He seems like such a nice man, and you can build a career on being a nice man. And Juan Williams did just that, as a journalist and political commentator, with a few workmanlike books on civil rights under his belt. He was a senior news analyst for National Public Radio (NPR) from 1999 until this October, along with being a regular on Fox News. Fox News needed a vaguely conservative quiet and utterly non-threatening black man who would regularly say to Bill O’Reilly, “Well, Bill, you might be right.” Williams fit the bill, and he might have been a plant, or a shill, or he may have honestly and sincerely agreed with Bill O’Reilly six times an hour on most every issue – you never quite knew which it was. He had turned himself into a walking shrug.
But NPR terminated Williams’ contract on Wednesday, October 20, after Williams’ remarks on The O’Reilly Factor two days earlier – “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.”
Yeah? So what, Juan? Tell it to your therapist. It didn’t seem like much, but according to NPR, those remarks were “inconsistent with our ethical standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” They fired him. Fox News immediately gave Williams an extended multimillion dollar contract. And all hell broke loose.
Set aside the obvious – NPR might have been looking for an excuse to dump Williams – a kind of boring guy with pedestrian views, without a hint of original thought. What he said on Fox News would do. Imply you won’t tolerate thoughtless reactionary bigotry.
But that didn’t work out. What Williams said, about his own personal insecurities, turned into everyone on the right saying Williams spoke for all Americans – we have a Muslim problem, right here in River City – and fear, a kind of constant existential terror, is what we all feel. NPR doesn’t get it, and they should be defunded, or taken off the air, or something. Don’t they know what’s going on?
This was a stunning success for Fox News – their current wall-to-wall crisis coverage is coverage of America’s Muslim Problem – the only real issue America faces and that sort of thing. And this was a loss for NPR – sure, they rid themselves of some deadweight, a guy who was infinitely dreary, but they came off as oversensitive jerks who overreacted. Why were they censoring Williams’ views, by firing him for his maudlin musings? This was prissy political correctness of the worst sort.
But it’s not like Williams hadn’t ever been in trouble before, as some remember this:
While working at The Washington Post, Williams was disciplined for verbally harassing female staff members over a four-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After Williams wrote a column defending Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against sworn testimony by Professor Anita Hill about sexual harassment by Thomas, WRC-TV (an NBC affiliate in Washington D.C.) broke the story about Williams. The paper took disciplinary action against Williams and published an apology by him. On November 2, 1991, Williams wrote: “It pained me to learn during the investigation that I had offended some of you. I have said so repeatedly in the last few weeks, and repeat here: some of my verbal conduct was wrong, I now know that, and I extend my sincerest apology to those whom I offended.” A letter to the Post’s Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. signed by 116 newsroom employees said: “We feel Juan’s unrefuted false statements to the national media continue to cause anguish and professional harm to the women involved. They have also left many people inside and outside The Post with the impression that either the complaints were not serious or were not taken seriously.”
Williams is not careful about what he says. He has a history of not being careful. He’s trouble, even if he seems like such a nice fellow. NPR should not have hired him in the first place. But then there’s the man Williams was emulating and supporting back at the Post. Yes, Clarence Thomas shouldn’t be a Supreme Court Justice – “Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a binge drinker who had a pornography habit or fetish in the 1980s, then changed radically when he stopped drinking alcohol, his former girlfriend told CNN on Monday.”
Oh well, everyone makes mistakes:
“Clarence became not the person I knew when I first met him,” she said, adding that he “drank to excess” when they first met and might have been a “raving alcoholic” at that time. When he gave up alcohol, she said, he became “angry, short-tempered, asexual” and obsessive with ambition and what she called “weird things,” such as long runs in the dark before dawn.
Asked if she believed back then he was qualified to reach his goal of being a Supreme Court justice, McEwen said it was a difficult question and cited “instability,” a “lack of intellectual curiosity,” and trouble with concentrating when reading for a long time as issues about Thomas that would make it difficult to do the job.
Huh – we elected a president just like that twice. Or Clarence Thomas cast one of the key votes that made him president. This is all quite curious.
But the question isn’t that president – Bush served his two terms and he’s silent in Texas now. And Clarence Thomas is set for life – the Supreme Court seat is a lifetime appointment. And Juan Williams is doing just fine – he has half the work and he’s two million dollars richer. The question is what’s going on at Fox News? How did they win this whole thing, and just what are they doing over there? America’s Muslim Problem? Really?
I would love a more reasoned, measured conservative journalism to take root – a Fox 2.0 that abandoned all the antics and dishonesty and stated its case for conservatism forcefully and cogently, but I’m not at all sure there’s a market for that – or at least a large enough market for that. And therein lies the rub: the point of Fox may not be to create an emotionally driven television station, but the market has spoken, and Beckian hyperbole is what the people want. And so it’s what the people will get.
Andrew Sullivan adds this:
One caveat: the Fox audience includes many people who aren’t in on the joke that the network’s hosts aren’t always speaking in earnest. O’Reilly camp, like Coulter camp is just that, at times – like Lou Dobbs’ erstwhile man-of-the-people shtick. People don’t actually want to be misled about reality by entertainers who pose as journalistic guardians of their best interests, but that is what’s happening.
