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Juan Williams' payback time

Posted: July 28, 2011 8:24 a.m.
Updated: July 29, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Revenge is a dish that is best served cold, as an old saying goes. Juan Williams, the Fox News analyst who was famously fired last fall from NPR, serves up a generous platter of the cold dish in his latest book, if only as an appetizer.

"Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate," offers his own account of his very public firing at NPR and his later hiring by Fox CEO Roger Ailes. His new contract was reported to be worth somewhere north of $2 million. Williams does not confirm that figure, other than to say Ailes promised him more dollars than he was making before. I'm so sure.

That saga takes up the first 31 pages. The rest of the book is a grand attempt to explain what he was really trying to say on Bill O'Reilly's show on Fox about "political correctness" when his words cost him the NPR job he had held for 11 years at the public radio network.

NPR ended his contract two days after he said on "The O'Reilly Factor," "... 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."

To many ears, it sounded like Williams was justifying the profiling of Muslims as terrorists. In fact, his burst of candor about his personal feelings came during a discussion in which he was trying to argue against such stereotyping.

Nevertheless, Ellen Weiss, NPR news vice president, fired him over the telephone without a fair hearing. She was backed up by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. "As a reporter, as a host, as a news analyst, you do not comment on stories," Schiller said, trying to draw the line against news staffers getting too personal about big issues. Both women have since left the network, partly because of fallout from Juan-gate.

House Republicans used the dust-up to argue for cutting NPR's funding. A measure passed by the Republican-controlled House in March would have cut $50 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports NPR and PBS. The funding cuts died in the Senate, and in the final budget deal NPR kept most of its funding. As with similar attacks at NPR in the 1990s, the listeners came to the rescue.

Yet Williams, although he says he remains a fan of NPR, calls near the end of his book for an end to federal funding of the network. Its journalism, he says, "has come to embody elitism, arrogance and the resentments of its highly educated, upper-income manager and funders." Yet he does not offer specific examples of how this bias has shown up on NPR's programming, except perhaps in his absence from it.

Instead, Williams gives a higher purpose to his narrative by using it to spotlight what he sees as a growing crisis of political correctness in our national discourse. This is not a new complaint on the left or the right. Conservatives since at least the early 1990s have been bashing "liberal PC" as an enemy of freedom, while liberals tend to rely on older terms, such as "McCarthyism," to bash conservative PC.

By now, the definition of PC has been bent and stretched by the right and the left to mean, in essence, "any view that disagrees with mine."

Williams devotes several thought-provoking chapters to such impediments to "honest debate" as political polarization, a reluctance to call terrorists "terrorists," and a blindness to the political middle ground on touchy issues like abortion and immigration.

But if there is any area to which I don't think he devotes enough attention, it is the fundamental question of why some people find certain statements or images offensive and how much deference we should pay to them, regardless of whose side we happen to be on.

We need to have honest, candid debate in our diverse nation. That requires a mutual respect not only for each other's views but also for the unpredictable ways, based on different experiences, that different people may respond to the same words.


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