It seems to me that debating Juan Williams’ firing from NPR in terms of the role of “opinion” and “objectivity” in journalism is missing the point. Williams has expressed his opinions on Fox News countless times. Other NPR employees frequently express opinions, too, as when Scott Simon wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (10/11/01) comparing opponents of the invasion of Afghanistan to Hitler appeasers; it didn’t seem to set back Simon’s career any.
The reason that Williams’ discussion with Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 10/18/10) got him fired, it seems clear to me, is that he sounded like he was declaring himself to be a bigot–even as he announced that he wasn’t one:
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.
Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts.
Now, it’s clear that Williams is describing an irrational prejudice here: Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols together represented a larger percentage of American conservatives than the 19 September 11 hijackers did of worldwide Muslims, so panicking when you see a Muslim get on a plane with you makes a little less sense than worrying that the passenger reading the Wall Street Journal might have a bomb.
Was Williams justifying his prejudice or criticizing it? That’s a little harder to say. As you can see in the quote, he immediately links it with a bomber’s statement about America’s “war with Muslims…just beginning” as “facts” you can’t get away from–suggesting that he did not think he was just describing the psychodrama inside his own head. On the other hand, he does go on in his conversation with O’Reilly to suggest that all Muslims shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of extremists: “If you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy.”
On the third hand, he did begin his appearance by appearing to endorse O’Reilly’s thesis that “there is a Muslim problem in the world”: “I think you’re right,” Williams began. “I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.” When O’Reilly concluded the segment by saying, “to diminish the whole thing as the left wants to do [would be] very dangerous”–apparently meaning the whole Muslim thing–Williams seems to agree: “That would be hypocrisy.”
So you have to do some parsing of words to determine what exactly Williams was trying to say. (My best guess: People are right to be afraid of Muslims, but they shouldn’t get carried away about it.) But that was also true of Rick Sanchez’s comments that got him fired from CNN, and Helen Thomas‘ remarks that ended her 67-year career. In those cases, though, the speaker’s lack of clarity did not keep outlets from drawing conclusions and acting accordingly. Many of the people now condemning NPR for firing Williams took the opposite position when it came to Thomas, but the media principle ought to be the same: Bigotry is not just another opinion.