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10.21.10

Was Juan Williams Fired Unfairly?

Palin, Huckabee, and O'Reilly are defending Juan Williams, whose divisive comments about Muslims got him canned. Howard Kurtz on whether NPR acted unfairly—and Fox's counteroffensive.

On the same day that NPR canned Juan Williams for his comments on Muslims, Fox News has handed the veteran journalist a three-year, $2 million contract. "Juan has been a staunch defender of liberal viewpoints since his tenure began at Fox News in 1997," Fox owner Roger Murdoch said in a statement. “He’s an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by Fox News on a daily basis. Williams was let go from NPR shortly after saying he felt "nervous" when seeing Muslims on an airplane.

Howard Kurtz asks: If Williams had spoken so candidly in a different forum—say, Charlie Rose instead of The O'Reilly Factor—would NPR still have fired him?

Did National Public Radio really fire Juan Williams for his remarks about Muslims—or the forum in which he made them?

I suspect that if he’d said the same thing to Charlie Rose, rather than on the O’Reilly Factor, he’d still have his radio job.

It’s no secret that some NPR folks have been uncomfortable with Williams’ role on Fox News, where he’s also a part-time commentator. Last year, Politico reported, NPR tried to persuade its White House correspondent, Mara Liasson, to give up her Fox gig.

What Williams said makes me uncomfortable, but it isn’t close to being a firing offense—not for someone who is paid for his opinions.

Bill O’Reilly was trying to get support on Monday for his misstep on The View—the one that prompted Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to briefly walk off—that Muslims attacked us on 9/11. That sure sounded like he was blaming all Muslims, which O’Reilly denied with an apology to anyone who heard it that way.

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Here’s what Williams said:

“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.”

Is that blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few extremists? Sure. But Williams was describing his feelings, not saying that Muslims should be singled out for profiling or otherwise discriminated against.

He went on to caution against blaming all members of a religion:

“Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because 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.”

Crazy indeed.

NPR said in a statement that Williams’ “remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."

But are those remarks so far beyond the pale that he couldn’t continue as an NPR analyst? Or is it that the public radio network’s leadership didn’t agree with Williams—thus reinforcing NPR’s image as a left-leaning operation?

In an interview Thursday on Fox, Williams said that Ellen Weiss, NPR's head of news, suggested that he "had made a bigoted statement," which Williams denied. He said he asked her in the cell-phone discussion: "I don't even get a chance to come in and we do this eyeball-to-eyeball, person-to-person, have a conversation? I've been here more than 10 years."

Weiss' response, according to Williams: "There's nothing you can say that would change my mind. This decision has been made above me."

Again, I’m not endorsing what Juan Williams said. They contain a strong hint of intolerance. But it’s not quite like saying that Jews control the networks, part of the rant that prompted CNN to fire Rick Sanchez.

Williams has always occupied an uneasy ground as an African-American who sometimes criticizes blacks, and a liberal who isn’t far left enough for some liberals. When he was a Washington Post columnist in 1991, he took immense heat from his “side” for defending Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s charges—a story that has catapulted back into the news this week with Thomas’ wife Ginni asking Hill for an apology.

Gallery: Blackballed Politicians, Celebrities, and Journalists

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Fox will undoubtedly go haywire over the dismissal. Already, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Fox News host, has called for cuts in the federal subsidies for the radio network, saying: “NPR has discredited itself as a forum for free speech and a protection of the First Amendment rights of all and has solidified itself as the purveyor of politically correct pabulum and protector of views that lean left.”

O'Reilly, phoning in to Fox this morning, called for "the immediate suspension of every taxpayer dollar going into the National Public Radio outfit." He called the firing "outrageous" and said NPR is "basically a left-wing outfit that wants one opinion...It's almost 100 percent liberal." Williams will be appearing on his show tonight; the drumbeat, I assure you, is just beginning.

Even Sarah Palin got in on the act, tweeting: “NPR defends 1st Amendment Right, but will fire u if u exercise it. Juan Williams: u got taste of Left’s hypocrisy, they screwed up firing you.”

In a previously scheduled interview with Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger Rodney Ho, NPR's chief executive, Vivian Schiller, said "there have been several instances over the last couple of years where we have felt Juan has stepped over the line. He famously said last year something about Michelle Obama and Stokely Carmichael. [The quote on Fox News early last year: 'Michelle Obama, you know, she's got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going' and that she'll be an 'albatross' for President Obama.]. This isn't a case of one strike and you're out."

Schiller added that the decision was based on Williams' credibility: "This is not about Fox News. It's not about a political agenda. This is not about even validating or invalidating [Williams'] feelings."

There’s no constitutional right to a high-profile media job, so NPR certainly has the right to dump Williams. The question is whether he was axed for what he said or where he said it.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.