NPR firing is another hair-trigger response

October 27, 2010


I probably should not be surprised the Juan Williams story got as big as it did.

There are, after all, few topics in public life more dangerous than race and culture. And the fact that the liberal-leaning National Public Radio fired Williams for comments made on Fox News about that topic provides irresistible ammunition for conservatives who see liberals as hypocritical on matters of free speech.

The surprise, I guess, would’ve been if the story had been allowed to quietly die.

Williams got in trouble for his response to a question from Fox’s Bill O’Reilly about whether the nation faces “a Muslim dilemma.” Said O’Reilly, “The cold truth is that in the world today jihad, aided and abetted by some Muslim nations, is the biggest threat on the planet.”

Williams agreed. “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.”

Two days later, he was informed — by phone — that his years of service at NPR had come to an end.

I happen to think O’Reilly was mostly right. The attempt by some — the qualifier is important — Islamic nations and groups to intimidate and destabilize the rest of the world is, if not “the biggest threat on the planet” (North Korea and global warming might have something to say about that), certainly in the top three. And no, nothing in that observation is inconsistent with the demand that the vast majority of peaceful Muslims be left alone to worship and live as they see fit.

I also think Williams was mostly wrong. Seems to me your average terrorist is unlikely to dress in a way that screams Muslim. I’m thinking T-shirt, ball cap and jeans. He may not have a Middle Eastern appearance. He may not even be a he.

That said, my concern isn’t whether the comments were right or wrong, but whether they were inbounds, whether they crossed that subjective but critical line between fair commentary and rank bigotry. I don’t believe they did, especially given that Williams went on to decry the tendency to smear all Muslims with the misdeeds of a few. That context suggests his intent was to question — not justify — his own paranoia.

And in firing him, NPR shows not the commitment to journalistic guidelines it has cited, but rather, a capacity for hair-trigger response. There’s a lot of that going around.

For every Don Imus, Rick Sanchez or Mel Gibson who deserved the censure and sanction their words brought down, we lately seem to have a Juan Williams, a Shirley Sherrod or a Harry Reid whose crime is not what they said but “that” they said and that someone felt no obligation to listen before passing judgment. Indeed, in matters of racial and cultural difference, some of us seem to feel it a sin even to acknowledge the existence thereof.

Joe Biden was pilloried in many forums, including this one, for seeming to call Barack Obama the first black presidential candidate “who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Except that if you actually “listen” to what he said — most transcripts mis-edited the quote — it becomes clear he was making another point entirely.

There’s a moral to that experience: Few issues are more in need of serious discussion than race and culture. And while we should be vigilant against those who would drag that discussion into the mire of bigotry, we also owe people the courtesy of listening to what they’ve said before judging it. After all, a subjective line is still a line.

And if you keep fooling around with a hair trigger, sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


devobrun 7 years, 1 month ago

But its OK to pull the over-sensitive trigger for Mr. Pitts when it relates to ridicule of a tea-partier. Witness his last column where he doesn't bother to read and analyze the 16 words of the 1st amendment related to free speech. Nope, just call the candidate an ignoramus for "that she said it" rather than "what she said". Ignore the possibility that she might be right.

Could Leonard Pitts be defending Juan Williams because Williams is a supporter of Mr. Pitts' agenda? Never mind any logic. He's my man, right or wrong. Actually Mr.Pitts, I think Williams was fired for where he said it. I think NPR is quite opposed to Fox and the fact that Williams was a regular with them was an untenable situation for NPR.

Its called bigotry. NPR is bigoted against Fox. Right or wrong, Williams was gone for appearing on Fox too much. Fox is probably bigoted against NPR. But its OK because they are conservatives. NPR is supposed to be liberal, progressive. Unless it is regarding the right-wing. Then childish and bigoted action is justified. But the Pitts will call NPR out on it. If the reporter was Neda Ulaby, would Mr. Pitts be so protective?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 1 month ago

"Witness his last column where he doesn't bother to read and analyze the 16 words of the 1st amendment related to free speech."

I'd say it's you who resists analyzing that amendment, as well as the decades of jurisprudence that don't get bogged down with what the meaning of "is" is, as you do. That amendment has been ascertained by all except you, O'donnell the ignoramus, and those who desire a Christian theocracy to mean precisely that there is a constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. You're neither an ignoramus nor a theocrat, so I think your primary motivation is your need to be argumentative.