But it’s more complicated than that. What Juan Williams said, for which Fox News rewarded him so handsomely, sort of qualifies as outright bigotry, in a curious way that Glenn Greenwald explains here:
The double standard in our political discourse – which tolerates and even encourages anti-Muslim bigotry while stigmatizing other forms – has been as beneficial as it has been glaring. NPR’s firing of Juan Williams threatened to change that by rendering this bigotry as toxic and stigmatized as other types. That could not be allowed, which is why the backlash against NPR was so rapid, intense and widespread. I’m not referring here to those who object to viewpoint-based firings of journalists in general and who have applied that belief consistently – that’s a perfectly reasonable view to hold (and one I share). I’m referring to those who rail against NPR’s actions by invoking free expression principles they plainly do not support and which they eagerly violate whenever the viewpoint in question is one they dislike. For most NPR critics, the real danger from Williams’ firing is not to free expression, but to the ongoing fear-mongering campaign of defamation and bigotry against Muslims (both foreign and domestic) that is so indispensable to so many agendas.
In short, some bigotry is okay, some isn’t and this was a defining moment in which was which.
And E. D. Kain agrees:
Anti-Islamic bigotry and fear-mongering comprise a large portion of the right-wing blogosphere, and indeed there have even been splits and divisions within the right-wing blogosphere over just how far one goes before one should draw the line. So you have respectable mainstream publications such as Weekly Standard and The New Republic, which frequently publish pro-Israel content which borders on anti-Islamic propaganda, a bit further down the totem pole you find blogs like Atlas Shrugged and Jawa Report. Dig a bit deeper you get into the really terrible neo-fascist European stuff which is both anti-Islamic and anti-Jewish (though the anti-Semitic elements have been pushed beneath the surface to some degree since Muslims are perceived as the more immediate threat, and anti-Islamic neo-fascists want the neocon’s support).
Kain says that all these layers of hate and fear frustrate him – “I stand by my initial argument that Williams was using his own fears to make a broader point about how we shouldn’t say or do things which play on those fears and lead to violence or the denial of civil rights to Muslims.”
Yep, people misunderstood Williams, who was really saying he hated his own irrational fears. But it didn’t sound like that, of course.
But Kain argues the reaction to Williams’ words was even more frustrating:
There is something of a holier-than-thou side to this also, as though these fierce critics of Juan Williams have never once harbored their own fears and prejudices, have waltzed through life with the most open of open-minds. I don’t buy it. I’d be willing to bet that a good number of the vocal critics of Williams have had the exact same fear when on a plane.
If we’re realistic with ourselves, we’ll realize that we have more than one way of thinking. We have two brains, so to speak: the thinking brain and the doing brain – the brain which processes intellectually and analytically; and the brain that reacts, the survival brain – the one which triggers fear or passion or grief. These two brains are often in conflict with one another. So on a purely intellectual level, your thinking brain sees an obviously Islamic person on a plane and thinks, “It’s stupid to be afraid of that person, because any terrorist that’s going to dress like that isn’t going to make it past security (where, naturally, they’ll be far more prone to profiling)” whereas your doer brain might be setting off old alarm bells that maybe should have died out a couple years after 9/11 but don’t because quite honestly, we have very little control over the survivor side of our brain, the side that sets off the adrenaline and the nervousness and starts mapping out escape routes when it perceives a threat – even if that threat is totally irrational to our thinking brain.
But Kain is still not happy with Fox News, and not that unhappy with NPR:
I think Fox News traffics in setting off that doer brain as much as possible. The entire point of the network is to get people upset and angry and frightened and to cut them off from anything analytical or fact-based or well-reasoned. NPR, on the other hand, panders to the thinking brain.
But that got lost in all the angry shouting:
Unfortunately, much of the response to Williams from both the right and the left have followed the Fox model: on the right, the whole incident has been used as a weapon against NPR itself with calls to defund it and silly blathering about free speech; on the left, the incident has been used either to simply stomp on Williams who many liberals loathe for his participation at Fox News, or to complain about double-standards while essentially engaging in one.
Mike Farmer objects to the Kain comments regarding Fox News and finds nothing in what Kain says is the entire point of Fox:
The entire point! I can hear Fox management at an employee meeting going over the mission statement – “We haven’t been getting enough people upset, angry and frightened lately, and some of you have presented facts. I need to remind you it is our mission, the entire frigging point of this network, to cut people off from analysis, facts and reason. Come on, people!”
This claim is so absolutely ridiculous it makes me wonder how someone who is so obviously smart could write such as this, and, then, if it was written in a moment emotional stupidity, not edit it out! I just don’t get it. Turning around the Juan Williams situation to criticize Fox and conservatives is also a silly act of partisanship that amazes me.
And Kain responds:
Mike does not elaborate on what the actual point of Fox News is – I imagine the network is supposed to be providing conservative viewers an alternate analysis of facts, a balancing slant to the traditionally mainstream liberal networks – in a nutshell: fair coverage of national politics.
