be shouted down by the pundits on the right.

I don’t think that I’m shouted down. I think it’s rough and tumble at times. But I think, to the contrary, that I’m there and allowed to express my point of view, and I think to give the audience the idea that all that’s coming from the far right in this conversation is not to be swallowed whole cloth, that there’s somebody here who’s offering a different point of view, and doing so with some vigor.

 His book is about how much of the language consciousness that began in the sixties has evolved into money and lobby-laden political landmines that stifle true debate.

Debate now, in this country, is stultified, and the best example would be the budget debate going on up in Washington, on Capitol Hill. These people are locked in by extremists positions on both sides, more so to me on the Republican side.