NPR is not a perfect organization. They are way too dependent on continued access to the power centers in Washington to be truly objective on too many important issues until they blow up in all our faces-- just as all other major media are. Nor are they exclusively liberal or progressive. They do have many liberal and progressive voices on air, as well as conservative ones, but no doubt it's the existence of the liberals and progressives that gets your panties twisted in a knot. But despite their many flaws, NPR are at base a relatively competent news source with real journalists who try to practice good journalism, however imperfectly.

But Fox is hardly a right-wing mirror image of NPR. Its existence from its inception was to be the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. While there is an element of pretend journalism, its only goal is to inflame and divide in ways that aid the already badly distorted "conservative" agenda of Republican party.

I agree with Pitts that this statement by Williams should not have been a fireable offense. And I agree with you that he was fired primarily because of his continued affiliation with Fox, which violated his contract with NPR which required him not to be inflammatory and controversial-- which is a primary basis for the existence of Fox. Is Mara Liasson next?

jafs 7 years, 1 month ago

As a publicly funded (partially) entity, isn't requiring employees to not be "inflammatory" or "controversial" a violation of their right to free speech?

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

Are you serious? Do you have the right to practice "inflammatory" and "controversial" speech at your work?

You, Devo, and Christine O'Donnell all need to take a 1st Amendment course.

Ted Fred can help.

jafs 7 years, 1 month ago

I don't work for the government.

It's a serious question - yours is not a serious answer.

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

Actually, you've got it backwards: the answer is serious, the question is not.

Let's say you're a greeter at Walmart. You say the exact same thing that Mr. Williams said in front of customers.

Do you really think you'd keep your job?

There are limits to what you can say at work -any work.

Did you really not know this?

jafs 7 years, 1 month ago

Private companies are not held to the same standard as government is.

And, he wasn't "at work" when he said it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 1 month ago

I don't that for purposes of contract law that NPR is considered a government agency.

Besides, there are many limits on when and where government employees can engage in overt political activity.

Matt Torres 7 years, 1 month ago

No, it isn't. You may be thinking "that's not a good response to my question", but honestly, your question implies a positive claim: That requiring employees to refrain from being "inflammatory" DOES violate their rights...which so far you've just asserted rather than demonstrated/argued for.

jafs 7 years, 1 month ago

It was a question.

"Are you serious?" is not an answer.

Our government doesn't have the right to make laws infringing on freedom of speech.

Private companies are free to make policies which do so.

An organization which receives some public funding is a grey area - hence my question.

He wasn't at work when he made his comments - I personally don't consider them inflammatory or controversial - he expressed his personal feelings. Inflammatory and controversial are very subjective terms, and people may disagree about them.

Over the years, I have heard numerous NPR commentators and employees express personal opinions in a variety of settings - none of them have been fired for it, as far as I know.

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

Hmm. What's interesting is that my answer did not end with "are you serious?"

I really don't understand how you're having such trouble with this.

Let's say you're a walmart greeter, who, after work goes on television - again, you're not at work - and you say, "you know, when I see people who look like Muslims, who identify as Muslim, at walmart, I get nervous."

What do you think: keeping his job, not keeping his job?

An entire 2% of NPR's funding comes from the gov't. Mr. Williams was employed - contracted, if you will - to act as an impartial news analyst. He sullied his own credibility, and by extension, that of NPR, by saying what he said. His contract was terminated.

You act as if you a) have a right to a job, and b) you have freedom of speech at work, public or private. You do not.

jafs 7 years, 1 month ago

Again, Wal-Mart doesn't receive government funding - if NPR were to lose their government funding, it would be a non-issue, constitutionally, I would think.

And, again, I don't find his opinion to be inflammatory or controversial.

It's interesting that you don't find anything a little disturbing about this - punishing people for their personal opinions is not generally something I would associate with the left.

I think the right is correct on this one - there is an intolerance on the left for certain opinions and feelings.

Which is fine, except that many on the left tout themselves as being "tolerant".

Real tolerance would mean the ability to stand the fact that others don't think the same way that you do.

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago


He was hired to be nonpartisan. He was hired to not express his opinion on the news.

He worked "at-will."

Good lawd.

jafs 7 years, 1 month ago

I have heard numerous folks who work for NPR express their personal opinions in various forums.

None of them were fired for it, as far as I know.

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

But see, that's just it: Williams would sit by and let O'Reilly say insanely inaccurate things and never challenge him at all - that's a lack of journalistic integrity, which NPR is right to be concerned with. As for Liasson, she's on FOX too, but I don't recall any really crazy statements from her.

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

" Actually Mr.Pitts, I think Williams was fired for where he said it."

It's a sad day when so many Americans are unable to wrap their heads around what "journalism" is.