If this were the case, I would whole-heartedly support it. However, Fox has long since drifted away from any attempt to broadcast an intellectually honest conservative alternative to the traditional MSM. If Bill O’Reilly were the worst of the talking heads employed there I might judge things differently, as I am of the mind that O’Reilly really does believe what he says, however blusteringly he says it. But Fox employs charlatans like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and panders incessantly to an anti-intellectual base, far more driven by rumor and emotionalism than by any sort of fact-based reporting. And if you can’t make your case compelling without resorting to raw, unfettered emotionalism, and must so entirely skew your spin to almost entirely blot out any dissenting opinion or, for that matter, dissenting fact, then you’ve entered what some have termed epistemic closure, or managed ignorance, or just plain propaganda masquerading as news and analysis.
Kain cites James Fallows on what Fox does, which they do really well, which is to present “a unified political-cultural world view to the unfolding events of the day.”
And he notes John Derbyshire on this issue:
Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises. Thus a liberal like E. J. Dionne can write, “The cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet and William F. Buckley Jr. is now in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. … Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda, ideas by slogans.” Talk radio has contributed mightily to this development.
Derbyshire says this is catering to reflex rather than thought:
In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. …
There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. Ideas must be marketed, and right-wing talk radio captures a big and useful market segment. However, if there is no thoughtful, rigorous presentation of conservative ideas, then conservatism by default becomes the raucous parochialism of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, and company. That loses us a market segment at least as useful, if perhaps not as big.
And Kain agrees:
Happy Meal Conservatism is doing very well in the polls, of course, and may indeed lead to victories in Congress this November. But middlebrow conservatism is as dead as it was when Obama swept to victory in 2008. There is no room for it on Fox. And I suspect a large swath of the middle and center-right in this country – the apolitical majority – will not be a sustainable voting bloc into 2012 let alone the more distant future. Fox is as much to blame for this as talk radio, and even more so as the two become indistinguishable from one another.
And on the other side there is James Fallows:
I have known and frequently worked with a variety of people at National Public Radio, and I do want to say something about them. The worst aspect of the Williams-NPR imbroglio is that it has allowed Fox and its political allies to position NPR as something it is not, and in the process to jeopardize a part of American journalism we can’t afford to lose.
He thinks the NPR leadership made a mistake “in appearing to fire Williams in a snit” – which obscured a lot of things:
I care about NPR not because of my minor role as a contributor but because of their major role in the American journalistic landscape. To hear the Fox/DeMint attack machine over the past week, NPR is simply a liberal counterpart to Fox – a politically minded and opinion-driven organization that is only secondarily interested in gathering news. I believe that the mischaracterization is deliberate, and I know it is destructive and wrong.
Fox is unmatched at what it does, which is to apply a unified political-cultural world view to the unfolding events of the day. To appreciate its impact, you just have to think about how much more effective it is than the various liberal counterparts – the now-departed Air America, the Olbermann-Maddow bloc on MSNBC. Rush Limbaugh isn’t on Fox, but he showed them how it’s done. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are technically as effective as Fox, but they are nowhere near as reliably pro-Democratic as Fox is pro-Republican. And they’re only on for one hour total a day, weekdays only, rather than 24/7 for Fox.
There’s something odd going on at Fox:
“News” in the normal sense is a means for Fox’s personalities, not an end in itself. It provides occasions for the ongoing development of its political narrative – the war on American values, the out-of-touchness of Democrats – much as current events give preachers material for sermons. This is why Fox’s emphasis goes to its star interpreters – Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, the “Fox and Friends” crew – more than to expanding bureaus around the country or the world, investing in scientific, economic, or international expertise, or generally trying harder to place primary observers wherever it can.
NPR is something else entirely:
NPR, whatever its failings, is one of the few current inheritors of the tradition of the ambitious, first-rate news organization. When people talk about the “decline of the press,” in practice they mean that fewer and fewer newspapers, news magazine, and broadcast networks can afford to try to gather information. The LA Times, the Washington Post, CBS News – they once had people stationed all around the world. Now they work mainly from headquarters – last year the Post closed all its domestic bureaus outside Washington – and let’s not even think about poor Newsweek and US News.
Who is left?
So we have different ways of looking at things:
In their current anti-NPR initiative, Fox and the Republicans would like to suggest that the main way NPR differs from Fox is that most NPR employees vote Democratic. That is a difference, but the real difference is what they are trying to do. NPR shows are built around gathering and analyzing the news, rather than using it as a springboard for opinions. And while of course the selection of stories and analysts is subjective and can show a bias, in a serious news organization the bias is something to be worked against rather than embraced.
So it comes down to this:
We don’t have so many first-rate institutions – in general, and especially in journalism – that we can afford to let one this valuable be delegitimized. Its leadership made a mistake in its handling of Juan Williams, but people who care about the news environment should recognize how much it has done right and defend it against the current cynical attack.
Ah well, at least Fox News still has its vaguely conservative quiet and utterly non-threatening black man to regularly say to Bill O’Reilly, “Well, Bill, you might be right.” That’s something.