By now you have heard the astonishing and dismaying news that NPR has fired Juan Williams for making the following comment on the O’Reilly program on Fox News Channel.
“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.”
As Clive Crook has noted, back in 1993 Jesse Jackson said
“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
Of course neither statement is bigoted. And it is apparent from Juan Williams’s further statements on O’Reilly that his feeling of worry or nervousness is, as in Jackson’s case, painful to him. Many if not all readers feel the same way. We’re all aware that most identifiable Muslims on planes, like most young black men on city streets, are peaceful and unmenacing. But we also know who hurled those planes into buildings on September 11.
I’ve known Juan Williams for 28 years. In 1982, when I joined the Washington Post’s editorial page staff, I took over what had been Juan’s office and his telephone number, as he was moving from the editorial side of the paper back to the news side. In the preceding weeks, Juan had been working on stories about prostitution in Washington, and during the first several weeks I received some pretty weird telephone calls—something we’ve laughed about ever since. Over the years I’ve admired Juan’s journalism and his excellent books—a history of the civil rights movement, a biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall. Most of all I admired him for writing Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It, which I think was a national service—and one that exposed him to a lot of criticism. He has faced all that with steadiness which is apparent in his angry but measured response to his firing today.
Reading between the lines of Juan’s statement and those of NPR officials, it’s apparent that NPR was moved to fire Juan because he irritates so many people in its audience. An interesting contrast: while many NPR listeners apparently could not stomach that Williams also appeared on Fox News. But it doesn’t seem that any perceptible number of Fox News viewers had any complaints that Williams also worked for NPR. The Fox audience seems to be more tolerant of diversity than the NPR audience.
The good news: Fox News president Roger Ailes has given Williams a three-year contract at an increase in salary. Hurray!