Whether you agree with the firing or not, Mr. Williams was fired for expressing his personal opinion. He's a "news analyst," not an opinion reporter. By expressing his opinion on a news story he undermined his credibility as a "news analyst," as was let go - as is NPR's right.

Your ridiculous canard about Ms. O'Donnell is laughable. She was incredulous that the 1st Amendment defines the "separation of church and state." She was absolutely not making some constitutional argument about what "shall make no law" really means. She is an ignoramus, and was absolutely wrong.

naturalist 7 years, 1 month ago

Exactly, Jimmyjms. Thanks for explaining Williams' former role with NPR. Unfortunately for NPR they jumped to the dismissal a bit too eagerly and during a weeklong pledge drive in many of affiliates. Bad timing, poor judgment.

RoeDapple 7 years, 1 month ago

Does this mean now Pitts will get fired?

kueddie 7 years, 1 month ago

NPR's charter isn't to be liberal at all. Progressive yes, but NPR is so far left it is just sad.

I suppose the comments made by Nina Totenberg "giving aids to Jesse Helms and his grandkids" is acceptable commentary. That comment happened years and years ago and she is still allowed to keep her job. This is just one small reason people in general find NPR is too far to the left. The government will be taking their money away very soon.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 1 month ago

Kinda funny that Totenberg's ill-advised but decade-old retort to the full-out bigotry of Helms is the wackosphere "proof" of NPR bias. But, ironically, you probably worship at the feet of folks like Beck, Rush and O'Reilly, whose stock-in-trade is to be inflammatory and controversial, unlike Totenberg, who has a very long track record of being a competent, real journalist.

beatrice 7 years, 1 month ago

Indeed. The "left" is likely to lose one of the branches of Congress, but will likely retain the other and will still hold the presidency. The only upheaval is that the Republicans will be revived from the dead, but they won't actually have true control. Besides, since they have been nothing but obstructionists through their use of filibuster, the actual dynamics of congress won't be dramatically different.

However, if the Republicans do win big on Tuesday, I hope it gives your life meaning. At the very least, I hope it stops the victim-hood whining.

Carol Bowen 7 years, 1 month ago

The Republican party will not have full control, because of its split personality. It may be totally out of control. The next two years will definitely be interesting.

topflight 7 years, 1 month ago

It is this type of pathetic thinking that has this country headed in the wrong direction. Bring on Tuesday.

Tom Miller 7 years, 1 month ago

...a-men to THAT!!! Come ON, mid-terms!

monkeyhawk 7 years, 1 month ago

Gird your loins, progressives, and get your Xanax supplies ready. It's looking like a very bad day is coming your way.

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

Tom, you've been wrong in nearly all of your predictions.


beatrice 7 years, 1 month ago

You know the Republicans won't actually be in charge, don't you? A balance of power, at best.

equalaccessprivacy 7 years, 1 month ago

I'm pretty sure Juan Williams like Ray Suarez was a Talk of the Nation host. Wasn't listening too regularly then though myself.

monkeyhawk 7 years, 1 month ago

Wow, someone completely under the influence... I am gloating, but not a "pub". Independent would be an appropriate label.

"You kids don't seem to realize your setting yourself up for some rough times again. But, thats ok, because you don't care about this country, only that your guys won. When things get worse , all you nuts will just hold hands and pretend and lie about how wonderful things are and the whole cycle will start all over again only with this country tragically worse than ever."

Kids don't pay taxes & if you are implying that times are not the roughest they have been in most people's lifetime, you are deluded.

Who was is it who said "I won"? Why I do believe it was Mr. Obama.

"But Obama showed that in an ideological debate, he’s not averse to using a jab. Challenged by one Republican senator over the contents of the package, the new president, according to participants, replied: “I won.” http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2009/01/23/obama-to-gop-i-won/tab/article/

As for your "nuts" comment - just keep on being who you are. Since you are obviously a kool aid drinker, You would never get it that this is just the beginning of the people transforming our country, not the politicians.

monkeyhawk 7 years, 1 month ago

Didn't like Bush either, didn't vote for him. It is interesting how everything you write is almost verbatim the really trite talking points (ad nauseum) of the current lefties.

As far as your last statement - watch and see.

overthemoon 7 years, 1 month ago

Its pretty clear that Monkey has a tough time with reading comprehension and didn't understand what you said at all.

overthemoon 7 years, 1 month ago

Its pretty clear that Monkey has a tough time with reading comprehension and didn't understand what you said at all.

Andrew Reeves 7 years, 1 month ago

"...you don't care about this country, only that your guys won".

