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Juan Williams: Did He Have a Problem Opinion, or Do We Have a Problem With Opinions?

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You do not really need to shed a tear for Juan Williams, unless you weep droplets of gold, and them you can pile them on top of the three-year $2 million contract Williams received from Fox News after NPR cut ties with him. To sum up: Monday night, Williams said on The O’Reilly Factor that he gets nervous when he sees passengers in “Muslim garb” getting on a plane with him. NPR cut his contract, giving muddled reasons: that giving out opinions hurt his credibility as a news analyst, but also, indirectly, that Williams’ specific opinion was beyond the pale.

I don’t weep for Williams, but beyond this story we’ve also lately seen Rick Sanchez, Octavia Nasr, Helen Thomas, Dr. Laura and others hastily dismissed or their careers ended for saying things that have offended people—like, beyond the media world, Shirley Sherrod. Are all these cases the same? Absolutely not, not even close—except that they’re an example of an increasingly prevalent one-strike policy on offending people that is doing no one any good.

Now that the Williams controversy has gone through the Outrageomatic 3000, there are about a dozen different issues rolled up in this story. But we can break it down into three general questions, which the argument over Williams is conflating. (1) Was what he said wrong? (2) If it was wrong, should NPR fire him for his wrongness? And (3) should NPR, or any other news outlet, be putting restrictions on its “news analysts” offering the opinions that they obviously have? So:

(1) Was what he said wrong? Totally. Maybe not in the way that it’s been portrayed, though. Just in practical terms, airline terrorists conceal themselves, which is why the 9/11 hijackers did not board their planes in any “Muslim garb” that fellow passengers would have noted. And Williams’ reaction is prejudiced—literally, pre-judging—by definition. (His disclaimer that he can’t be a bigot because he’s written books about the civil rights movement is ridiculous, as has been his sanctimony after the fact.)

But watching the entire Monday segment, Williams seems to be saying—not well, and with constant interruption from Papa Bear—that it is only a gut reaction, not necessarily one that he’s proud of. He’s confessing a feeling, not defending a reasoned judgment, and doing so in the context of saying that all Muslims should not be lumped together any more than all Christians after the Oklahoma City bombing. For all that, I hate that Williams would feel this about a Muslim friend of mine getting on his plane—but people do feel it, and I wish we could have conversations about all this dark matter in our collective brains without people demagoguing it, on the one hand, or being summarily fired on the other.

Personally, I find much more offensive what Bill O’Reilly said on The View (the impetus for the Monday segment): that the Park51 Islamic center is inappropriate because “Muslims attacked us on 9/11.” He’s technically right: the radical group of people who attacked on 9/11 were Muslims. But his inference—that therefore it is offensive for any Muslims, without distinction, to worship near the site of the attack—is to me as wrong as wrong can be. Do I want him fired? No—I’m not going to join his fan club, but I want him argued with.

(2) If it was wrong, should NPR fire him for his wrongness? The most depressing thing to me about the argument in the last 24 hours is that so much of it is premised on: if I believe there was something wrong with what Williams said, he should be fired; if not, not. (Related: If someone I dislike is on Side A of the issue, then I shall be on Side B—hence the strange-bedfellows aspect of Fox’s amen corner rallying behind an NPR liberal.)

Let’s be clear: this is not a First Amendment issue. Williams is free to speak his mind, NPR is free to can him. But there’s the legal question of rights, and then there’s the role of media in honestly addressing issues that are full of landmines. If people talk about race, religion, gender, you name it, they’re going to make mistakes, or express things badly, or reveal assumptions baked into their psyches that we wish were not there. It’s not anything goes—drawing the line is the $2 million question—but I wish we would err more on the side of disclosure, exposure, and letting people screw up.

Jon Stewart said on Larry King Live that he didn’t believe Rick Sanchez should have been fired for his remarks about Jews running the media, and while I found Sanchez’s remarks dumb at best and deeply offensive at worst, I agree. And I think that was more than Stewart being gracious: comedians just have a better sense than journalists of how effectively to deal with prejudices and controversies that get people offended. You put it out there, you probe it, you make it work for you. It’s not that absolutely anything goes (ask Michael Richards), but if you bottle up any dangerous thoughts, you’ve got no comedy, because you got no ideas. And while journalism is not comedy, I don’t think the analogy is completely imperfect, when it comes to the discussion of ideas.

Much like CNN with Sanchez, NPR probably felt it had little choice. It was going to get it from one side or another regardless; it saw a liability and wanted to limit it. Some of the greatest promulgators of p.c. in our society are not universities but corporations: they just want to get work done, make a buck (and not get sued), and if covering up any potentially distracting, upsetting thoughts is the price, it’s cheap. And it makes sense for a business to act this way. CNN and NPR, in their respective instances, were acting like businesses first, players in the field of ideas second.

(3) Should NPR, or any other news outlet, be putting restrictions on its “news analysts” offering the opinions that they obviously have? That was NPR’s bedrock explanation here—that Williams sacrificed his credibility with listeners, who will see him as biased. To be fair, NPR has had issues with Williams commenting on Fox for a long time. They chose to fire him for this comment, of course—but do they have a point that he shouldn’t be opining on Fox and analyzing on NPR?

If you’ve read me regularly at all, you know I believe it’s counterproductive and useless for journalists to behave as if they have no opinions; no one believes it, and audiences only become more suspicious. (See here for my fuller feelings on fuller disclosure.) All these firings are in some way the collateral damage of the new era of new-media journalism—where openness is encouraged—colliding with the ingrained rules of old journalism, which wants to survive but not necessarily to change.

Hence the Washington Post booted a terrific (and opinionated) politics reporter, Dave Wiegel, because he made comments on a listserv that offended conservatives he covers. (Many of whom are now defending Williams. There is plenty of hypocrisy to go all around here. For that matter, Williams has been on the bad side of some liberals for a while, not just for opinions of his but for appearing on Fox—the Colmes effect, if you will.)

But if it’s silly for reporters to be bound by this stricture, it’s absolutely ridiculous for a news analyst. Williams, or any other “analyst” on NPR, is not a human analysis machine with all other synapses deactivated, like a Mentat from Dune. Leaving aside the fact that opinions sneak in to radio and other “news analysis” all the time, I know that an analyst with a brain is going to form opinions on the issues they know and care about. I’d rather know what the guy analyzing Muslims in American society, or homeland security policy, thinks when someone in “Muslim garb” gets on a plane.

What’s best practice on a plane is best practice on a plane. But when it comes to the ideas in my media, I don’t want everyone’s baggage stowed away; I want it unpacked and examined.