Pretty much sums up today's Rebublican party. Well done.

overthemoon 7 years, 1 month ago

Given the fact that you have stated several times that you only listen to/watch Fox news, I'm curious how you can comment on the content of other media sources?? If you were to explore them, you might be surprised to find that they are hardly as leftist or one sided as you presume.

And for cryin' out loud, enough of the 'community organizer as demon' crap.

Andrew Reeves 7 years, 1 month ago

Yep. All I hear when I watch any news these days is....."Republicans set to win it all......The Tea Party this, the Tea Party that......O'Donnell, Palin, Angle this and that.....Democrats are going to lose......"

How is that the 'Left Wing Media'?


bd 7 years, 1 month ago

I am sick and tired of NPR one sided take of news and life in general! The worst part of it is my hard earned tax $'s are supporting this left/one sided pinko/lib news media.

Time for some serious changes!

Tea anyone???

overthemoon 7 years, 1 month ago

It seems you don't listen to NPR. The news if factual, they always attempt to present both sides of a story and don't only when one faction or the other refuses comment. I guess programs on the arts, music, government policy, history, and local issues doesn't appeal to you. Ok, but you might find your world a more interesting place if you'd listen to things that present a broader world view.

You do realize that less than 15% of NPR or PBS funding comes from gov't sources? Of that, 10% is federal funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the rest is from local or state sources.

BTW, your using 'pinko' pretty much makes your comment irrelevant.

overthemoon 7 years, 1 month ago

Terry Gross is a leftist mouth piece?? Get outa here. The show is not political at all, unless she's interviewing a political writer. She is one of the best interviewers on any media format. Perhaps you are not interested in some of the guests she interviews, but to suggest any political bent simply proves that if you don't like or understand something, it must be liberal.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 1 month ago

I think Terry Gross's personal politics are definitely liberal, but that doesn't mean she isn't a good and fair interviewer. I've heard her interview dozens of conservatives over the years, and almost always it's respectful between interviewer and interviewee, and much can be learned about the positions of the guest. Very few conservative interviewers are able to do the same with liberal guests-- Bill Buckley may be the last one who did so consistently.

Ironically, Bill O'Reilly is occasionally respectful of liberal guests, but he was a total jerk as a guest on Gross's Fresh Air. (But he's quite commonly a total jerk on his own show, so no real surprise.)

Jimo 7 years, 1 month ago

While it seems likely that NPR has certain management issues (primarily poor management skills from what I can see), it's important to remember that this incident results from the fact that NPR has standards of journalism and seeks, however imperfectly, to put them into practice.

In contrast, Fox remains the propaganda-wing of the GOP. Inserting opinion into new events is the operating model. Indeed, to waive the red cape before the wingnut bull, there's no 'separation of church and state' in their reporting. Interesting, the Stewart/Colbert combo over on Comedy Channel pursue the same approach (they're just more interesting than the dreadful Hannity although Beck gives them a good run for their money).

It's clear that Williams (who I've met and found quite personable) wasn't able to jump back and forth between the worlds of journalism and punditry. At minimum, he at least deserved the right to choose which career he wanted.

bd 7 years, 1 month ago

my tax $'s dont support Fox! No comparison!!!!!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 1 month ago

Fox makes little attempt to be anything but divisively partisan, either, very unlike NPR, which tracks very much to the center of the political spectrum.

Jimo 7 years, 1 month ago

My point exactly. There's an issue here only because NPR has journalistic standards that attempt objectivity in newsreporting.

Fox is free to pursue it's GOP/ Saudi propaganda if they want. Apparently, it's quite a profitable strategy. But Fox, the Comedy Channel, the Onion, and the National Inquirer do not transform into "journalism" merely because they reference news events.

Jimo 7 years, 1 month ago

Your tax dollars don't support NPR!
Perfect comparison!!!!

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

Again, the vast number of slow folks on these threads (Tom, Corky, et. al.) are determined to show that they don't understand what "bias" means.

NPR is lefty? Really? When was the last time you actually listened to NPR? They've bent over backward to give time to the tea baggers (without so much as questioning these retards about the very obvious contradictions in their statements, or pointing out that "socialism" and "communism" are mutually exclusive). At best NPR is center-left. What's wrong with that?

I too hope NPR loses all 2% of their gov't funding. Then hopefully they'll actually take a progressive stance on reporting the "news," such as it is.

bd 7 years, 1 month ago

Sorry, but their music sucks too!

Boston_Corbett 7 years, 1 month ago

Yea....so what organization is it that pays political candidates to appear on TV (Palin, Huckabee) and also pays a political operative whom is raising 100 million of secret monies for political attack ads (Rove) in the current cycle and which organization contributes to party-organized campaign war-chests (Fox corporate donations to RNC, RGA)?

Oh, yea. So why do I not buy any of this organization's arguments when a real news organization may have gone a bit overboard in protecting its actual and real journalistic independence.

Fox is just a hack shill of an organization. And Shewmon's comments just show he is feces in the Marianas Trench.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 1 month ago

Nina Totenberg needs the journalistic independence to wish AIDS on the grandchildren of anyone she dislikes! Give generously, citizens.

Boston_Corbett 7 years, 1 month ago

OK, snap, you have a few acorns on NPR snap, do you really want to compare to Fox blasphemies?

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

Isn't/shouldn't there be a Godwin parallel for invoking the "Kool Aid" as shorthand for "I don't know what I'm talking about and couldn't back it up anyway?"

I know, "Shewmon's Linwood Law."

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

What was I thinking?

Obviously, it should be/is:

Tomwin's Law.

Glad that's settled.

bd 7 years, 1 month ago

Why not just change the name to New Pravda Radio

Tea anyone????

overthemoon 7 years, 1 month ago

If there is any media outlet that comes close to Pravda it would be Fox "news"

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

Anyone who voluntarily claims tea party affiliation is explicitly expressing their willful ignorance.

No thanks.

Boston_Corbett 7 years, 1 month ago

I sure am glad Tom's friend Rand Paul ran that ad embracing himself with Tim Profitt, the head-stomper. Next time you "need protection," call him up. He will stomp your head too.

And isn't Joe Miller a peach? Been hiding the fact he lied to his employer about conduct for months now. I wonder how that could possibly be relevant for electing a public official?

Sharron Angle? Hiding again from the press? My, doesn't that qualify one to be a Senator.

Yes, I'll take my NPR anyday and everyday.

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

"Why not just change the name to New Pravda Radio"

Um, because that's an insanely ignorant statement?

Boston_Corbett 7 years, 1 month ago


 I remember my words very well.  Thank you for reminding Whitney on what could amount to a huge improvement of this forum.

bd 7 years, 1 month ago


The new order will prevail! It starts in a few days!

Tea anyone???

jimmyjms 7 years, 1 month ago

I have to question the wisdom of calling the tea party or republicans in general "the new order."

Sounds kind of...what's the word?

Oh, right. Fascist. That's the word.

simone 7 years, 1 month ago

Is it that you don't have a job or you don't have a life?

beatrice 7 years, 1 month ago

"as events unfolded"? What events? You got all whiney about being a victim (big shocker) on a story about salmon vodka of all things, stomped your feet and threw a hissy by saying you were leaving, people had a good laugh at your expense, then you didn't man up and follow your word by staying gone. You came back a couple of days later. Most people just call that "the weekend." Not exactly what I would call "events."

A rock-star maker, however, you are not. Quit trying to kid yourself that you are important just because you are the loudest voice of conservatives around here.

RoeDapple 7 years, 1 month ago

I listens to me some NPR. 'cept when they're playing that opera music. Sounds like somebody stretchin' cats. Oughta be a law . . .

overthemoon 7 years, 1 month ago

Thought for all. If NPR and PBS are so darned liberal, how do you explain major corporate sponsors like Ford, Subaru, Exxon Mobil, Walmart, the Annenburg Foundation, etc?? Not exactly a bunch of liberal entities, ya know?

Flap Doodle 7 years, 1 month ago

They like to be able to buy some lib cred.

Jimo 7 years, 1 month ago

Or they - just the like railroads in the 19th century - try to buy off everyone: the Democrats reluctantly, the Republicans enthusiastically.

toe_cutter 7 years, 1 month ago

I like Juan when he appears on FOX. He is one of the few liberal pundits that I can listen to and actually respect what he is saying. But that is between me and my psychiatrist or publicist or whatever.

Remember the Night Rider

Liberty275 7 years, 1 month ago

I agree with pitts. I feel a little sick.

It is true, when it comes to freedom, of expression or otherwise, liberals/progressives are the biggest hypocrites in town. That's why libertarians loathe them.

TopJayhawk 7 years, 1 month ago

JimmyJims Are you serious?
Quit trying to put others with a legitamate question down and get a clue. Juan said nothing wrong, it wasen't even an opinion so much as a feeling. You have no credibility.

TopJayhawk 7 years, 1 month ago

Just the facts. Your morally superior tone, and your patronizing smugness are getting old too.
Do you really think you are that much smarter than all the rest?
You exemplify what is wrong with the Dems these days. You are so sure you are right that you are blinded by the truth that is all around you. But hey, whatever works for you Mr. know it all.

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